Christian witness is emphasizes everywhere in Paul’s letters, the Gospels and the Books of Acts. In the Gospel of Matthew we are called to be salt and light to the world. Evangelical Christians, and mainline Christians in a former time, have taken that witness to be one of sharing in personal story what God can do, what God has done and what we can do together with God’s assistance and direction. In more recent times mainline Christians have shifted their emphasis away from such storytelling to demonstrating their witness in action, a nod to Micah 6 and Matthew 25. Wherever we see one in need we see Christ and thus we respond. Our hope is that when others see our witness they know God is present and will want to join us.
Why this shift? Evangelicals are troubled by what they see and name as a kind of embarrassment in speaking the truth of the Gospel. I remember one such man asking me if I was ashamed of Jesus because I would not turn to those on my bus rides and plane trips and share the Good News of Jesus. While I do not agree with my evangelical friends that we mainline Christians are embarrassed about Jesus I do think they have a point that if our talk rarely mentions God or Jesus or the Spirit the listener would have no reason to connect our deeds with our motivation. We in mainline churches have to get better at finding a way to talk about faith, in a way that is authentic to us.
My frustration with my evangelical friends is how tone deaf they can be about how their God talk is heard and where it is heard. Given how much baggage there is out there where the language of God was used to justify the subjugation of women, the way the Gospel got confused with white European culture and shoved down the throat of peoples all over the world (the British Empire does not equal Christianity!), the way the Christian message has been used to make those born with orientations other than the majority feel inferior at best and evil at worst, is it any wonder those who hear Christians talk about their faith have a skeptical ear. This is the reason those of us in the mainline churches have been rewording and rethinking how we talk about our faith, why we would prefer to demonstrate our faith in action over words.
Still that approach is getting dated. Why women and men my age and older love to talk about the diversity of God’s expression and push the church to accept new ways of being church there has emerged a whole generation of younger women and men who do not carry any baggage with reference to Christianity. They are rightly confused when their questions about what we United Church people believe are met with, “we certainly don’t believe what those people believe.” Study series by Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong that remind us what silly things Christians have said and done (all accurate) do not answer the seeker’s question, “what do you believe?”
In this post-Christian age we mainline Christians find ourselves in an interesting place, we longer have the state to do our work for us (in schools, public spaces, institutions) but we also are free to talk and walk our faith without the baggage of what we did when we and the state were one caused such terrible heartache. I sometimes think that mainline folks who mourn the loss of public prayer in the classroom and Merry Christmas greetings on MP cards aren’t lamenting that now they have to do the work of sharing their faith, they can’t leave it to others.
St. Francis is supposed to have said that we ought to go about the world preaching the Gospel at all times and all places and when necessary use words. But sometimes words are needed. I look forward to learning from others and sharing with others what those words will be.