Several people, about half of them youth from the church, helped me out last month by spending about 30 minutes on the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, a project required by my Doctor of Ministry program. I got the results back last week and have been looking over them. Here is one particularly interesting finding:
Nearly 3/4 of both youth and adults who took the survey said it was either “very important” or “important” to build relationships with people who are not Christian, yet almost none of them said it was equally important to share their religion or spirituality in those relationships.
I recognize myself in that finding.
Many of us have internalized the imperative to embrace difference, to work for broad acceptance of a multitude of faiths and experiences. And I think it’s pretty clear that we have experienced our faith to be a barrier to that imperative. I remember an Elder years ago who was surprised to learn that the church Session would be studying evangelism, how to talk about our faith with people outside the church. She said, “I didn’t think we were supposed to do that.”
I think our discomfort with discussing our faith with people who don’t share it is a moral commitment, at its best. It is a commitment to openness and welcome, and it is informed by a painful awareness of the ways in which Christian faith in particular has, in its worst cultural expressions, wrought condemnation and division. Hesitation to share it, given that assessment, is a healthy corrective.
Yet in its worst manifestation, my reticence to talk about faith with people outside my faith community is a fearful tucking away of something that makes powerful public claims into the private pockets of my personal life. It’s a deference to questions over answers and tolerance to truth. That’s a problem. Because the challenges of our public life are crying out for people of faith to work for the common good, and to do so while articulating the convictions that motivate them.