It might surprise some of you when I say that I stopped being a Christian about ten years ago. Last week’s picture of the world’s most powerful man holding up a Bible for what was in my view a questionable photo-opportunity polarized many, and prompted much discussion and outrage. It certainly got me thinking, and such events reinforce my reticence to be identified with ‘Christianity’.
In his book ‘Blue Like Jazz’, Donald Miller recounts how a secular talk show host urged him to defend Christianity on air. 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. I’ve not used that term of myself for a decade now. What sits more comfortably, and what I tell people more often, is that I’m a follower of Jesus.
I have a friend who is working in Mozambique. One time as he entered the country, he put ‘missionary’ as his occupation on the 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 as to what he does, he says he builds people! I like that. In fact, I started doing the same when filling out the ‘occupation’ box on my entry forms.
‘Christianity’, ‘missionary’, etc – 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 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.”
If that’s all you knew of Carl, you could misunderstand what he meant. Let me assure you, he is a passionate follower of Jesus indeed, but one who doesn’t insist on wrapping Jesus in extra damaging and distracting cultural layers. That approach doesn’t benefit anyone.
In a telling discussion, Ayatollah Fadlallah (the late spiritual leader of Islamic fundamentalist Hezbollah in Lebanon) said to Brother Andrew (founder of Open Doors):
“You Christians have a problem.”
“What do you think our problem is?”
“You’re not following the life of Jesus Christ anymore.”
“So what do you think we should do about that?”
“You must go back to the Book.”
For us, going ‘back to the Book’ will involve re-reading the Scriptures right now in the context of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter and humbly asking God how I/you/we’ve been blinded by my/your/our own cultural presuppositions. People talk of a ‘broken’ system. It’s not broken, it’s been designed that way.
In the USA particularly right now (but not just there), the Church has a real challenge finding her voice amidst all the outrage at the murder of George Floyd and the deeply-rooted systemic injustices in almost every sphere of society. As I wrote a decade ago in my book ‘More Than Conquerors’:
We are part of the system and share in its complicity. Desmond Tutu said: “I am not interested in picking up crumbs of compassion thrown from the table of someone who considers himself to be my master. I want the full menu of rights. If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you’re neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Mahatma Gandhi’s comment on the Book to a group of missionaries rings as equally challenging today as it did back then: “You Christians look after a document containing enough dynamite to blow all civilisation to pieces, turn the world upside down and bring peace to a battle-torn planet. But you treat it as though it is nothing more than a piece of literature.”
The Rev. Pattison, a respected friend of Gandhi, recounted how one Sunday morning Gandhi decided to visit one of the Christian churches in Calcutta. As he tried to enter the church sanctuary, the ushers blocked his path. They told him he wasn’t welcome, nor would he ever be allowed to attend this particular church because it was only for high-caste Indians and whites. He was neither high caste, nor white. As a result of that single event, Gandhi rejected the Christian faith, and never again considered the claims of Christ. He was turned off by the sin of segregation that was practiced by the church, and that experience of rejection prompted his declaration: “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.”
Mother Teresa was 85-years-old when she was invited to address the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. This frail old lady, dressed as ever in her simple cheap clothing, passionately and eloquently called on the powerful luminaries gathered around her to enshrine the protection of unborn babies in law. She pleaded for compassion on behalf of the ‘little ones’: “How can we speak out against violence, when we are the most brutal with the most defenseless?”
It was obviously a controversial and sensitive subject, and many of the media elite spoke of that awkward moment for the President Clinton, Vice-President Gore, and their wives as this humble diminutive lady spoke with such conviction. As she stood down, the audience gave a roaring standing ovation. However, a number of people, who were seated on the stage, very ostentatiously chose not to stand up, in obvious disagreement with what she’d said.
Afterwards, President Clinton was asked in an interview what he thought of Mother Teresa’s pointed message. He paused and said only this: “It is very difficult to argue against a life so beautifully lived.” He was wise to keep his words to a minimum, because he recognized that all the arguments supporting his opinion about her words were irrelevant at that time. Anything he said would only reflect his attitude toward Mother Teresa the person; and in the presence of a life well lived, he was no longer responding to an issue at hand, but to a person in front of him.
Jesus was the supreme example of a life well-lived. Indeed, he was and is the Life. He shows us the way – indeed He is the Way. He shows us the truth. Indeed He is the Truth. And we can remain hopeful because He is the Resurrection.
