My wife works in a pagan bookstore. She’s one of two Christians who work there – everyone else is Wiccan, polytheistic, or one shade or another of neopagan. (In a related note, the vast majority of those who patronize or work at the bookstore are former Christians who have turned their backs on the church for any number of reasons.) She’s had the opportunity to share her faith with many people, including a Wiccan high priest, self-professed warlocks, and practitioners of all manner of alt-religions. Because she understands that faith sharing isn’t the same as faith bashing, guilting, shaming, or arguing, she’s built an admiring reputation amongst her coworkers, customers, and visiting dignitaries as one who represents her faith well and lives her faith even better.
Earlier this year, it was reported Wicca had more adherents than Presbyterians, one of the largest denominations in North America. With it’s high regard for creation, integration of a variety of holistic medicinal and energy practices (think chakras), and its open welcome and acceptance of pretty much everyone, Wicca is likely to continue to be an attractive alternative to oldline religions, including Christianity.
When I shared with Christian leaders in the community about the rise in Wicca adherents, several responded in disbelief. They simply could not believe that Christian America had taken such a turn. I wasn’t terribly surprised by their response, but if Christian leaders were in denial, imagine the response of the average church member …
For years now, we’ve been calling the church to leave their safe sanctuaries and to invest in relationships with their unchurched neighbors. For most churches, that’s been a change they’ve largely been unwilling to make, choosing instead to continue to live (and die) by the attractional model of “You’re invited … y’all come.” This is still a needed change, but it is no longer the biggest change that the church has to face.
The Big Change
The change of “everyone” goes to church to a significant minority attending worship has been a difficult change for the church to swallow … one we haven’t come to grips with yet. Church members still seem to be surprised when we tell them that less than 15 percent of Americans showed up to a house of worship last weekend. That’s a statistic that hasn’t improved over the last decade or so – it’s an old change.
The big change the church is facing today isn’t about dwindling members … it’s about the total unpreparedness that church members have in dealing with the culture all around them. Indeed, most church members have no earthly idea what they would say about their faith to someone who professed to be a member of Wicca. Or professed to be a witch. Or a pagan. If your church members have been in church long enough, they may have a vague idea about what to say to a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness, but would be lost in sharing with a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or pretty much anyone who doesn’t already have a Judeo-Christian background.
In a culture that has rapidly moved from “Christian America” to a pluralistic society, those who have taken shelter in their church sanctuaries have been culturally left behind. Our church members are unprepared to have a thoughtful conversation with many of their neighbors, let alone find a meaningful way to share their faith.
Dealing With the Big Change
To prepare their church members for the Big Change, many leaders will want to “educate” their members about the “world” religions that have become part-and-parcel of our neighborhoods. But in general, that isn’t a helpful response. It wasn’t that many decades ago that the church prepared church members to be a witness by teaching them the beliefs and practices of the other religions. In too many cases, our newly educated members went forth with enough knowledge to be dangerous … and we quickly got a reputation for being arrogant and bigoted.
One of my favorite evangelism books was written by George Hunter – The Celtic Way of Evangelism. He wrote of St. Patrick’s effective practice of faith sharing with the Irish. Between his book and watching my wife work with pagans I’ve come away with the conclusion that the best preparation for dealing with the Big Change is to train our members two things:
(1) Listen Well. Instead of launching a conversation with the idea of sharing our faith, the most important part of dealing with the Big Change is to listen. St. Patrick would spend a year or more in a tribal community learning about their culture and the practices and the beliefs. When my wife began working at the bookstore, she didn’t bone up on Wiccan practices. Instead, she just inserted herself into the culture and listened. When she had questions, she’d ask, but mostly she just built relationships and listened. She didn’t, and doesn’t, feel the need to know the ins and outs of Wicca or witchcraft or the many shades of paganism. Relationships and listening are the “tools” of her faith sharing.
