Last night I was talking to a hungry young “seeker” who has been coming to “Coffee and Theology” for four weeks now. After class each week he patiently waits for everyone from the study to leave so that he can sit down and drill me with questions. He is not antagonistic and has no intention of showing how much he knows. I appreciate his quiet, patient demeanor. However, make no mistake about it, this guy, who cannot be over twenty-three, has thought through the issues with vigor. He will catch you off guard. This is not him trying to be a wise guy. He really knows what needs to be asked. I get the sense that he can spot a phony from ten miles away. Really, he is just a postmodern seeker who has no time for naiveté. I get the sense that if he gets any more cliché, trite answers-that-rhyme, he will just seek truth elsewhere (think “it’s training time for reigning time” or “the Bible is Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth” and you will be in my boat). I get the sense that he will only seek truth in a place where he can tell that people have truly wrestled with the issues.
Chuck Swindoll taught me to do everything I could to be real. Now, sometimes I don’t know which end is up in my own life, so I cannot always define what “real” is in every circumstance. However, the point is that the time for polished answers is gone. The time when every point in the sermon starts with the same letter is history (although, I admit, I still do this sometimes!). The time for feeling the pressure to answer every question is no longer on the calendar. People want you to be real. They can spot a fake. In fact, if you have too many answers, they may get up and leave. Isn’t that odd? We don’t like people who know it all. We don’t like those who immediately respond to sincere questions – those we have wrestled with for years – with a response with a red bow on it. We like things to be a little messy. We like things to be cracked. We like things to be bare, raw, unfinished, and imperfect. Kind of a “nude” theology.
Notice, I changed from the third person (“those postmoderns”) to the first person (“we”) mid-paragraph. Why? Because I am the same. I have quite a bit of postmodern blood flowing through my system. No, not in the sense that truth cannot be found. No, not in the sense that all roads eventually lead to God. No, not in the sense that hell is not a bad place to go. But in the sense that I get quite suspicious when people think they have all the answers. Know-it-alls need Jesus too, I know. However, it is harder for me to carry on conversations with pretty-boy know-it-all fresh-out-of-seminary theologians, even when it does actually seem like they know it all!
However, there are exceptions to this. There are certain people to whom I can turn and expect a solid answer, and I don’t look at them with a raised eyebrow. Why? Because they have answered “I don’t know” a time or two before. Some people already have “real” or “not naive” tattooed on their foreheads. Some have studied enough, are wise enough, and have been through the ringer called “life” enough to have informed I-don’t-knows rather than forced and less than real answers.
As I talked to the gentleman last night and discussed a dump truck full of wonderful questions, I began to think about this very stuff. You see, most of the questions that he had, I did feel like I had answers for. Relatively speaking, they were “softball” questions. However, I started to see him distancing himself, as I could tell the ink was drying on my forehead with the word “irrelevant.” It was not the answers that I was giving that were at issue. They were tried and tested and had their backing in the best of church history and biblical scholarship. However, I needed to do something to regain his confidence. After all, how did he know that I had studied this stuff? How could he know I was not just making this up in a made-to-order fashion? He doesn’t. No one ever does. They either trust you or they don’t. And it takes a while these days to gain people’s trust, especially in my business. So I decided to throw something back at him that I did not know the answer to.
“Yeah, those are great questions, the answers to which the church is united and the Bible is pretty clear. However, related to this, you know something that I have questions about? I don’t know why God ______.” (I’ll leave it blank to keep from turning this discussion into a debate about the subject that I don’t know the answer to!)
Things like this help disarm suspicion. “Disarm” is a great word. It should be a staple in evangelism 101. We need to disarm people. We all need to be very intentional about the way we share the Gospel. We need to make concession in our belief – intentional concessions – so we can be more real. Here are some suggestions:
“Here is something I don’t have the answer to…”
“Here is the major problem with my system…” (and don’t immediately try to solve it!).
“This is something that causes me to get angry with God…” (and don’t make something up for the sake of concession, like I have done before!).
“I hold to this doctrine, but not too strongly right now.”
“There is legitimate disagreement about this, and there are people smarter than me who disagree with me. So keep that in mind.”
If you cannot think of any concession, ironically, you probably need to study more. Your theology is too dressed up. I think you get what I am saying. We just want to be real. People are smarter than we often think. They can see through our sewn together fig leaf coverings. They are suspicious that you are in denial about your own theological nudity (and some people are!). And you know what? They have every right to be suspicious. We all need to be a little more transparent. Our theology is often too dressed up, covered up, and braided. Let your hair down. Make some concessions here and there for the sake of the Gospel.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]