10/14/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2012

The Candle or the Mirror: Living Out Faith in an Era of Agnosticism

According to data that I read from the Washington Post recently about 1/5 of all Americans say they are "nothing in particular," with agnostic or atheist, up from 8 percent since 1990. Many pray, believe in God and have regular spiritual routines. What is even more alarming is that those who identify themselves as Protestants have dipped below half at 48 percent.

I am very disturbed by these statistics as a Protestant Pastor that knows that new transformative models must be implemented or the church as we know it will dissolve into a sea of forgetfulness. I ponder and think about a time early in my ministerial career of being called to the hospital bedside of an elderly woman to offer final prayers for the dying. I took her comatose hand but felt like a fraud. What right did I have to shepherd a soul to the edge of the next world? Dutifully, I proceeded to pray familiar words anyway, letting their power carry her to the church triumphant.

Talking to my wife afterwards, I confessed my feelings of inadequacy "You're right," she said. "You're unworthy. Anyone would be unworthy doing such a thing. That's okay, though. It's not you doing it. It's being done through you." My spouse's statement was a pivotal moment in my ministry. Suddenly it became clear to me that we bring light into this world not as a source but as a prism -- it comes through us. As electricity requires a conduit, so spirit moves through human beings to touch others in crucial moments. As soon as I stepped out of my own way, the prayer felt real. I could believe in blessing when I felt that it did not depend on me." In the midst of this reality grappling the church as we know it I feel the same way in how we can be conduits of light.

Novelist Edith Wharton put the same idea this way: "There are two ways of spreading light, to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."

Consistent to my Lutheran understanding of theology, we can't be the candle. Christ is the candle. We can be -- we must be -- the mirrors.

That means the response of the Christian is to polish up the mirror. Clean up the smudges and the water spots. Make it a bright reflector of God.

Can we be mirrors in darkness?

I say yes, the most powerful apologetic for Christianity is the changed lives of its adherents not by works righteousness but through the vehicle of transformation in loving our neighbor.

We're God's first option on evangelism. It's a consistent biblical theme:

  • Matthew 5:16: Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and praise your God.
  • 1 Peter 2:12: Live lives that silence the false accusations of pagans.
Plato was once told that a man in the city had been spreading slanderous charges against him. Plato's answer: "I will live in such a way that no one will believe what he says."

What if we took his example, the scriptural example, and our virtue apologetic seriously and committed ourselves to winning the hearts of God's skeptics by living better lives right in front of them?

Haven't we all met the Christian who's so compelling to us that his or her presence inspires our faith? And haven't we also met that sister or brother whose words, actions or attitudes cause us to literally doubt our faith?

There's no problem with the Candle.

It's the mirror that needs polishing.

We aren't the source of light, but the prism. Not the candle, but the mirror.

As long as there are neighbors and family members who don't know Jesus, and as long as a new crop of atheists find God-bashing a fashionable and profitable thing to do, let's just reflect Christ.