As a college student I attended a campus Christian fellowship that always, at every meeting, had a book table of literature for purchase. On the table there was a little booklet called Doubters Welcome. I remember my surprise at the title, because as a young believer I thought that Christians frowned on doubters and wanted them to just take that leap and have faith. But I came to realize that the Bible had a more balanced view. While we want doubts to give way to faith (John 20:28; James 1:6), we should be merciful and patient with those who are still in their doubt-troubled period. (Jude 1:22). On that campus the Christian fellowship was very inviting to skeptics and doubters, and there were always a lot of them mixed in with the believers.
I always wanted to be part of a church that had that same spirit. When we began Redeemer Church in Manhattan in 1989, one of the first “core values” was that we wanted to be a place where those who were not believers (or who were not sure what they believed) would find their questions welcomed and addressed, their doubts and difficulties respected, and their struggles and concerns anticipated. We soon became aware of and glad for the presence of many, many doubters and spiritual inquirers in our midst. Over time, many of them discovered the Redeemer community to be an “incubator” where they were able to see the reasonable beauty of the Christian gospel and discover their own faith developing and growing.
However, the only way we were able to have a community filled with questioners was because believers at Redeemer were not afraid to identify themselves publicly as Christians to others that they worked with and lived near. When you do that, it is inevitable that you get some blank stares or pushback, or even some hostility. And yet you also will find expressions of interest. And that interest, cultivated through caring relationship and personal transparency, can lead to someone finding his or her way into a community where doubt is welcome.
This coming year, across the congregations of Redeemer we are going to be encouraging the members of our community to renew their willingness to be public about their faith. We are going to have all our community groups in the fall discussing what it means to be open with friends and colleagues about what we believe. During the rest of the year there will be even more opportunities than usual to invite interested friends into spaces where Christianity is being presented and thought out in a climate of friendly but pointed questions.
To be “public” of course doesn’t mean being strident, nor to force the subject into conversations. It simply means that Christians should not hide who they are. Our faith is central to how we think about things, make decisions, and how we face the challenges of life. If you are simply candid and natural in sharing who you are and what you do with others, they will learn that you go to church and have a vital, life-shaping faith.
But in a place like Manhattan even that is not easy. Twenty years ago, if you told friends that you regularly went to church they were usually perplexed and bemused. Today they may immediately begin asking you fairly antagonistic questions. Many Christians intuitively know that this is likely to happen, and so they semi-consciously hide their beliefs. It is ironic, of course, that in a culture that puts such a premium on transparency, freedom of expression, and the right to be yourself that Christians know they may be sharply criticized for going public with their faith.
Nevertheless, Paul is emphatic. He says he is “not ashamed of the gospel” (Romans 1:16) Does that mean that he is not embarrassed by it? Yes, but it means more. In 2 Timothy 1:8 he says, “Do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord…rather, join me in suffering for the gospel by the power of God.” Here we see that the opposite of being ashamed is being willing to suffer for our public identification. In other words, Paul is calling all Christians not to be afraid of rejection, criticism, or worse—but to be open and public about their faith.
How can we do this? The gospel itself helps us. First, the joyful effects of the gospel in our own lives give us an enormous energy for witness. How can we keep our mouths closed about such a wonder? But second, the humbling nature of the gospel leads us to approach those who do not believe without superiority and with respect. Since we are saved only by God’s grace and not our own goodness, we expect to often find wisdom and compassion in non-Christians that at many points may exceed ours own. Third, the gospel brings us a new, profound experience of God’s love—and this lessens the sting and fear of others’ disapproval.
All this drains us of influences that can lead us to treat non-Christians as “evangelism cases”—people that we relate to, talk to, and care for only in order to win them over to our side. That is to objectify and dehumanize them, and, ironically, it is unwinsome. We don’t love people in order to share our faith with them. Rather, we share our faith and ourselves with them in order to love them. As Paul said to the Thessalonians, looking back on his ministry among them, “As a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very selves.” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8) That is a perfect example of what we mean by public faith—it means going public with what’s in your heart, with humility and respect for others, as we speak of the truth of the gospel.