So we find ourselves at a critical, long-overdue moment – one full of noise, anger, and indignation. How will we respond? What/Who are we passing on to our children? Will we maintain our neutrality between the elephant and the mouse? There are many more big questions to grapple with…
May God help all of us to listen humbly, to learn important lessons, and to look forward in hope, committed to embracing the cost of authentic faith, whether we reject all labels, or proudly call ourselves Christians, transformational engineers, or followers of Jesus…
PS The above has resonated with many but alienated others, as showed in private or public comments on different platforms. Some people I care deeply about have misunderstood what I’m trying to express and been offended. To them I simply ask that they re-read it, without interpreting extra layers of meaning which I’m not intending. Apologies for where it simply hasn’t been well-expressed. Of course I’m still a Christian(!), and orthodox too, as we would both probably agree on defining. But ‘judgment begins at the house of God’, so asking painful questions, re-evaluating, and maintaining a stance of humility (and repentance where appropriate) are pre-requisites to our discipleship journey.
I truly enjoyed this piece. Hopefully, more people will choose to live a life well-lived as followers of Jesus.
Great article, thanks Simon
An excellent read. I am not religious but have a personal relationship the Jesus. When I meet people, I want to tell people what He has done for me and through me.
Thanks Simon. Truth and much food for thought! They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their Testimony and they loved not their lives unto the death. Revelation 12v11
This article (sort of!) ‘chimes’ with the lines from L Cohen’s perceptive song The Future…’Things are gonna slide, slide in all directions, Won’t be nothin’ u can measure any more, The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold & it’s overturned the Order of the Soul, When thet said ‘Repent’, I wondered what they meant’…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EUJvki4VNwE
This is incredibly well written! In many ways our starting point for the conversation regarding faith is grossly misguided. We need to begin by acting authentically in ways that mirror Christ’s life and message. People are tired of being preached to only to discover that the preacher was living a life in opposition to his/her message. I really appreciate how you were able to magnify your love of Christ while also maintaining a perspective of the flawed functioning of the religious system.
A seriously interesting commentary. I just add one thing which worries me: there currently a generation of “Christians” who are so determined not to identify with bible waving trump, that in their efforts to appeal to his critics they have come to abhor everything about Trump including his stand against abortion and his favour for freedom of speech and the right to posses a christian worldview and not to be forced at work to act in contradiction. I am not comfortable with that either. We really need to think and stick with God on everything while adopting a culture that builds bridges from a solid place.
I think most of us know that Trump’s so called “stand” against abortion is a political ploy to appeal to white evangelicals and RCs. To be truly pro-life there were would also need to be a commitment to affordable health care , safe uncontaminated food and water supplies, gun control, police and prison reform and many other social justice issues.
Thoroughly identify to what you have stated above and thanks.
I think the commentary is well balanced, during these times of uncertainty for many people we must try to help those who might be seeking Jesus. My boyfriend just had a terrible experience at a new Church, and it has sadly made him question some people who profess to be Christians. Maybe we should change our title!
Let’s be Christ followers before all else.
Well said thank you.
May we all follow in the true way of Jesus that shines through all our cultural add on’s and gets to heart of the faith we profess in word and in deed.
Thank you, it’s always good to be challenged and I appreciate your well written and explained post
An example from elsewhere:
Keep your judgemental opinions about Donald Trump to yourself. You have no idea what you’re talking about.
Please please please do more research. And don’t use google.
Or another one:
Simon.. you were never ever a Bible believing Christian… otherwise your supposed faith would not have fallen away like a tiny raindrop.. I know those in your organisation and their faith is similar… very shallow, just like the parable Jesus gave us about the seed that falls on shallow ground.. very sad because you have no idea what’s ahead…. I’ll be praying for you to return to the Lord Jesus Christ….
What a surprise…. not!!
I’ve befriended Muslim neighbours. Also Jews. I’ve asked, “Do you consider that the Crusaders were Christians?” They always answer firmly, “Yes.” Then I insist that they were not, in my opinion, “Christians,” because they were NOT following Jesus!
I have read a number of books by ex-Muslims, by Muslim Background Believers. They never call themselves Christians. They become “followers of Jesus”.
For years I have not called myself a Christian. The word means “Little Christ.” I am not that good, I am as capable of sin as any man!
But Jesus, he is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, who died as an anger-bearing sacrifice to save us from the wrath of God, and the grave could not hold him.
