‘I wanted to play a part in goodness winning out over evil’
ODDLY, I never doubted the existence of a God, but, the way I understood it, God was Christian, and he had divided the world into people he liked and people he didn’t like, along absurd and arbitrary lines such as what movies they watched, whether they were interested in sex, and whether they had been baptised.
For reasons beyond my control, I fell on the wrong, bad, “heathen” side of the line, and Christians were people who harangued people like me to make us feel bad about that. So I was, understandably, pretty angry at, and rejecting of, that God.
I signed up to Philosophy 101 in college, and discovered that there were questions I cared deeply about, and with a personal urgency, and that those questions were all existential and religious.
The second influence was definitely authors and musicians whose works I responded to deeply: C. S. Lewis, Kierkegaard, Dante, Rilke.
The third was meeting friends who were supportive of my exploration and who could have intelligent conversations with me about religion without being dogmatic or dismissive. I went to Quaker meetings, Unitarian universalist church services, and so on.
I came to a point, at about age 22, when, very depressed, I saw the world as a great battle between good and evil, and I knew it was time to pick a side and go to bat for it. The figure of Christ held out the possibility that, although I had all the terrible deep feelings of badness that depression entails, that badness didn’t have to be my story. I could be saved and play a part in salvation, simply by wanting it. I could go to bat for the side I loved but had never felt I belonged to.
I was baptised ten years ago, aged 27, at the Easter vigil at St Thomas the Apostle in Toronto, with my close friends present. Then we all drank champagne and went out clubbing, reeking of frankincense.
I think that evangelism is a discreditable enterprise, to be honest. One thing I prize about my journey to faith is the freedom I experienced, every step of the way. You are not truly helping people find their way to God unless you are allowing them total freedom to follow their heart and their conscience.
Trying to get people to conform to what you happen to believe is coercive. If you want to witness to Christ, minister to people, without ulterior motives, in their need — their depression, isolation, anxiety, and especially their anger at, and suspicion of, the Church — and trust them to use their freedom to find their own way to holiness.
‘Most people don’t know who Jesus is; so tell them’
I DID not particularly engage with religion when I was growing up. I went to a multifaith school where all religions were celebrated. I wasn’t particularly interested in RE lessons, but believed that there was a God.
At home, my family were not particularly religious. We have a background of both Christianity and Buddhism, mixed with Chinese culture. We didn’t particularly practise any religion, and only really attended church or temple when we visited my extended family in Malaysia. It was a “When in Rome do as the Romans do” approach, and visits to the temple were more out of respect for my grandmother and elder relatives.
In the summer before I left to go to university in Edinburgh, my mum had a road accident. In her recovery, she started going to a church, something she had done as a child. Over the next few years, my family became Christians. My dad started going to church with my mum, and got baptised with my brother. My sister became a Christian after being invited by a work friend while she was living in Singapore, and got baptised there.
During my university holidays, and when I moved back down to London, I would go to church with my family, mainly because we would all go for lunch together as a family afterwards. I used to sit there in the services, thinking that they had all been brainwashed.
It was only after many years of being the black sheep of the family, and at a time when I experienced a series of bad life events — relationship break-up, losing my job, having to move back to live with my parents — that I felt I had time, and eventually went to a Christianity Explored course. It was probably ten years after their first invitation.
The course took me through the Gospel of Mark and helped me to understand that Jesus is God and that he died for my sins. This was quite an overwhelming realisation at the time, as I had come into the course with the weight of my own sin. My first question at the end of the course was “What do I do?” I didn’t quite believe the true concept of grace being freely given and not earned.
In terms of lessons for those seeking to evangelise: I sat there in church with my family sporadically for more than ten years, listening to good-quality preaching, and none of it was sinking in. People often worry when they bring friends and family to church that the sermon didn’t communicate to them, or offended them. From my experience, it has made me really see that only God can open up eyes, ears, and hearts to the gospel, and it will happen in his time.
The main thing we can continue to do is continue to pray. My mum and family had prayed for me for years.
