This is the final in a four-part series on the overused (and often insensitively employed) phrases that plague the Christian lexicon. Though I felt like I was offering some insight into what to do instead of offering these cliches, some asked for more specificity or clarity. So in that spirit, I thought I'd offer a final list of things to do rather than pop off with these phrases that may mean little or nothing to the recipient, or worse, may cause unintended -- but lasting -- harm.
Listen more; talk less.
Yes, there were times in the Gospels when Jesus sermonized, but most of the time, he said much less than people expected. He listened first, and when responding to problems or questions, he often left room in his answer for the listener to wrestle with what was said and to arrive at their own understanding. We Christians don't like to give up such control, though. We want to know that the person gets what we want them to get. But if we're ever to get past the widely held perception that we're a bunch of tone-deaf talking heads, we have to be quiet and pay attention more.
Stop trying to fix everything.
Christians hate loose ends. We want to end every conversation with everyone smiling and assured that everything will be just fine. But that's not always reality, and sometimes, what people need is to grieve, wrestle or reflect rather than feel better and move on. Being a Christian is not about having all the answers at the ready, despite what some evangelism training will tell you. People may even ask for answers, but what we're all looking for, at a deeper level than our search for those answers, is peace. Sometimes that takes time.
See yourself in the "Other."
Somewhere along the way, Christian outreach became more about personal conversion than about empathy and compassion. One of the biggest turn-offs I hear about Christians is that folks see us as trying to make everyone like us. But Jesus himself was moved, affected and -- yes --changed by the people he encountered. And lest we forget: the Greatest Commandment was not to convert people to Christianity; it was love others with all you have an all you are. Part of loving others is actually understanding what they want or need, not just giving them what you think they want or need.
This one sounds self-evident, but I think it needs to be mentioned. Notice I didn't say to tell people "I'm praying for you." I hear from too many people that such a phrase is used passive-aggressively toward them to suggest they're screwed up and need help. If you really believe prayer works, then just do it. And this doesn't need to be some pietistic ritual, with knees bent, eyes closed, head bowed and hands clasped. If that helps you feel closer to God, fine, but it's not a performance. There's not a right or wrong way to "do" prayer. I think it's more about noticing, about recognizing the Divine in all of creation and in one another, in noticing the brokenness in the world and responding to that need. This is what it means to make our whole lives a prayer. The Buddhists call it mindfulness. We Christians could use more of that.
Check out some of the worst Christian cliches...
Quality over quantity.
We have a bad habit of practicing what I call "Air Drop" Christianity. Whether it's a quick in-and-out mission trip, a door-to-door evangelism or a quick handshake on Sunday morning and then we move on, we have a bad habit of sprinkling ourselves here and there as if our faith is a garnish, rather than at the heart of who we are. I've said this before and I'll say it again, I'm sure: INVEST IN PEOPLE. It's hard work, but it's the stuff of life when we have the proper perspective.
Share generously of yourself.
This doesn't mean simply sharing a pre-packaged testimonial story you've told over and over again, or dropping a few dollars in the offering plate or in a homeless person's cup. It means taking emotional risk, making ourselves vulnerable to others in ways that we hope they will feel comfortable being open and vulnerable to us. The way we approach people often times in the context of Christian evangelism assumes an inherent imbalance of power, with us on the side of that power. We know the truth, and you dont; we are saved, and you're not; we are here to rescue you from yourself. But discipleship should be a lifelong and mutual investment. and why should we expect anyone to invest in us or what we believe if we're not willing first to take a chance with them?
Be open to the possibility that you're wrong.
Anyone who tells me that their faith has not evolved over time into something different than how it started makes me really nervous. for some this may only involve a deepening (or hardening) of existing beliefs, but for others, it is a never-ending process of growth, pruning and adding on. Consider the disciples; were they ever wrong? Did they ever change their understanding of what they believed? Of course. So why do we think we should be any different? Also, being open to the possibility that the person you're with could actually teach you something honors their wisdom and experience, wherever they are coming from. Christian or not, every person has a unique story, because no one in the history of the world has ever lived that life except for them. Allow yourself to be moved and even changed by those experiences.
I have found that sometimes all people really want is a simple apology for the hurt inflicted by other Christians. Sure, you may not have done anything personally to that individual, but if you're a Christian, you represent the whole of Christianity to that person. It won't kill you to say "I'm sorry you were pushed away, made to feel like less of a person, judged, condescended to, denied rights in the name of the faith I claim." Name the wrongdoing, validate the hurt, and then sit back and see what happens. More often than not, in my experience, such apologies are met with tears of relief, embraces, generous forgiveness and, perhaps the best of all, fascinating stories.
Own your love.
We Christians love to say things like "God loves you" or "Jesus loves you," but for someone who isn't sure what they believe, or who has been deeply hurt by the faith, this may ring very hollow. Instead, why not say "I love you"? Yes, it's risky, and if you don't actually mean it, don't say it. But if you follow the steps above, it's not hard to find a spark of Christ-like love for the person you're with. Can't muster such a personal offering of love? At least try something like "You are loved," rather than leaving it all to God or Jesus. If we are Jesus' body in the world today, this includes the heart. If only we were as good at being Christ's heart to the world as we are at being his mouth!
Make sure your life reflects your faith.
One of the words I hear most often in describing Christians is "hypocrite." There's a reason for this. One solution to this is to stop making verbal promises your life doesn't live up to. Another is stepping up our game in daily life. St. Francis famously said, "Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words." The fact is, if we're really living the live we find revealed in the Gospels, there will be little need for words to explain what it is that we believe.
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