In a recent interview, Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said:
Christians need to start seeing that we find ourselves in a position very similar to the one the Christian church was in in the very beginning of its existence, as a minority of people speaking to the larger culture in ways which are going to sometimes seem freakish to that larger culture. I don't think that's anything that should panic us . . . but it's a realistic view of who we are.
What do you do when your beliefs start sounding “freakish” to people around you? That's the dilemma of 21st-century Christian rhetoric. Like Russell Moore, I don't think the situation is going to get easier anytime soon, so we should be thinking hard about the fundamental posture we take when presenting our convictions to the outside world.
As far as I can see, those speaking up for Christianity in the public square today usually rely on one of three approaches. The three differ from each other dramatically, and everything we say is colored by the approach we choose. Let me introduce them briefly and tell you which one seems most appropriate given the nature of the moment and our message.
1. Better By Comparison Approach
In conversations with non-Christian friends, the Better By Comparison approach suggests we should always refer to worst-case stereotypes of other kinds of Christians in the media. Then, you simply show how much more tolerable and enlightened we are than those others. The worse they are, the lower bar drops, the better and higher we must be by comparison. You can make yourself look better just by making others look worse. “I'm not that kind of Christian.”
The problem with this approach is that it's based on a disdain for other Christians and thus hard to reconcile with Jesus' desire for unity. It demands that we downplay what God might be doing through other believers. So although this approach requires little expertise and offers huge payouts, Christians should keep their distance.
2. Minimalist Christian Approach
In conversations with non-Christian friends, the Minimalist Christian approach assures them that you are interested in the simple message of Jesus, not the version that causes all the controversy and divisions. Distance yourself from any Christian movements that came before yours in history. Dodge questions that probe below your sound bites, and change the subject when they want to know how it applies to touchy issues. Remember: an oversimplified message is better than no message at all.
A less manipulative version of this approach has a place inside of Christian community and evangelism. After all, there are core beliefs (“first things”) that many otherwise divided people can agree on, and which make cross-confessional work possible. And it's important to emphasize these basic ideas when introducing the gospel to someone for the first time as well.
So why does the Minimalist Christian approach fall short as a universal style of communication? Because you're not really just a minimalist Christian. You probably have positions of one kind or another on almost every issue. There's a place for minimalist or mere Christianity in both evangelism and ecumenism, but mature believers will also want to apply those basic ideas to all the different spheres of their lives. And trying to hide this complexity is dishonest.
3. Conscious Dissident Approach
The third approach, the Conscious Dissident approach, offers our best hope and keeps two important aspects of our situation in mind. First, we are consciously dissident. That is to say, we knowingly subscribe to these views, and therefore don't try to disguise the ways they may conflict with the Zeitgeist. Second, we are conscious that we are dissidents. So we always make it clear—in what we say and how we say it—that we're aware many smart and respectable people disagree with us.
Consider how this posture differs from other cliché attempts at engaging unbelievers in conversation. You have probably seen people before who sit down to explain their views and settle in for a fight about them (thinking that duty demands it). And you have probably seen people who are ashamed of their Christian views and try to move on as quickly as possible (thinking they'll lose their hard-earned status otherwise). Conscious dissidents take an element of both: they are bold enough to present a robust, transparent version of their convictions, but at the same time, they don't feel compelled to monopolize every conversation with them. They have the forthrightness of the former approach and the self-effacing demeanor of the latter.
In practice, this style of conversation stimulates as much, or more, conversation about our ideas than even the more long-winded styles. How is that possible? As Moore pointed out, the views we articulate will occasionally seem “freakish.” So, even when we just put them out there casually, others will often want to circle back and cross-examine them. “Wait a minute. What did I just hear you say?”
Here is the catch: at that point, they are now using their own time. Now a conversation about your views is being driven by someone else's interest, concern, or outrage. Of course, you have to be quick to make it work. If you can't summarize the key ideas well in a few sentences, then a provocative comment becomes an unsolicited lecture. But of course we need to be able to sum up our views succinctly anyway.
You could make a good argument that this article all amounts to sophistry, and that the gospel simply requires us to be authentic. And of course we are required to be authentic. Yet Jesus, the most authentic man who ever lived, counseled us to be “shrewd as snakes.” Christians in the 21st century have to work hard both on their theology and also on their words. As followers of a great dissident, who clearly labored to give his words the most possible potency, we simply have no excuse not to do the same.