public witnessing
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public witnessingA few weeks ago I attended my family’s church because my oldest was being recognized among the seniors graduating from high school (yes, I’m old enough for such things). Attending the church of my youth is always interesting and entertaining, and most likely in all the wrong ways if what they’re hoping is that I’ll come under the Holy Spirit’s conviction, exclaiming that “Surely the Lord is in this place!” What I sense whenever I visit is something other than the divine presence.
I’ve written already about how the worship experience itself has become strange enough to me now that I can more objectively appreciate just how insular—how epistemically closed off—the evangelical world has become. When I was still a new deconvert, I doubt I would have seen it all so clearly. But now, after having been away for half a decade, it’s at times bizarre to me.
[Read: “Dear Church, You’re Weird“]
But I was once a preacher of sorts myself, so I cannot help but listen to the sermon with great interest and, I might add, acute indigestion. What people hear from the pulpit on Sunday morning greatly affects the way they view their own lives and priorities since, according to Protestant theology, this is the key moment each week when God speaks to his people as a group.
My own children were in attendance, and that makes what is said from the pulpit my business. That said, I do have some…thoughts.

How We Were Made to Feel

The preacher said a lot of forgettable things that morning (forgive me, I know it’s customary among evangelicals not to be critical of a sermon, but I’m not an evangelical anymore and I feel no obligation toward submitting to their conventions at this point in my life). One thing that stuck out to me, however, was how he laid on the guilt.
I’ve become sensitized to emotional manipulation since coming out of the Christian faith, so moments like these really stand out to me. In church, you become so accustomed to having your emotions played with that you really don’t even think about it. You learn to trust that God himself is making you feel whatever you’re feeling, as if he’s trying to reach you—trying to speak to you personally in some way.
Incidentally, this requires a great deal of implicit trust in the people who stand up front, especially for a tradition born out of a conviction that no man can represent God to you in any ultimately authoritative way. Protestant theology teaches that God doesn’t require intermediaries and he can speak to the individual believer without any need for a middle man.
And yet, there they sit in quiet rows, week after week, waiting to hear from God himself through a man (and always a man), trusting that whatever he makes them feel is automatically legitimized by the metaphorical mantle placed upon him by a committee at some point. I must add that the last guy whom God led that particular committee to entrust with this responsibility lasted about 18 months (and no word from the Almighty on why his perfect will is so fickle these days), but perhaps this one will stick around longer. We shall see.
I just never did learn to put that much trust in a person who my theology taught me was a fallible creature. And I never could understand how others didn’t take that element of their faith to heart themselves. For that matter, I’m not sure I ever understood why they never allowed their belief in human fallibility to extend to the writers of the New Testament. But anyhoo…
At one point the preacher made everyone feel guilty for not “witnessing” more, or at least he tried to. By that I mean sharing their faith…evangelizing. Telling other people about Jesus. Because, presumably, they don’t already know all the same things about him.
Which is a pretty self-unaware thing to believe, you know? Was I really that unreflective when I was still numbered among the faithful? In retrospect, I’m not sure I was, which would explain why it ultimately didn’t move me to do anything differently. And that brings me to what I want to say in response to his attempt at guilting the congregation into evangelizing more.
The preacher suggested that the reason God’s people don’t witness is that they are scared.
I disagree. And I can think of at least three different reasons this guy is flat wrong in his interpretation. In order to explain, I’m going to try to put myself back into my previous Christian experience and try to see how I would have seen it all if I knew then what I know now.

The Persecuted Majority

First of all, the reticence toward evangelism which I felt when I was still a “believer” owed as much to basic self-awareness, or perhaps environment awareness, as it did to anything else—certainly more than to timidity or any fear of whatever it was they think we are afraid of. I mean come on, I live in Mississippi, where something like 80% of those surveyed identify as Christian. Is he suggesting we are afraid of persecution?
That ridiculous narrative—that Christians are somehow persecuted in the United States, where the overwhelming majority of people identify as Christian—will never die. It cannot die, in fact, because it is woven into the founding narrative of the religion itself.
Christianity was formed in a context of persecution, and it operates best in an environment where “God’s people” don’t run things. But today, in my country, they do run things…while telling themselves they don’t. That dynamic helps to create this absurd paradox in which the church is so numerous, and moves as such an obedient unit, that it gets to pick our presidents and our legislators only to then turn around and claim a need to protect its own religious liberties (while actively denying the same to anyone from any other religion, or with no religion at all).
Scared to speak the name of Jesus? In this place? I don’t think that’s really it. That’s not why people don’t evangelize more.

Trusting Your Gut

Second, I think one of the main reasons I didn’t evangelize more is that I knew it was bad form. It was in bad taste—bad manners if you will—and if southerners value anything at all it’s showing good manners (no matter what you say about others behind their backs!).
Evangelism is a form of selling something, and I think people intuitively know that. It’s a sales pitch. You show up on someone else’s doorstep uninvited, or you pull them aside at a mall, or at work, or at school, or wherever your spaces are, and you begin to tell them you have something that they don’t, and that they need what you yourself have.
I think most people instinctively sense the condescension and presumptuousness of this practice whether they admit it to themselves or not. Deep down they know there’s something off about this, and their gut is telling them not to do it.
But that’s one of the key strongholds of the Christian faith: It teaches you to distrust your own instincts. It tells you from the time you are too small to think for yourself that you cannot trust your own judgement. You are a fallen soul with a blackened heart (I’m sure it’s purely a coincidence that black is always bad), and that means you require something or someone else to tell you what to think and how to see the world.

