THIS is the final in a three-part series on the over-used and
often insensitively employed phrases that plague the Christian
lexicon. I am offering a list of things to do as an alternative to
firing off phrases that may mean little to the recipient - or,
worse, may cause unintended harm.
1. "Listen more; talk less." Yes, there
were times in the Gospels when Jesus sermonised; but most of the
time he said much less than people expected. He listened first,
and, when responding to problems or questions, he often left room
in his answer for the listeners to wrestle with what was said, and
to arrive at their own understanding.
Christians do not like to give up such control, though. We want
to know that the person understands what we want them to
understand. But, if we are ever to get past the widely held
perception that we are tone-deaf talking heads, we have to be
quiet, and pay attention more.
2. "Stop trying to fix everything." Christians
hate loose ends. We want to end every conversation with everyone
smiling and assured that everything will be fine. But that is not
always reality, and, sometimes, what people need is to grieve,
wrestle, or reflect rather than feel better and move on. Being a
Christian is not about having all the answers at the ready, despite
what some evangelism training will tell you. People may even ask
for answers, but what we are all looking for, at a deeper level
than our search for those answers, is peace. Sometimes that takes
3. "See yourself in the 'Other'." Somewhere
along the way, Christian outreach became more about personal
conversion than about empathy and compassion. One of the biggest
turn-offs I hear about Christians is that people see us as trying
to make everyone become like us. But Jesus was moved, affected, and
- yes - changed by the people he encountered.And, lest we forget,
the greatest commandment was not to convert people to Christianity:
it was to love others with all you have, and with all you are. Part
of loving others is to understand what they want or need, not just
to give them what you think they want or need.
4. "Pray." This one sounds self-evident, but I
think it needs to be mentioned. Notice I did not say to tell people
"I'm praying for you." I hear from too many people that such a
phrase is used passive-aggressively towards them, to suggest that
they are screwed up and need help. If you really believe that
prayer works, then just do it.
There is no right or wrong way to "do" prayer. I think it is
more about recognising the divine in all of creation and in one
another; in noticing the brokenness in the world, and responding to
it. This is what it means to make our whole lives a prayer. The
Buddhists call it mindfulness. We Christians could use more of
5. "Quality over quantity." We have a bad habit
of practising what I call air-drop Christianity. Whether it is an
in-and-out mission trip, or a quick handshake on Sunday morning and
then move on, we have a bad habit of sprinkling ourselves here and
there, as if our faith were a garnish rather than at the heart of
who we are.
Invest in people. It is hard work, but it is the stuff of life
when we have the proper perspective.
6. "Share generously of yourself." This does
not mean simply sharing a prepackaged testimonial story that you
have told over and over again. It means taking an emotional risk,
making ourselves open and vulnerable to others in the hope that
they will feel comfortable being open and vulnerable to us.
The way in which we approach people, often in the context of
evangelism, assumes an inherent imbalance of power, with us on the
side of that power. We know the truth, and you don't; we are saved,
and you're not; we are here to rescue you from yourself. But
discipleship should be a lifelong and mutual investment. And why
should we expect anyone to invest in us or what we believe if we
are not willing first to take a chance with them?
7. "Be open to the possibility that you're
wrong." Anyone who tells me that his or her faith has not
evolved over time into something different from how it started
makes me nervous. For some, this may involve only a deepening (or
hardening) of existing beliefs, but, for others, it is a
never-ending process of growth, pruning, and adding on.
Consider the disciples: were they ever wrong? Did they ever
change their understanding of what they believed? Of course they
did. Also, being open to the possibility that the person you are
with could actually teach you something honours his or her wisdom
and experience. Christian or not, every person has a unique story,
because no one in the history of the world has ever lived that life
except for him or her. Allow yourself to be moved and even changed
by those experiences.
8. "Apologise." I have found that, sometimes,
all people want is a simple apology for the hurt inflicted by other
Christians. You may not have done anything personally to that
individual, but, if you are a Christian, you represent the whole of
Christianity to that person. It won't kill you to say: "I'm sorry
you were pushed away, made to feel like less of a person, judged,
condescended to, denied rights in the name of the faith I claim."
Name the wrongdoing, validate the hurt, and then sit back and see
what happens. More often than not, in my experience, such apologies
are met with tears of relief, embraces, generous forgiveness, and,
perhaps the best of all, fascinating stories.
9. "Own your love." We Christians love to say
things such as "God loves you," but, for someone who is not sure
what he or she believes, or who has been deeply hurt by the faith,
this may ring hollow. Instead, why not say: "I love you"? Yes, it
is risky, and if you don't mean it, don't say it. But, if you
follow the steps above, it is not hard to find a spark of
Christlike love for the person you are with.
If you find it difficult to muster such a personal offering of
love, at least try something such as "You are loved," rather than
leave it all to God or Jesus. If we are Jesus's body in the world
today, this includes the heart. If only we were as good at being
Christ's heart to the world as we are at being his mouth.
10. "Make sure your life reflects your faith."
One of the words I hear most often in describing Christians is
"hypocrite". There is a reason for this. One solution is to stop
making verbal promises that your life does not live up to; another
is for us to step up our game in daily life. People quote St
Francis as saying: "Preach the gospel at all times, and when
necessary use words." Whether or not it was he who said it, the
fact is, if we are really living the life we find revealed in the
Gospels, there will be little need for words to explain what it is
that we believe.
Christian Piatt is a writer, editor, speaker,
and musician. A different version of this article appears at sojo.net.