When I was in full-time ministry, I would often lament the fact that all my friends (at least the ones I saw and interacted with on a regular basis) were Christians. This seemed wrong to me for many reasons, not least of which that my life and faith felt too insulated as a result. Being inside of this isolated, relational bubble caused my soul to atrophy, and created an inner detachment from that which I believe to be most true. I imagine that this is true of any tribe or affiliation – whether religious, ethnic, political, or whatever. The more we isolate ourselves from the outside, the more sickly and diluted we become.
I’ve come to conclude, then, that it is good for my soul to have friendships with those outside of my tribe (which is evangelical Christianity). This, of course, means that having friendships with nonChristians is vital for my inner well-being. So, how do I do that? How can a Christian and a nonChristian form a true friendship? Is such a thing possible? Or will there always be some kind of underlying, evangelistic/judgmental/I-don’t-want-to-go-to-your-church tension? I’d like to share a few observations (we can even call them “tips!”) that I’ve made, and picked up from others along the way, for both Christians and nonChristians on this issue of cross-cultural friendships.
5 Tips for Christians
1. Don’t be weird (unless you’re weird). Sometimes we can get so focused on evangelism that we become awkward around nonChristians, like the geek who somehow gets to dance with the prom queen. We think that one wrong word from our mouths will doom this person to eternal damnation, and so we find ourselves doing and saying ridiculous things because we carry the weight of their potential salvation on our shoulders. But that’s not your responsibility. Each person’s salvation, yours or your friend’s, is based on a relationship between the individual and God, facilitated through Jesus Christ. So relax. Don’t be weird, unless you’re just naturally weird. In that case, be yourself!
2. Shut up and listen. Sometimes the best way to proclaim the Gospel is by making eye-contact and closing your mouth. Listening is a lost art, as it seems more and more that everyone is just waiting for their turn to talk, or “multitasking” by “listening” while looking at their smart phone. In a world of frenetic noise, one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person is to endow them with the dignity of being heard. It’s okay if your friend has a completely different/unbiblical/nonChristian perspective; they deserve to be heard. Listen without arguing. Ask questions so you can more fully understand their life, thoughts, and perspectives. I believe that Jesus can speak as powerfully through sincere silence as he can through even the best sermon. (And that’s coming from a preacher!)
3. Don’t assume that you’re morally superior to your nonChristian friends just because you are saved/have the Holy Spirit. The sad reality is that despite having access to the Creator God through the Holy Spirit, despite knowing Jesus, despite having seven different versions of the Bible on our bookshelves, we Christians simply do not live more noticeably moral lives than our nonChristian neighbors. Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Paul, who at the end of his life said this, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” If Paul is the worst sinner, then what are you? There is simply no room for self-righteousness in the hearts of those who follow Jesus–nothing could be further from the heart of God. As Paul said elsewhere, “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” I think this is especially important for Christians to grasp and live out in our friendships with nonChristians.
4. Be honest. By this, I suppose that I mean that you shouldn’t try to manipulate your nonChristian friends into becoming Christians. It’s better to just be up front about it in a way that is appropriate to your relationship. After all, honesty is what makes relationship possible. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling your friend, “I hope that someday you know and love Jesus as much as I do, because he means everything to me.” What is wrong, in my opinion, is steering and manipulating conversations for the sake of conversion.
5. Don’t feel like you have to own all the crappy baggage of Christianity. We’ve all been through it before. We tell someone that Jesus loves them and died for their sins, and we get a response like this, “ZOMG! BUT THE CRUSADES!” The last Crusade was over 700 years ago. Can we move on, please? “BUT WESTBORO BAPTIST CHURCH!” Well, I don’t go to there. …I’m happy to own all my own baggage, and God knows there’s enough of it to turn anyone away from becoming a Christian just like me. But I don’t feel any sense of responsibility to own things like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or fringe churches of which I am not a part. To apologize for things others have done and with which I disagree seems dishonest.
5 Tips for NonChristians
1. Don’t stereotype your Christian friends. Nobody likes to be stereotyped, and yet sometimes it feels like it’s culturally acceptable to lump all Christians together into one ridiculous caricature. This may come as a surprise to a lot of people, but the average Christian doesn’t look like a white man from Kansas. On a global scale, the average Christian is actually an asian woman. There really is nothing more culturally, ethnically, socially, or politically diverse than Christianity. It’s not acceptable to stereotype other groups, so please extend the same respect to your Christian friends. I’m not saying that you need to pay attention to all the nuances or subgroups of Christianity, but just be aware that there are all kinds of people in the world who love Jesus and have given their lives to him.
2. Be yourself. I’ve often felt like my presence has made nonChristians uneasy because they don’t want to offend me, particularly by their use of foul language. (When you work in the broadcast industry, you hear A LOT of foul language!) While I appreciate the thought, I don’t want to become someone else’s social conscience, and I think a lot of Christians feel the same way. You shouldn’t feel like you have to change who you are when you’re around your Christian friends. While I can’t speak for all Christians, I think it’s safe to say that we want to get to know the real you, and we deeply believe that God loves you as you are now. Like it says on the front page of this blog, “You don’t have to get all fixed up to find God, because God got completely broken in order to find you.”
3. Shut up and listen. This is just something that’s true for all relationships. Specifically, your Christian friends are deeply invested in things that are eternal. The most important thing in the world to them is the God who created the world, and they really want to tell you about him and how much he loves you. I’m not saying that you have to accept that and embrace it in order to have a healthy relationship with your Christian friends; I’m just saying that you should listen to them when they tell you about God. He is the most important thing in their lives, and as with the top priority in your life, that subject matter deserves to be received with respect. Sure, they may not have it all figured out, and there might be some other stuff that seems weird or false to you that comes along with the core of their beliefs, but that’s true for all of us. What’s most important for all human beings in relationship isn’t being agreed with, it’s being heard.
4. Know that your Christian friend really, really wants you to love Jesus. There, the cat’s out of the bag. All the cards are on the table. Your Christian friend wants you to become a Christian. However, it’s not so that you can be assimilated into some religious sect, but because we truly believe that in Jesus there is life and healing and peace and so much else that just can’t be found anywhere else. Think of it like this: If your friend found a huge amount of gold deep in the heart of a mountain, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Well, Jesus is much more valuable than gold, and he’s a person! This might sound weird, but being the one to “introduce” you to Jesus would be a top 10 highlight of your Christian friend’s life.
5. If you feel like your Christian friend is manipulating conversations in order to proselytize, tell them. Because we really, really want you to love Jesus, we can sometimes lose our sense of propriety in a friendship. We are, at times, also motivated by the fear that you will spend eternity apart from God in hell, and fear causes us to become desperate. This fear can lead to all sorts of strange behavior, including manipulation and becoming judgmental. If you sense that your Christian friend is doing this to you, don’t be afraid to bring it up. You could even say something like, “Listen, I know you want me to love Jesus and become a Christian, but I’m not ready for that. I understand that it’s really important to you, and that you may even be afraid for me, but I don’t want to be judged or manipulated by you. I want to be friends.” Most Christians, and most people, will respect that kind of honesty, and change their behavior accordingly.
What other insights do you have? I’d love to hear more thoughts that would apply to and from both perspectives.