Several weeks ago our church held its annual Bible Conference. Before you get too excited and think that this is a big event hosted by a big church, be assured that this is not the case. Our church is not very large (fewer than 300 members, I think, though visiting students and families can sometimes swell Sunday morning attendance to 500-ish). Furthermore, though the term “Bible Conference” conjures an image of large numbers of visitors from the surrounding area, ours is basically a Saturday and Sunday where our own members gather more frequently to hear extra preaching and teaching from guest speakers. It is still a delight for us.
This year’s primary speaker was Dr. John Leonard, a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary and pastor of Cresheim Valley Church (PCA) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This year’s conference theme was on evangelism, and Dr. Leonard was an appropriate speaker, given his experience as a missionary, church planter, and author of Get Real: Sharing Your Everyday Faith Every Day. This evening I would like to share an idea from one of his talks that I found particularly helpful. While I fear that the passing of several weeks might have made my memory of his talk a bit fuzzy, I hope I am at least conveying the gist of it correctly.
Throughout his presentation (and, one assumes, in his own practice of evangelism), Dr. Leonard showed little patience for methods of sharing the gospel which are forced, overbearing, or otherwise contrived. These make even well-meaning Christians seem disingenuous and can cause both participants in such an exchange to be very uncomfortable indeed. He also did not believe that Christian movements which make their adherents seem unnecessarily strange to outsiders to be particularly helpful. The gospel message is already foolish and offensive to non-Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18); there is no need to make it even more so by an off-putting demeanor or an unduly aggressive approach.
To explain his point, Dr. Leonard had us draw a chart on which the vertical axis showed two extremes of “sane” and “crazy,” and the horizontal axis two extremes of “normal” and “strange” (or something like that). For the purposes of this discussion, these terms can be defined as follows:
“Sane:” Having opinions and viewpoints (in other words, a worldview) that more or less tracks with that of the wider secular society.
“Crazy:” Having a worldview so shaped by the Christian faith that one’s opinions and viewpoints often seem, well, crazy, to those that don’t share that faith.
“Normal:” Having a demeanor, language, dress, habits, interests, etc. which are common to people in the society in which one lives, regardless of faith commitment (or lack thereof).
“Strange:” Having a demeanor, language, dress, habits, interests, etc. which are unusual in the society in which one lives, often deliberately so.
The chart illustrating these pairs of extremes looks something like this:
In this scheme, the “Sane-Normal” person is your average person living in secular society with ideas and interests common to that society, and with either no faith commitment or at most a loosely-held religious affiliation or concept of spirituality which has little effect upon one’s life and thought. The “Sane-Strange” person has those same basic ideas and interests, but has certain modes of dress or other lifestyle quirks which might strike others as unusual. (Think of, in different decades, hippies, punk-rock, grunge, etc.) The “Crazy-Strange” person holds to a more or less orthodox Christian spirituality, but with certain lifestyle traits which are off-putting to others. The Amish are an extreme example; less extreme examples might include conservative communities which seem to want to recapture lifestyles and mores of previous generations, such as one might find in many (though certainly not all) homeschooling communities. Vision Forum was, before the tragic downfall of its founder, an organization that offered books, products, and conferences promoting something of what I’m talking about here. (Full disclosure: I thought Vision Forum offered a number of useful products which I gladly purchased without fully buying into its viewpoint on certain matters.)
In contrast to these, Dr. Leonard advised that Christians should seek to be “Crazy-Normal.” We are right to cultivate a rigorous, thoroughly biblical worldview, one which permeates our thinking and affects everything we do to a greater or lesser extent. The ideas which emanate from such a worldview will very likely seem crazy to those who do not share it. And yet at the same time, we are not to seek to escape our present context. Christians raised in any society will share any number of interests, habits, and mannerisms that are common to people in that society regardless of religion. Rather than eschew these, we should enjoy the good things we find in this world, pursue healthy relationships with our neighbors, and seek the well-being of the societies in which we find ourselves. (Think of Jeremiah’s words to the soon-to-be-exiled people of Judah: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” [29:7]) While our “crazy” Christian worldview will sometimes limit our ability to fully participate in some aspects of the wider society, there is nothing wrong with cultivating interests and activities which we share with those outside the faith so long as these do not somehow violate the teaching of Holy Scripture.
This way of approaching the Christian’s life in the world is quite liberating. It frees the serious believer from thinking that he must completely eschew all the trappings of earthly society in order to be a good Christian, and yet tempers that freedom with the understanding that our first allegiance is to God and to the Scripture in which He reveals Himself to us. This will inevitably lead to points of disagreement and even conflict with our unbelieving neighbors, and that is okay, so long as the conflict indeed arises because of genuine offense at the faith, not because of Christians behaving in an offensive manner toward others. (cf. 1 Peter 4:14-16)
So what does all of this have to do with evangelism? Only this: if we cultivate a lifestyle that is winsome and genuinely welcoming to others, one in which the light of Christ is always evident and yet is never forced or overbearing or made to seem unnecessarily weird, then opportunities to share the gospel might just present themselves through the relationships we build. We should certainly pray for opportunity and willingness to be used to that end, while ensuring that our conduct as Christians does not deter our friends, neighbors, and loved ones from coming to Christ by faith.