(2) Share Well. Effective faith sharing appears to be mostly a lost art. In evangelism courses of old, we were taught that sharing faith meant a mini-seminar on the atonement … the cross-resurrection event immediately followed by some sort of a closing, as in closing a sales pitch. It normally meant working through some sort of a script that included scripture verses, some sort of a diagram drawn on a napkin (I think there was some mandate that if you didn’t have a napkin, you needed to get one), and moved through a logical explanation of a historical event followed by an explanation of what all that “meant.” It was some years later that adding our own experience of “salvation” was added to the “script.”
Only in the rarest of cases is that sharing well, and most of the time, this kind of “evangelism” does more harm than good. Few people are moved anymore by a recitation of “fact” or “history.” Besides, all that bible stuff is from “our” book that is as authoritative to a None or a pagan as the Quran is to a Christian. And what harm does it do? It tends to confirm their predisposition to believe Christians are a cross between irrelevant and arrogant … irrelevant because we try to use an antiquated story and book to prop up our own version of “truth” … and arrogant because we’d presume they’d be moved or convinced by what our book says and that we’d dare to question, even implicitly, their personal faith tradition, regardless of what it is or isn’t.
So, how do you share well? Again, I cite my wife’s and St. Patrick’s practices as effective in today’s post-Christian (and arguably pre-Christian) culture. First, as I said above, listening is way more important than talking. As Peter wrote:
In other words, live your life in such a way that it elicits questions. For instance, Kris probably does as much prayer at the bookstore than she ever did in church. Because she’s quick to share she’s a Christian whenever she’s asked what her faith tradition is (and she doesn’t elaborate unless she’s asked). Because everyone there knows she believes in Jesus, they don’t hesitate to ask her for prayer whenever something’s going on in their lives. And Kris always prays with them then and there. But she takes it further. Whenever someone confides something that’s going on their life, an ache, a pain, an anguish, a stressor, she’s quick to ask if she can pray for them – and no one has ever said no. In fact, there have been pagans who dabble in the darkest of magicks and spellcrafts who have not only allowed her to pray for them in Jesus’ name, she is regularly thanked profusely for doing so.
In addition, she’s invited to share regularly about her faith tradition in group conversations … and when she does, she shares virtually nothing from the Bible. No stories. No parables. No verses. Instead, she shares what Jesus has been doing in her life. She speaks of answered prayer and how she’s seen the Spirit working in both her life and the lives of others, especially in the lives of those whose faith traditions are definitely not Christian.
Of course, there are exceptions. When someone asks a question about Jesus, the Spirit, the Bible, or some point of theology, she’ll turn to the Bible … but only because she’s been invited to do so. However, as quickly as possible, she’ll turn the conversation back to her personal experience because no one can argue with that – especially since most of those asking have seen her day-to-day behavior that reflects the highest levels of integrity. And that’s important for many reasons, but especially because over 90 percent of the pagans, the witches, and the undecideds are formerly Christians who were raised in the church. (Yes, you read that right … and it’s not a made-up statistic … over 9 out of 10 of those who work at and patronize the pagan bookstore are Christians who are Done with the church.)
One last note … listening and sharing well are the keys, but if we get in a hurry to push some agenda, like “salvation,” we’ll lose our opportunity. It has taken our culture quite a number of decades to get where we are. Those who have left the church, those who have no use for the church, and those who are ignorant of the church aren’t going to “come around” to faith after three conversations. Don’t move faster than the Holy Spirit is moving. Keep 1 Peter 3:15 in mind … and if not that, keep Acts 2:37 at the forefront. After Peter’s powerful Pentecost sermon, he didn’t do an altar call. He didn’t have everyone close their eyes and raise their hands to indicate they wanted to become a Jesus follower. No, when he ended his sermon, he essentially sat down. He didn’t go on until someone (or someones) in the crowd asked him “Brothers, what then shall we do?” Once they asked the question, then Peter invited them to exchange their faith tradition … but not until.
Listen. Share well. Wait for the question. In a world where everyone has questions, it’s the most effective way to face the biggest change any of are likely to experience this side of the eternal curtain.