“There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people…religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” —Linus, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
Common etiquette from the mid-1800s advised savvy conversationalists to avoid religion and politics. These topics were not considered polite because of the strong emotions often accompanying them. It was better to avoid the topics than to have a few angry guests ruin a social event for everyone.
Last week, I was asked to speak to a group of high school students about how they can share their faith stories with others. I’m guessing they aren’t familiar with 1800s etiquette—perhaps they know of sage Linus, however—but the social norm of old is still alive and well in them, as it is in me.
When it comes to telling others about what we believe, we have the sense that it isn’t polite conversation.
We fear that sharing our faith will cause an ugly scene. We imagine an intense exchange in which each side plunks down its arguments as tempers flare. Few people would be eager to enter that sort of dialogue.
Why can’t faith conversations be discussed like any other topic? Conversations are an exchange of information. Faith conversations are an exchange of beliefs—you tell me what you believe, I tell you what I believe. Whatever another person’s religious standing (faith or no faith), each one of us thinks ourselves to be correct in our understanding—otherwise, we would think something else.
Somewhere along the way, Christians have assumed it is our job to convince people that what we believe is true. If winning the conversation is our priority, we become bent on gaining points for our well-executed arguments and perfectly timed zingers. It becomes an Us versus Them competition.
What if we no longer had to win? What if we could have faith conversations just to get to know people, what they think, and why they think it?
I doubt anyone would balk at that sort of conversation.
If I no longer need to win, I am free to speak of my faith in a Savior who has changed everything for me. I am free to point to the beauty and invite others to wonder at Him. I am free to let people think differently from me without being angry that they aren’t affirming my stance. And I am free to listen to the contrary beliefs of others in order to understand them and love them, right where they are. Maybe they won’t change their stance to match mine, but at the very least, they might be willing to hear me out. Maybe some people will still be offended or angry, but treating them with respect and kindness goes a long way in diffusing strong emotions.
This is what I want those high school students to know. They are not out to win arguments but to point to the beauty of Jesus, the One who has come to rescue us from our sins.
And if Jesus is true—if Jesus is the Son of God, if He has the power to forgive sins and to remove the guilt and shame we cower under, then I do not need to prove it to anyone. It is true whether we all believe it or not.
This freedom allows me to point to Jesus in wonder and awe, just as I point to the glories of nature, like a sunset or fall colors or a mountain range. If others do not see the beauty, it should stir my sorrow that they are missing out, but it should not stir my anger that they aren’t seeing what I see.
Whatever age-old etiquette and Linus may say, I think polite faith conversations are actually possible.