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Have confidence to chat about faith

18 May 2011

Church leaders could help us to articulate our beliefs, says Peter Graystone

TWICE during the past fortnight, I have overheard a conversation in which someone was asked, “Why are you a Christian?” Both were on public transport. Twice, I stared at the same page of my book for ten minutes, pretending I was not listening.

The first occasion was on a train from Nottingham to London. It was full of overjoyed young men who had watched Brighton and Hove Albion achieve promotion to the Championship. The conversation was cheerfully scatological, and the subjects included football, cars, embarrassing mothers, football, and football.

As they discussed where they would meet for lunch the next day, two of them suggested that the best place was outside their church. Hence the question.

The thing that impressed me most was the relaxed way in which they talked about their Christian faith. It was entirely in keeping with the rest of the raucous conversation. I have never heard more swear-words used to describe the salvation of humankind.

The theology was rudimentary — more triumphalist than Calvinist. Jesus rules; and I can’t tell you where Satan has been kicked. But it was deeply felt, readily listened to, and the best evangelism I have ever heard from a teenager dressed as a seagull. (The bird is the club’s emblem.)

The other occasion was on a bus in Croydon. This time, the conversation was between two women who were, to put it tactfully, perhaps trying out their Freedom Passes for the first time. The response to “Why are you a Christian?” was: “Oh, I can’t possibly answer a question like that. You’d have to ask the Vicar.”

Pressed by her companion, the woman continued: “I like our church service because I feel completely at peace.”

“Ah, peace! You should come to my Pilates class. It’s the most peaceful point of my week.”

The conversation ended with the Christian writing the date of the next exercise class in her diary.

I am convinced that, if we are to fulfil Jesus’s commission to make disciples of all people, every Christian needs to have a few words to say that account for being a follower of Jesus. Not merely why he or she goes to church, but why he or she is a believer.

Without exception, every nominal atheist can rattle off three reasons why people should not have a religious belief: evolution explains human existence; religions cause people to go to war; and the third one is probably something about suffering.

Most churchgoers, however, find it hard to talk about faith. They cover their awkwardness by insisting that it is more meaningful to express the love of God through actions than through words. But, in truth, the real reason is that, even when asked in an entirely affable way, they do not know what to say.

The greatest gift that church leaders could give their congregations is to help them work out why they have a Christian faith in such a way that they could tell a neighbour. Perhaps we could come up with three reasons: one rising from joy at the complexity and beauty of God’s creation; one delighting in the life and teaching of Jesus; and one describing a personal improvement that has come from going through life in the company of a loving God.

Simple reasons are sufficient. Most of us do not need to take on Richard Dawkins: we just need enough to be able to chat comfortably to a friend on a mat in a Pilates class — who might one day want to continue the conversation in a pew.

Peter Graystone develops pioneering mission projects for the Church Army.

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