How to Talk About Jesus Without Being Weird (or a Jerk)
About a year ago, I was helping out at an event and one of the servers asked me if I was religious.
Earlier in the night, it had come up that I write stuff about the Bible. She was gay, and I suspected she was posing a somewhat loaded question.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “I try not to be too religious.”
“Then what are you?” she pressed. “Spiritual?”
“That’s probably a better word for it,” I said. “I believe Jesus helps me connect with something bigger than myself, and I try to model my life after his teachings. I’m not very good at it though.”
She nodded and told me her parents were very religious and they kicked her out of the house when they found out she was gay. It’d been years since they’d had a cordial conversation.
I told her I was sorry that happened and that I thought she was the type of person Jesus would’ve loved to spend time with, and He would have definitely stood up for her to her parents.
And that was it. The conversation ended and we got back to work.
A few questions: Did this interaction make you uncomfortable? Did I go too far? Not far enough? Was this a “Gospel conversation?”
I’m asking because I don’t think the answers are as clear-cut as we would like it to be. And I think that makes some of us very uncomfortable.
According to a research study commissioned by Barna, fewer than 25% of Americans had a spiritual conversation in the past year. And only 13% of practicing Christians reported talking about their faith more than once per week.
And, let’s be honest, most of those conversations probably occurred between other Christians. How can we expect to share the Gospel if we’re unable to have spiritual conversations?
Listen, I am not — by any stretch of the imagination — an expert evangelist. I cuss too much, say a lot of things many would consider borderline heretical, and throw shade just as quickly as the next person.
But, I really do enjoy talking about Jesus with other people — especially if they don’t consider themselves Christian or religious.
In my experience, people are very open to spiritual conversations — as long as you don’t lead with dense theology or moral judgment.
So, what follows are my recommendations for having better conversations about your faith — without coming off as a total weirdo or insensitive jerk.
Be Fascinated With Jesus (the Person, not the Product)
Even people who don’t care for Christianity tend to think Jesus was a pretty cool dude.
And, honestly, how could you not?
He’s this rogue Jewish rabbi who stirred up a whole mess of trouble. He preached on nonviolence, enemy love, and serving the poor. He spent so much time with lowlifes at parties that some people smeared him as a drunkard.
Jesus washed his followers’ feet, spoke in complex parables, and violated cultural norms left and right. He was short on answers but big on flipping the question back around to you.
Following a rigged trial orchestrated by some jealous religious leaders, he was murdered by the state — a big disappointment to his followers who thought he was going to lead a military coup against the occupying Romans.
But after his death, some of his disciples reported seeing him again. And this ignited an entirely new community of people marked by their love for another and care for the marginalized. And, in spite of intense persecution, it spread like wildfire.
Jesus was a badass, but you wouldn’t get that impression listening to how some Christians talk about him.
In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancy writes,
“Two words one would never think of applying to the Jesus of the Gospels: boring and predictable. How is it, then, that the church has tamed such a character — has, in Dorothy Sayers’ words, ‘very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies?’”
Our conversations tend to treat Jesus as a solution to a theological issue. He’s a ticket to Heaven, an answer to a spiritual formula, or a blood sacrifice for our sins.
Instead of an invitation to fall in love with an actual historical figure, sharing the Gospel becomes a sales pitch to use Jesus for our own benefit.
I think this is why a lot of us are hesitant to bring up Jesus outside of church settings or Christian social circles. This transactional view of the Gospel turns us into salesman trying to convince other people our religion is the best one on the market.
In Speaking of Jesus, Carl Medearis writes,
“The gospel is not an idea. It is not a belief. It is not a favorite verse. The gospel does not live in your church, it cannot be written down in a simple message, and it is not the sinner’s prayer. The gospel is not a what. It is not a how. The gospel is a Who. The gospel is literally the good news of Jesus. Jesus is the Gospel.”
In a prayer recorded in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”
In a letter to a church, the apostle Paul wrote, “For I resolve to know nothing except Jesus and him crucified.”
If you are not fascinated or intrigued by the person of Jesus, can you really expect anything different from someone else?
How do you get people to watch the latest Netflix show you’ve been binge-watching or to join your gym with the crazy new workout regimen?
You talk about it. You’re excited about it. You want other people to experience these things alongside you. In the same way, Christians should be marked by their fascination with the life of Jesus, not just the theological concept of Jesus.
Because why would anyone want to join a religion that inspires so little interest in its own followers?
Watch Your Language, Please
Many of us learned to speak Christian from Christians who spend the majority of their time with other Christians.
And this means a lot of us struggle to talk about our faith with people who don’t share our religious upbringing or beliefs.