We do not defend “Christianity” or “the church.” We are witnesses for Jesus.
If asked if we are Christians, we must learn to reply, “How do YOU define a Christian?”
And if asked our views on homosexuality, we must learn to reply, “How do YOU define sexual immorality?”
Im interested Anthony, because I really liked what you had to say here. To ask ‘How do you define sexual immorarilty’….? How do you even go from here? What to say next? I believe I/we/us have enough problems of our own without judging the other person for their acts. What would you say?
Hear your heart. Thank you. Just wonder though if we need to regain (fight for) the term Christian for Christ rather than let the world have it? Christ will always be connected with ‘Christian’ so let’s win it back for Christ rather than disassociate with it?
As Christians I don’t think we should ever be ashamed of the term Christian or Christianity – what we can and should be ashamed of is the behavior of those who profess to be Christian but act in ways that bring dishonor to Christ .
Simon- so well put
Very moving and powerful
I follow Jesus too. I want to do that more consistently
I’m not a Christian or a follower of Jesus in the sense that I don’t believe he was the son of God etc and a spiritual being. However, if you take away the concept of Jesus as a person and change your belief that the word represents love and respect for your fellow man/woman then I can ‘follow’….
Thank you! 100% this…
Sadly, it’s still the term most Jesus-followers use, and that we relate to.
And, sadly, the hurt inflicted often overshadows the good they do.
Dear Simon, thank you so much for this great article. May the Lord Jesus Christ help us to live out our faith in him.
Brother, I like much of what your write and appreciate your missions advocacy and personal commitment. I do humbly question the bandwagon of calling Mother Teresa up as an example of biblical faith and Gospel living. She was a universalist by what I understand and though she did great work in Calcutta and around the globe, her view of salvation was by works, she reportedly lived without personal peace and was often depressed. A beautiful life is one that exudes Christ and the truth of the Gospel–His life in us, not compassion without truth.
This was well written and I agree with every word. It is time we call a spade a spade, repent, and live the way God intended for us to live.
Am I permitted to share and to quote you?
I hate it when I am described by others as religious. I think the label Christian is heading the same way in the world, especially as promoted by DT. I think the Late, Late Show presented by James Corden, showed the gap between posturing, actions and the Word. Malcolm, James’s Dad, reading of Psalm 37 was spot on.
perhaps person-by-person redemption of the term, rather than rejection, would be better? Though obviously a much longer term project. A problem with rejection is distancing oneself not only from “bad” Christians but an awful lot of good ones…otherwise a big admirer of your work and the notes you strike more generally.
what you say is humbling Simon, we all “need to go back to the book” and be more and more like our Jesus in these times
Thanks for many of the comments, folks, often very helpful. Excuse me for not replying to each one individually.
Great discussion, well done! Much to think about and even more to do about. Ultimately our job is to be ambassadors not judges. Mercy, grace and most of all love is our calling to ALL people. Thanks.
I appreciate your ministry and your service in the Lord in Burundi and elsewhere.
The above article threw me off though.
Its sounds like; even you have fallen in to the Trump bashing and letting his personality getting the better of you, instead of looking at what he does and have accomplished so far, you are focusing on his verbal delivery. Look at what he does not how he says it.
Also, and even more importantly, what the article and your comments is taking to far:
Are you saying because one person is doing things you don’t like or in your opinion is misrepresenting Christian values etc. you are ready to rename your ambassadorship for Christ ? This to me sounds like you are thinking in terms of promoting a new denominations!? Just like churches in the past cant have unity in the essentials but looking for disagreements in the not so essential issues.
Christian means follower of Christ/ belonging to the party of Christ. That will or should never change. we need unity not division. Don’t start or promote a new name for christians (new denomination?) because of one man or because capitalistic missionaries from America wanting to better peoples life (as they see it, for the good of the needy). They might be off focus in some areas, but who of us are perfect??
It is Christ who open hearts, not people (us) who still are in Gods sanctification process !
I hope you get my drift and concern! I just wanting to let it out for there is so muc division in the church today and we don’t need to promote that even more, We need to come together more and focus on the gospel for there is only one bride to Christ, right.
Your brother in Christ.
PS. we met at Kings Hotel 5 years ago, ish.
I became a better follower of Jesus when I followed the challenge of a Jewish friend: “Why do you look for answers in scripture? You’re better served if you let the texts question you. Then you understand what it is to “return to the Lord your God, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”