Redeeming Words: Faith

Adam Barr

July, 2018

Communication is at the heart of outreach. As we have been exploring, the early church spread like wildfire because it was able to build bridges of effective communication with its pre-Christian neighbors. We have also seen that, in our post-Christian world, people might use the same vocabulary we do. They use words like “faith” and “truth,” but they are using a very different dictionary to define those words.

This month, we are looking at the word faith. How does Christianity define this word? How is it used in our post-Christian culture? How can we bridge the gap between the two meanings, opening the door for outreach along the way?

Let’s look at three different ways that “faith” is used in our post-Christian culture. Think about baseball, Santa Claus, and thumb-sucking. Each of these provides a distinct way our culture thinks about faith.

As someone who lived in Chicago for many years, and who still considers himself a Cubs fan, I have witnessed firsthand the idea that faith is blind commitment to a team. In this sense, faith flies in the face of facts. Somehow, despite ERAs, batting averages, and year after year of win-loss records, super-fans are convinced “This is our year.” At the end of another disappointing season, they declare to the heavens, “Next year is our year!”

In another sense, faith is a nice tradition, like belief in Santa Claus. It can be a fun ritual, but it is not meant to stand up under the scrutiny of rational examination. Faith is like posing for pictures with mall Santa at Christmas, but we all know the difference between fantasy and reality. Faith still has a role in culture: When we get married in church, ask a priest to preside over a funeral or turn to prayer in times of tragedy. At best these traditions can bring social cohesion to shared experiences.

Remember Linus, from the Peanuts cartoons? He was never without his blankie. For many in our culture, faith is a personal tool for coping with life. In this sense of the word, faith is a good thing. It is something that helps us stay balanced and sane. When used in this sense, faith is something we should never subject to the microscope of analysis or doubt. We should especially never call another person’s faith into question, or line up different faith systems and make value judgments. To do so would be like attacking a person, judging them for who they are.

If we want to reach out to our friends and neighbors, we need to understand how their ideas about faith will impact their understanding of our message. For example:

They will be very happy for us to share our personal “faith” but will probably not understand that it has implications for their own lives. Each of the approaches to faith we looked at above has something in common: It views faith as a private matter. Faith is fine, as long as we keep it to ourselves and do not suggest it has implications for everyone.

But the Gospel, while being personal, is far from being private. Christianity declares that faith must be public. We believe that Jesus has something to do with everyone. Jesus is not just the King of the Jews. He is not simply the savior of Christians. Jesus is the Lord of all the Universe. Paul writes in Colossians 1 that “He is before all things and in him, all things hold together.” For us, true faith is about declaring loyalty to our King, ceasing a life of rebellion to the true Ruler, and becoming citizens of a Kingdom that is more real than the United States of America! 

Our friends and neighbors have likely drawn a thick, clear line between the realm of facts and the realm of faith. Science gives us facts. Religion gives us faith. As Christians, we cannot be content with a concept of faith that acts as if the facts do not matter. If Jesus really was God incarnate who came into this world and declared himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and if his death and resurrection really are the only way to be reconciled to God, then all of human history needs to be understood in light of those facts. If, on the other hand, Jesus was just another man who taught some nice ideas, then Christianity is just one more option in the religious smorgasbord. Facts matter.

 

"Faith is a response to God’s actions in human history. We believe that true faith is an act of belief, trust, and absolute commitment to a Person who is alive"

 

As Christians, we believe that faith is much more than a feeling of confidence and commitment to “our team.” It is not just a nice tradition that binds us together with friends and family. It is much more than a personal coping mechanism. Faith is a response to God’s actions in human history. We believe that true faith is an act of belief, trust, and absolute commitment to a Person who is alive. Faith is loyalty to the King who was crowned on the cross!

How can we communicate these things to our friends? Let me provide three simple statements that we should learn to share:

  • Faith without facts is wishful thinking. Christianity is rooted in real-world history. We can explore it. Really smart people have written books to help explain the link between the Christian faith and the facts. For example, check out the writings of Lee Strobel (The Case for Christianity, The Case for Faith).
  • Faith without transformation is an illusion. Christian faith doesn’t just point us to a set of ideas, it points us to a Person who demands our allegiance. If we really grasp the Gospel, then our whole life will change.
  • Faith is personal, but it is not private. There is nothing more personal than my relationship with Jesus Christ. I love him and have given my whole heart to him. But my faith is much more than “me and Jesus.” Because I believe what Jesus says about himself, I want everyone to know the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

As we reach out to our post-Christian friends and neighbors, we should listen closely to how they talk about faith. We need to be ready both to affirm the truth of what they share, but also clearly communicate the fullness of faith described in God’s Word!

Adam T. Barr (MDiv, ThM) serves as senior pastor at Peace Church near Grand Rapids Michigan. In addition to his work in the local church, Adam speaks and writes on Christianity and culture, helping followers of Jesus understand and apply God’s Word in an increasingly post-Christian society. His most recent book, Compassion Without Compromise, is available through Bethany House.

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