The Common Good

When Doing the 'Christian Thing' Isn’t the Right Thing

I used to be a Bible study leader.

Pedestrians passing by homeless person, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com
Pedestrians passing by homeless person on the street, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com

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And per the undergraduate campus fellowship tradition, it kept me busy: Sunday brunch community building, Monday night small groups, Tuesday leadership meetings, and Wednesday training sessions. Discipleship, one-on-ones, social activities, all-campus worship, weekend retreats, week-long retreats, all-day retreats, evangelism workshops, work day, capture the flag, scavenger hunts, and prayer meetings.

But what I remember most vividly are Thursdays.

Every Thursday. The evening walk through campus, past bars and restaurants beginning to fill with my peers, through a door almost hidden to the unaware, flanked by a man sitting on the ground. The man is dirty and unkempt. Sometimes he’s panhandling. Sometimes he’s asleep. On one occasion, he eats, still alone, from a small bag of popcorn one of my fellow Bible study leaders had brought to him.

The man catches my attention, yet I don’t show it. I don’t ask his name, or where he goes when he doesn’t sit by the door, or how he manages to stay warm through Midwestern winters. Thursdays are obligatory for Bible study leaders, so maybe that’s why I try to ignore the man. Maybe that’s why I feel I can’t stop to ask him his name. Or maybe being a Bible study leader is just a convenient excuse to keep walking.

So every Thursday I climb the stairs behind that door, leaving the man below, allowing him to fade into the background until he is just another distant person, indistinguishable from those filling the pub across the street or sleeping on their textbooks in the library across the quad. Suddenly the band is on stage, the rhythm of worship distracts me, channeling an energy that gives way to reflection, to reverence, to calm. Every Thursday.

And then it’s over. And like all good Bible study leaders, I greet friends, practice fellowship, welcome newcomers. We leave in groups to study or socialize. I don’t notice if the man is still there when we leave.

This man has come to represent many things to me in my faith journey, and something I’ve encountered this week brings my thoughts back to him.

There is a certain logic among many Christians that says it is necessary to proselytize on account of our tradition’s teaching that our truth is exclusive. Because our exclusive truth teaches us that the consequence is damnation for those who do not subscribe, we feel we must convince others of our truth. At all costs. At any length. Whatever it takes. To not do so, we reason, would be unloving.

I happen to agree – to a certain extent – with this logic. But I also happen to disagree with where this logic has led many Christians: to the notion that we must be aggressive, abrasive, disrespectful, and judgmental.

I believe that the problem evangelicalism faces today is that we have forgotten the very example that we claim to follow: the example of a servant, preacher, and prophet who was a friend of those who religious leaders considered sinners and outcasts. In fact, Jesus seemed to value relationships over regulations and rituals, whether that relationship was with someone of a different tradition, someone society hated, or someone religious leaders considered immoral.

What we Christians fail to see is that the most important way to relate to a person who believes differently is not to convince them of how they are wrong, which we have tried with every method available — approaches that ironically seem to make our message even less convincing. What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader.

I credit two people with teaching me how to communicate the Gospel. One of them is a Christian living in the slums of Philadelphia, and the other is a Muslim.

So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there's a good chance that you've convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

Greg Damhorst is an MD/PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he pursues a doctorate in Bioengineering developing a portable, low-cost, point-of-care device for HIV/AIDS diagnosis in resource-limited settings. Greg has been a leader with Interfaith in Action, the University of Illinois’ premier student interfaith organization, since early 2007.  Greg also co-directs Faith Line Protestants, a blog dedicated to encouraging Evangelical Christians toward relationships with people of other worldviews and faith traditions through social action.

Image: Pedestrians passing by homeless person on the street, uros1210 / Shutterstock.com

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