As America becomes more pluralistic and polarized, the gulf between secular and sacred language becomes wider and wider. Words that are familiar to some become foreign to many. And when spoken from a defensive posture, they can become downright hostile.
In Learning to Speak God From Scratch, columnist Jonathan Merritt writes,
“Holy phrases become tools of manipulation in the hands of angry religious leaders. They are fashioned into clubs by combative evangelists. And when shouted from the mouth of a street preacher outside a football stadium, Scripture becomes downright annoying.”
It can be tough to disassociate from those loud voices, but part of our problem is our over-reliance on Christianese, or words and phrases that are commonly understood in Christian circles but hold little to no meaning for religious outsiders.
Have you ever considered how weird phrases like “washed by the blood,” “asked Jesus into your heart,” or “sanctified by the Holy Spirit” sound to people who aren’t religious?
We become so comfortable in our Christian bubbles that we toss around words like “fellowship,” “fruit,” “called,” “convicted,” “missional,” “small group,” “quiet time,” “stumble,” “grace,” “prayer warrior,” “anointed,” “nations,” “spirit-filled,” and “burden” with such reckless abandon that we don’t pause to consider how our lexicon may be alienating others.
So, How we talk about God becomes just as important as What we say about God.
Christianese presents internal dangers, as well.
A couple of months ago, I visited a church where the pastor ended the sermon by saying, “If you run to the cross and lay down your life, Jesus will sustain you.” This earned a smattering of applause from the congregation.
But look at that statement again. Like, really look at it. You probably can’t disagree with any one part of it, but you probably can’t tell me exactly what it means either.
And that’s one of the problems with insider lingo. Words and phrases become so overused they lose their meaning and significance. It may sound profound, but a closer inspection reveals empty rhetoric.
Words are powerful.
They can be used to confuse, divide, alienate, and oppress.
But words can also be used to clarify, unite, welcome, and empower.
In Speaking of Faith, journalist Krista Tippett writes,
“A lot of the words we need most have watered down by overuse and cliche in politics and culture, and this includes words that are very meaningful for many Christians…and so we must surround them with an ecosystem of vocabulary — and both words and practices — to carry the richness of our meanings when the words themselves need reviving.”
In our hands, language can be a weapon, or it can be a tool.
Either option carries a lot of responsibility.
And we really need to ask ourselves,
how much of our language — from our words to our tone — is used to keep people who don’t think, act or talk like us out?
Stop Fighting the Culture War
Christian presence and influence on the outside culture have been on a steady decline for the past half-century in America.
Therefore, it’s up to Christians to rescue our culture, prevent moral decay, and take the country back for God, right?
Fear is a powerful motivator (especially in religious communities), and some media outlets, politicians, and (yes) preachers will gleefully stoke that fear for their own benefit.
But once you begin viewing the world through the lens of a culture war, anyone who doesn’t think like you is perceived to be a threat and an enemy to “your team.”
In The Prodigal Prophet, pastor Timothy Keller refers to this process as “Othering.”
“To categorize people as the Other is to focus on the ways they are different from oneself, to focus on their strangeness and to reduce them to these characteristics until they are dehumanized. We then can say, “You know who they are,” so we don’t need to engage with them.”
We all have Others.
We can all point to the Them in opposition to our Us.
One of the things I love (and find endlessly frustrating) about Jesus is that when he commands his followers to love and bless their enemies and neighbors, he doesn’t offer any exceptions or caveats.
Jesus doesn’t recruit soldiers to fight a cultural war for his glory.
He desires lovers.
Or, in the words of pastor and writer Brian McLaren,
“Jesus doesn’t dominate the other, avoid the other, colonize the other, intimidate the other, demonize the other, or marginalize the other. He incarnates into the other, joins the other in solidarity, protects the other, listens to the other, serves the other, even lays down his life for the other.”
We don’t turn people’s affections toward Jesus by imposing our morality through legislative action, exiling them from our worship gatherings, refusing to bake a wedding cake, kicking them out of our country, or killing them on a (literal) battlefield.
And if “winning” the culture war comes at the expense of further alienating the people we claim need Jesus the most, then winning is actually losing, right?
The culture war mindset creates an unnecessary hurdle to the Gospel because it presupposes one must adopt a specific political ideology in order to be a “true Christian.”
God doesn’t want or need you to “take the country back” for Himself.
He wants you to serve the poor and love your enemies while talking about Jesus.
There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s a great starting point.
Introverts Can Be Christians Too
A lot of the modern church’s religious activities and worship gatherings are geared toward meeting the needs of extroverts.
