Evangelicals have a long tradition of activism. Unfortunately, we haven’t always exactly been honorable in our activism lately and at critical moments, we’ve done too little to speak out against injustice. As a result, at least in the United States, Christianity has developed a strange split-identity. On the one hand, we are making a difference with our actions, but on the other, we are ashamed to be called “Christian”.
A few years ago, a co-worker found out I was Christian. Whenever he came to talk about a Bible study or prayer or spiritual things, he would want to close my door and/or talk in a whisper. I guess it had something to do with a fear of persecution. He must not have heard or remembered what Paul said to Timothy: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.“
I really think we can learn a thing or two from the LGBT concept of coming out, which has successfully transformed homosexuality from a crippling social stigma into being a respected community within Western culture within the last hundred years. Coming out changes perceptions because the people who do it:
- boldly lay claim to their identity, and
- tell their own stories honestly.
All too often, Christians do exactly the opposite—especially in the workplace when we rub shoulders with people of other religious convictions. We want to be faithful to our identity as Christians but we don’t know how.
One approach that doesn’t work goes something like this:
- Hang a Thomas Kinkade print in your cubicle hoping that the “positive image” will help co-workers find religion.
- Begin each day with a silent prayer asking that our work will be pleasing to God, but not praying for specifics.
- Wear a “Lord’s Gym” T-shirt under your work apparel so that you will always have Jesus close to your heart.
- Drop vague references to Christian rock lyrics in conversation.
- Place Chick Tracts on co-worker’s desks after they’ve gone home for the night.
This way, we can feel like we are claiming our identity in Christ without actually risking being held to it. It’s like a coded language that Christians will understand and agree with, but won’t be clear to others at work. It amounts to a refusal to take on an association with Jesus in the public sphere.
- Hang a print of Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in your cubicle.
- Begin each meeting with an invitation to join in prayer.
- Wear a “Lord’s Gym” T-shirt as your work apparel.
- Be sure to say “Lord willing” and “God bless you!” often in conversations.
- Put the “Four Spiritual Laws” on your business cards.
Unless you happen to do these things naturally (and I have met few guys with that personality), these over-the-top displays of Christianity are hypocritical. They tell a story, but not our story. Here’s what the early Church took to be it’s story:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.—1st Peter 2:9-10 (ESV)
I became known as a Christian at my office when I started dating my soon-to-be fiancée. She had always been interested in international missions and I preferred to stay at home reading, playing computer games, and making ill-advised suggestions for Perl 6. But we were getting serious about our relationship and she was planning to spend two months in Mexico City as a short-term missionary, so I figured I better find out if I could be involved in it myself.
Meanwhile, I was changing projects at work and told my new boss that I was thinking of taking two months of unpaid leave. If truth were told, I sort of hoped he would say that he couldn’t spare me for that long and I would have to (i.e., get to) stay home. But he was glad to let me go since work was slow at the time. So I started making preparations: practicing my high school Spanish at a Hispanic church service, applying to the missionary program, and raising/saving money.
At long last, the program accepted me (I was secretly disappointed), I got my airline ticket, packed my bag, and arrived in Mexico City. At that point I finally discovered the biggest hurdle to my new calling: mime ministry. Somehow I failed to notice that our team would be asked to put on face paint and do pantomime. Miraculously, I survived. More than that, I fell in love with the city and the people who welcomed me there. God made me a new person—a person who enjoys missionary work. (I have never gone back to miming, however.)
When I returned, everyone knew that I was a Christian. A few months later, 9/11 happened. A Muslim co-worker put two and two together and invited me into a dialogue seeking reconciliation between our religions. We didn’t solve the problem of world peace, but we did have some very enjoyable lunch conversations. I continued to worship in Spanish (to this day).
My girlfriend and I got engaged and married and took even more short-term trips to Latin America. Each time, I simply told people where we were going and when someone asked what we were doing, I told them. One person found out that I was going to Bolivia and told me, very sincerely and sorrowfully, that Machu Picchu is in Peru! That gave me an opportunity to explain that my purpose wasn’t tourism, so I hadn’t made a mistake. I’ve even sent support letters to people I know will be interested in what our team is up to.
So far, the only “persecution” I experienced was being told to remove a Bible verse from my email signature, since it was “unprofessional”. Otherwise, people either ignore my faith to treat me like anyone else, or engage with me as a Christian. People regularly ask me to pray for family members with illness and ask me about what Christians believe. I put up a couple of printouts of 3:16 passages that I think are kinda awesome and I keep a Bible at my desk. A few years ago, I joined the Gideons and wear their pin on my badge holder. I don’t hide my story anymore, nor do I force it on unsuspecting passers-by.
When you come right down to it, Christians who give the church a bad name and Christians who are embarrassed by the church have missed the main point of the gospel. Whatever God is doing, whether we understand it or not, is good news. We need to share our joy in His work. And if we don’t have joy in it, we ought to reflect on why not and pray for God’s spirit. But that’s a topic for next month.