In Blue Like Jazz, a non-Christian talk show host urges Donald Miller to defend Christianity. Miller refused to do so, which made the host curious:
“He asked me if I was a Christian, and I told him yes. “Then why don’t you want to defend Christianity?” he asked, confused. I told him I no longer knew what the term meant. Of the hundreds of thousands of people listening to his show that day, some of them had terrible experiences with Christianity; they may have been yelled at by a teacher in a Christian school, abused by a minister, or browbeaten by a Christian parent. To them, the term Christianity meant something no Christian I know would defend. By fortifying the term, I am only making them more and more angry, I won’t do it. Stop ten people on the street and ask them what they think of when they hear the word Christianity, and they will give you ten different answers. How can I defend a term that means ten different things to ten different people? I told the radio show host that I would rather talk about Jesus, and how I came to believe that Jesus exists and that he likes me. The host looked back at me with tears in his eyes. When we were done, he asked if we could go get lunch together, He told me how much he didn’t like Christianity but how he had always wanted to believe Jesus was the Son of God.
Words can be so abused, misused, misunderstood. Am I a Christian? Honestly, I don’t know – or rather it depends who’s asking, and what they mean by it. What is clearer to me, and what I tell people more often, is that I’m a follower of Jesus.
I was flying back from Kenya last week, and talking with the guy sat next to me. He had a Catholic background but by his own admission was no longer practicing. He said: “I can tell you’re a man of faith, it’s very impressive.” I replied: “Thank you. But know that I’m not religious. I’m rather a follower of Jesus. Don’t mistake religion for Jesus. He himself was pretty harsh on religious folk.” We had a great chat, and he was deeply stirred. I might have been tempted to push further but actually something that leads to more push-back.
I have a friend who many people would call a missionary who is working in Mozambique. One time as he entered the country, he put ‘missionary’ on his entry form. The official spat at him: “Missionary? We don’t want you missionaries in our country!” Now instead he writes ‘Transformational engineer’, and if they question him further, he says it’s because he builds people. I like that. In fact I’ve started copying him.
‘Christianity’, ‘missionary’ – they’re loaded words. Depending where you live, you or those around you may or may not have a problem with them.
Let me share another anecdote from Carl Medearis (see previous blog post) from his book ‘Speaking of Jesus – the Art of Not-Evangelism’:
“I was teaching a class at the American University of Beirut one day, and after the class, a young man came up to me and asked bluntly if I was a missionary.
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “What makes you think I’m a missionary?”
“You were talking about Jesus earlier,” he said, “and I thought that you were a Christian missionary.”
I held a hand to my forehead, appalled. “Are you saying,” I asked, “that I’m one of those people who wants to spread capitalism and democracy and political idealism and Westernism and import a new religion?”
He looked at me, suspicious. “Well, that is what missionaries do, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, “typically. Now tell me, do I look like a person who would ever be interested in changing your culture, obliterating your heritage, and making religious converts? Why would I do that? There’s nothing sensible or right about that is there?”
“Of course not.” He held up his hands. “Look, I didn’t’ mean to offend you, but I just had to ask.”
“Because…” He trailed off, unsure of what to say.
“Because you don’t trust missionaries,” I stated.
He nodded. “Honestly, yes. I thought maybe you had an agenda and I wanted to find out. Sorry if I offended you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Look, if you are interested in anything, just let me know, but don’t worry that I’m here to subvert your culture or anything, because I’m not. My interest in Jesus has nothing to do with religion, okay?”
“All right, Mr Medearis, I’ll see you later.”
As Don wrote, “I came to believe that Jesus exists and that he likes me.” He likes you too. Maybe start there as you follow Him. Or what do you think?