And if we’re not careful, we can subtly (or not-so-subtly) paint the picture that an authentic Jesus follower is relentlessly optimistic, tirelessly energetic, emotionally expressive, and magnetically sociable.
In other words, pure nightmare fuel for introverts.
In You Are What You Love, professor James K.A. Smith writes,
“We have effectively communicated to young people that sincerely following Jesus is synonymous with being ‘fired up’ for Jesus, with being excited for Jesus, as if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful, hurray-for-Jesus disposition like what we might find in the glee club or at a pep rally.”
Portraying Christianity solely as a gregarious social club of unbridled enthusiasm can be extremely off-putting for those who are easily overwhelmed and prefer thoughtful contemplation to expressive displays of religious affection.
And these expectations not only negatively impact introverts. I have friends who bravely struggle with clinical depression who thought they were outside the will of God because of their emotional state.
A person’s relationship with God is not dependent on their brain chemistry or the strength of their feelings at a specific moment in time.
In Introverts in the Church, Adam Hughs writes,
“The upfront piety of evangelicalism and the expectation of outward, emotional displays of faith, can feel invasive and artificial to introverts. Meanwhile, the anti-intellectual stream can alienate some introverted thinkers who find their love of ideas, comfort in solitude, and powers of concentration translate into a life of intellectual pursuits.”
Christianity needs extroverts. We need their rapturous energy, charismatic personalities, and daring vulnerability. We need them to teach us how to welcome strangers, take risks and inspire others.
But we also need introverts. We need their gentle disposition, thoughtful intellect, and quiet passions. We need them to show us how to find God in the stillness, listen instead of talk, and respond instead of react.
Remember, God rarely chose the most attractive, talented, outgoing, articulate, or intelligent. He doesn’t seem too impressed with celebrity, money, or power. And I think that’s pretty cool.
It’s also good news for us that feel exhausted at the mere thought of a party.
Addendum I: When Good Isn’t Good Enough
There’s a famous quote by Saint Francis of Assisi that goes something like, “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.”
And while I appreciate the sentiment, I have a few problems with it.
For starters, there is absolutely zero record of St. Francis ever saying such a thing.
Second, I’ve heard it used almost exclusively to justify not talking about your faith.
And, finally, it implies your goodness is the best pathway to someone else’s salvation.
Listen, Christians don’t have the market cornered on morality and good deeds.
It’s not enough to be a good person,
because the Gospel isn’t about being a good person.
The Gospel begins with the awareness that the same brokenness we observe in the world is also present within each and every one of us. It’s the humble admission that our natural disposition skews toward self-preservation and self-destruction.
However, Christians are not excused from being a beacon of hope, justice, and mercy in the world.
Madeleine L’Engle, author of the beloved Wrinkle in Time series, wrote,
“We draw people to Christ not by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Jesus doesn’t need a lawyer. He wants witnesses.
The ultimate aim of a Christian is to orientate your life around Jesus in such a way that it points other people toward Him.
The distance between Jesus and another person has nothing to do with politics, morality, religion, or demographics. And I think this is why Jesus spent so much time with people outside the accepted religious circles of his day.
Any conversation, interaction, or act of service that points people toward Jesus is a win for the Kingdom of God.
But you have to take the risk and do it.
Addendum II: Next Steps
I once heard someone say that any ass can kick down a barn, but it takes a real special donkey to build one back up. Here are a few applications for each recommendation:
Be Fascinated With Jesus (the Person, not the Product): Read the Gospels all the way through. Then read them again in a different translation (The Message and The Voice are great modern paraphrases). Make notes on how Jesus interacted with different types of people — women, the poor, the sick, politicians, soldiers, and religious leaders.
Watch Your Language, Please: Write out a list of Christianese words and phrases and redefine them without using any religious terminology. Practice telling Jesus stories without using any word and phrases commonly associated with Christianity.
Stop Fighting the Culture War: Depending on your upbringing and environment, this one can be really hard. Look at who you follow and what you post on social media.
Would an atheist, Christian, Muslim, Republican or Democrat feel comfortable initiating a spiritual conversation with you? Or have you already preemptively shut that door? Are you having conversations with people outside your religious and/or religious comfort zone?
Introverts Can Be Christians Too: Jesus knew his boundaries. Yes, he went to dinner parties and spoke to large crowds, but he also spent time alone. And some of his best conversations happened when he was talking to just one other person.
Schedule some time — at least once a week — to be alone. I don’t care what you do, but don’t set any goals or expectations for that time. Practice what pastor Eugene Peterson refers to as “the unforced rhythms of grace” — whatever that means to you.