Most people don’t know who Jesus is; so tell them. Most of my friends have not read the Bible. It is important for Christians to share the gospel by telling their friends and family, so that, at the very least, they can understand what it is that they don’t believe. And — who knows? — God may just have opened up an opportunity for us that we may have been missing.
‘Let people use their brains as well as their hearts’
AS AN academic in philosophy, I was inclined to despise religion and faith as immature and irrational. I’d had a few friends at university who were Christian and who sought to make a reasonable case for faith; but more important was an intuition that philosophical reason was limited, and unable to account for the transcendent and creative possibilities I discerned in the world.
Crucial for me was an intellectual “worrying away” at the intersection between faith and philosophy. I even wrote an academic paper for a conference on the relationship between meaning and the Word. But I also felt a profound desire to pray — to give thanks and just commit myself to what I sensed was the deep love at the heart of the universe. It was all a bit Kierkegaardian. That was 20 years ago, when I was 26.
In terms of lessons for people seeking to evangelise: don’t dumb down the profound mystery of God; and let people use their brains as well as their hearts. Take seriously the profound risk at the centre of faith: that it can feel terrifying to dare to follow Christ. And accept that the Greatest Story Ever Told will just seem really rubbish and dull to lots of people.
‘I was a Dawkins disciple’
FOR me, religion was a kind of ecosystem of superstition, a set of obvious fictions foisted on children from which they should be liberated. Christianity was just another flavour of religion, as false as all the others, no truer than Greek myths, Norse gods, or fairies at the bottom of the garden.
I was a Dawkins disciple, and I had a naturalist world-view with enough internal coherence to satisfy me for many years.
Over time, however, the gap between my head beliefs and heart beliefs grew too wide. I would readily say that love, meaning, good, and evil were just human constructs — but knew I didn’t live, and couldn’t live, as if it were so.
Through my work, I got to know a couple of Christians who truly lived as if Jesus were real and God guided their lives. I read the Gospels, and found Jesus making astonishing revolutionary claims that demanded a response.
Crucially, I was embarrassed to learn — by the standard I was happy to judge all other history — that Jesus’s death and resurrection were fact, not myth. Why had no Christians, no teachers, nobody ever mentioned this to me? I thought you were just another bunch of faith heads; yet it turns out the foundation of Christianity is strong and sure.
I was maybe 32 when I first came to think of myself as a Christian; but daring to go into a church building, understanding and valuing church, came slowly. I was baptised on the same day as my wife and children, aged 35 — a truly beautiful day.
If you want to share Christianity, live as if it were true. A faith may be beautiful, mysterious, joyful, companionable, consoling, and it may have wonderful songs, but unless it is true you’re not really offering me hope. When you talk, keep it simple, and challenge me to turn from sin to Jesus — else you’re not really offering me the gospel. “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you but Jesus Christ and him crucified.”
Neill Harvey Smith
‘I had a massive crush on my biology teacher’
MY ONLY previous encounter with organised Christianity was a solitary trip to Sunday school, and all I can remember was that it smelt damp. I was completely unsympathetic towards religion: if there was a God, he was out there somewhere, and had nothing to do with me.
I was almost 15, and had a massive crush on my biology teacher, Miss Lancaster, who was a Christian — and, back in the ’70s, was allowed to advertise Christian events in the lab. I bought a ticket to an event she was promoting, mainly to get in her good books.
The event was a Christian rock show at the big concert hall in Bradford, where I had seen, earlier that year, both Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. The invite to go up on the stage and talk more was a chance to be on the same stage that my rock idols had strutted their stuff on.
The moment of change came when the guy we were talking to asked me: “Do you want what God can give?” This was a radical thought, as I never, for one moment, thought that God had any particular interest in me. We did not pray, or make any outward gesture; I simply said “Yes” internally to what God had to give.
The moment of conversion was instantaneous: God simply met me and came into my life in a wonderful and dynamic way. I knew he was real and had birthed something in me. I felt brand new. “Born again” really did describe how I felt.
I was almost 15 when this transformation took place, and, 42 years later, I am still receiving the good stuff that God has to give. The lesson I have learnt is that we should trust Jesus to change people, and be willing to ask if they want a relationship with God. This is good stuff, and we should be ever willing to pass it on.