Peter Hitchens, a Christian and brother to the late anti-theist Christopher Hitchens, captured the soul of our situation in Europe with inspiring clarity. In an interview found in issue 64 of RELEVANT Magazine, Hitchins said this:
“This is a period of great material wealth and the worships of economic growth and the century of the self, in which religious belief is going to be in trouble. The best metaphor for the state of mind in which we find ourselves is this is the first generation of the human race which doesn’t generally see the stars at night. It has blotted them out with street lamps and car headlights and everything else. You simply can’t see the stars in most places where human beings are concentrated, and, in the same way, the triumph of consumerism and growth and the temporary joys of pleasure as a substitute for happiness blotted out the metaphorical stars of religious faith. It’s very hard to expect people who can’t see the stars to examine the significance of the stars or see their beauty.” — Peter Hitchins
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We hold our faith in Christ very dear to us. By it “we have obtained access… into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). We are aware of our own lostness and know what it is to be mercifully and totally redeemed. Christ is very much alive to us. The presence of his Spirit stirs in us a deep longing to know and experience him more.
We have seen the stars, as it were. But the secular peoples of Europe have not.
We find this to be true when we mention our work, church, bible study or even certain things about our faith in Christ with our unchurched friends and neighbors. The responses we hear range from utter indifference to the more polite “I’m happy that you found something that brings you peace/comfort/joy.” Sometimes, the responses are even laced with anger and disgust. For those of us who have seen and whose lives have been changed as result, indifference to or rejection of our claims leave us in a peculiar situation. The questions that lie at the heart of our developing missiology are actually intensely personal ones. How do I communicate the gospel to them? Do I endeavor to teach them? Should I try to convince them? Or should I just “love” them and hope that my love for them will speak for itself — let my life be my testimony? What position do I take?
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I was faced with those questions while driving with Alexa. After a few days in the Netherlands it was time for her to fly back home. She had come to find a temporary reprieve from the troubles that now waited for her on the other side of that plane ride.
Alexa was a fun person to be around – energetic, quick-witted, respectful yet engagingly sarcastic. She thought of herself as “an open book” and shared her deeply jaded past with what she called “church people”. Driving toward the airport that rainy afternoon, I decided to ask a question.
“So, feel free not to answer this question if you don’t want to but I’m really curious. It seems to me that you have some very strong, negative feelings concerning the church. Why is that?”
She hesitated. “Like I said, if you don’t want to go into it you don’t have to.”
“No,” she replied, “I’m an open book,” almost as if she was reminding herself.
What followed was a series of stories intertwined with disappointment, feelings of being judged and even feelings of hatred for what, in her view, the church of her youth had done to alienate a troubled family member; a family member who not long after took their own life.
The conversation started losing its momentum in the busyness and traffic on the A9 highway so I decided to ask one final question. I asked if she believed in God.
“You know,” she said, “I don’t know. And if he does exist, I don’t know that he really cares.”
“Well, I can see how you would doubt that,” I replied and said nothing more.
The silence was calm and long until she broke it by saying, “thank you.” She sounded surprised.
“For what,” I asked.
“For not trying to convert me.” I sensed the relief and respect in her voice.
“Look,” I began, “you’ve been with me and my family for a few days now. You know what I believe. I believe that the bible is true. I believe that God exists and that He does care for you. In fact, I believe that He cares so much for you that He gave His only son, Jesus, in order to win you back to Him and fix all that has been broken. I have experienced His love and I feel His freedom. I have had encounters with God that are beautiful and hard for me to explain.
“But you have not had those experiences… yet. I want to ask you to remember one thing. Just because you haven’t experienced something doesn’t mean that it isn’t real. It just means you haven’t experienced it yet. Just because you don’t believe you have experienced God yet, much less found Him to be loving or caring, doesn’t mean He isn’t real, isn’t loving or doesn’t care. I just want to ask you to be open to Him, even if some people who claim to be His have made that difficult for you.”
The conversation then took a lighter turn and not long thereafter I dropped her off at her gate of departure.
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I share that story with you with a great sense of vulnerability. In hindsight, there might be a few things I could have done better. Could I have been more winsome, more evangelistic? Maybe. I wish at least that I could have spoken to her again and talked more with her about the gospel. Without that my efforts feel to this day incomplete.
But in spending time with and talking to her over those few days I understood one thing clearly: she could not see the stars. She could not see the beauty and freedom of knowing Jesus, loving him and the joy of turning away from “the things of this world” in order to be more like him. With her it would have been counterproductive to try and convince her of the truth of what I had to say.
I understood that if she was ever going to see, she needed to find a good reason to look up in the first place. So I made it my goal to be one of those reasons.
I decided to speak and listen and care with all the compassion and understanding that Christ himself would give – to care enough about her to ask the questions that I did. I had to believe that the Christ would make himself known to her, to continue to draw her long after she had left the Netherlands.
No, they cannot see the stars. And as Hitchens said, it’s very hard to expect people who can’t see the stars to examine their significance or see their beauty.
And yet, our calling and the aim of our mission is clear and it is not to convince them. Rather, it is to help them see.