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked. Who can know it? (Jer. 17:9)

If there’s anything the last few years of my life have been teaching me, it’s that I need to learn to listen more to my own instincts. They’re far from omniscient, to be sure. And like all voices, our own inner voices need to be checked by other voices we have come to trust both for their objectivity and for their care for how our lives turn out. But that said, this still, small voice inside needs to get a little louder because it really does know more than we realize…and it’s not who we were taught it was supposed to be.

Our instincts were telling us that there’s just something inappropriate about this entire exchange, especially given that almost everyone we come into contact with has already heard everything we have to tell them about Jesus or the Bible or salvation or whatever. I promise you…they’ve already heard it many times.
Which explains why foreign missions so fascinate us, luring some of us overseas, doesn’t it? I recall getting so excited hearing about faraway lands where the name of Jesus wasn’t such an overused thing. I was thrilled at the idea that I could give my spiel about the gospel somewhere in which they wouldn’t roll their eyes because they had already heard everything I had to say—most likely in multiple forms. But over there in this other godless country you could tell people about Jesus and they will thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Sign me up!
Incidentally, I was *this* close to moving to Kazakhstan when I was twenty. But perhaps that’s a story for another time.
Here in the United States they’ve heard it all, especially in either rural regions or else pretty much anywhere in the Deep South including the larger cities. And deep down we know better than to believe this is going to be some magical experience like it was in the New Testament when people would fall down on their knees and praise God for what they are hearing.
Which leads me to the third and final nagging thought that I believe kept me from “witnessing” more when I was still a believer.

An Empty Offer

Third and lastly, I’m not sure I was ever really convinced that “the hope I had within me” was really the fantastic thing I was so diligently telling myself it was.
I certainly was taught to believe that what I had been given was “the greatest gift ever,” up to and including eternal life in heaven, which I’m told is a great place to be. But I had never seen such a place and frankly at times the descriptions of the “place” sound unappealing to me. I’m sure I was supposed to be impressed by promises of no more tears, no more pain, no more sorrows, etc. But I think even in my most devout days the whole thing sounded a little too convenient.
Furthermore, as an evangelical I was taught to believe that having the Holy Spirit living in me now would bring certain things into my life and my relationships, “fruits of the Spirit” which people without this indwelling Inhabitant could not possibly produce themselves. But there again was this unavoidable gut check. I think my instincts could tell that was an unfair assessment of the situation.
People without Jesus are just as good—and just as bad—as people with him. They may swear less and tell cleaner jokes (and less funny ones, too), but in my observation they’re not really any better off than the rest of the world. And aside from the obvious comfort it brings to believe that Someone is in charge of your life, orchestrating its events for your own good no matter what happens, I would have to say that Christians aren’t any more joyful or peaceful or loving than anybody else.
In other words, I don’t think I was ever convinced that what I had to offer people would really change their lives all that much.
And that’s really saying something because I had one of those “Damascus Road” experiences as a teenager. I had an emotional conversion experience at the deeply insecure age of 15 and I quickly learned to craft my own salvation story according to the familiar story arc which people love to hear in church. I magnified my own emptiness before the experience and celebrated the fulness I had now that I was “saved,” and people ate it up.
But as the years passed I came to realize that I’m really still the person I was before I got saved. All the attributes that were true of me before were still true of me afterwards. I just gained different preoccupations and started wearing Christian t-shirts and salvation bracelets (don’t get me started) and got a new set of not-as-funny friends. And looking back on my Christian days, I’d have to say that the atheist I am today isn’t really a different person from the man I was then, either.
Our religions don’t make us who we are. We just are who we are, and we learn to tell different stories about ourselves. We simply change lenses through which we see ourselves. That’s all.

We Are Who We Are

A few years back I attended the funeral of a former mentor and Sunday School teacher of mine whose son was one of my best friends in high school. The size of the crowd that day in the sanctuary spoke volumes about the number of lives he impacted, and like good evangelicals they gave God the credit for everything good the man ever did.
But I don’t think that’s fair. If my friend’s father hadn’t found the church, would he really have been a different person? Would he have loved his family less? Would he have been a less honest businessman? Would he have loved teaching less, or been less responsible, or less curious? I don’t really think he would have been.
He would have been who he was no matter what his vocabulary for describing who he was or why he was that way. He would have made a good Muslim, or a good Hindu, or a good humanist. Instead, he was a good Christian. Is there really a difference?
My former church honored this man the only way they knew how: by giving someone else credit for everything the man was and did. But I find that sad. I think it would have been more honoring of the man’s life if people had been given permission to give the man himself credit for who he was and how he lived. But alas, that is the one thing the Christian faith cannot do.
Christianity cannot permit people to see themselves as the source of their own virtues. That would cause the entire system of belief to collapse because it is predicated on human inadequacy. We must need saving from something. Otherwise there’s no need for a savior.
I have issues with that, but now I’ve wandered off from my original topic, which was why Christians don’t like sharing their faith with others. Maybe deep down at some level they are aware that they themselves have to accomplish pretty much everything that their faith tells them God will do inside of. The Bible says in one place that “He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it.”
But really it is we ourselves who have to make it all happen. Perhaps at some level we sensed that, and our gut was warning us that we were selling a bill of goods to people by telling them something would happen in them that never really happened in us, either. We didn’t become different people. We just learned to look at ourselves differently. And yes, we believed we had a ticket to heaven, wherever that is. We were told it totally exists by people who had never been there. Not really all that persuasive, is it?
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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...