For many of the non-Christians in our survey and focus groups—people who have left or never been part of church—that scene illustrates an ideal world where religions peacefully coexist. I get how they feel. Growing up in a very diverse religious, racial, and cultural neighborhood, my friends and I each had our own beliefs. No one had to hide their traditions. And certainly no one ever compelled others to accept their faith. It all seemed pretty simple.
For me things got complicated when I started wondering which if any religion was real and true. One day in college, I came to believe the words of Jesus, who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). Once persuaded of that truth, I suddenly found the stakes higher for me and everyone around me. It mattered to me whether they believed who Jesus is and what He had done for them at the cross. I went from person to person passing along His words that He was the one and only way to heaven. I will not say I always did that perfectly or even tactfully, but I do not doubt my goal was right.
Many non-Christians would take issue with my newfound beliefs and actions. Just under half of our phone survey participants (42%) agreed that “There are lots of religions, and I’m not sure only one has to be the right way.”
Across our focus groups, we heard people say they are happy to leave Christians alone in our beliefs, even if those beliefs are delusions, many added. A man in Phoenix said, “If they want a false hope, or they need some sort of hope in their life, Santa Claus, to get through, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
A few indicated they might be open to developing some sort of faith in their own time and way. One guy cracked, “If I wake up tomorrow and see the Virgin Mary in my pancake and decide that this is something I’ve been missing out of my life since I’ve been born, and I want to learn the practices of Christianity and all that, conversion is something that’s my decision, and I’m fine with that.”
But despite this apparent openness, there was a universal boundary not to be crossed. Our focus-group participants unanimously agreed that it was wrong for Christians to advocate their faith, especially the claim that Jesus is the only way to reach God. The guy waiting for the face of Mary in his flapjacks said this:
“What I don’t like is it’s saying that they believe that the only way to Heaven is by being born again and accepting Jesus Christ. That I don’t like because if I feel that even though there are elements of Christianity that I identify with and I like, but there are elements of Buddhism that I also identify with. So, I don’t really think that I belong to any organized religion but I do feel spiritual, I feel a connection to God. When I pass I want to be with God. I want to be in Heaven that I believe in. Having someone tell me, ‘Oh, no, no, no you think you’re going to have a relationship with God but unless you’re born again and accept Jesus, that’s not happening for you.’ That I don’t like.”
Many people in our focus groups had fundamental disagreements with the Christian faith about who goes to heaven or hell:
A young guy from Austin shared: “When I got to college I joined a fraternity, met one of my pledge brothers and he’s from Long Island. He’s Jewish, his whole family is Jewish, they all stay kosher, all these things. I was thinking about it, he’s a really good friend of mine and I was just thinking about it. One of the reasons the Bible, not the Bible necessarily but religion, tells me that he’s supposed to go to hell because he doesn’t believe in Jesus. I just don’t understand things like—that’s just a personal experience of how it’s hard for me to reconcile someone who I believe is a good person.”
A San Francisco woman said: “I’m comfortable not knowing what happens when we die, that sort of thing. That’s my stance. I guess I’m agnostic.”
And then there was this from a woman in Phoenix: “If Jeffrey Dahmer was on his last dying breath and was honestly, truly sorry in his heart, that he’d get let into the gates of heaven and sit down at the table and eat with all of us people that have tried to do right…. I don’t care how much he asks for forgiveness, I don’t want to sit at the table with him. If there’s a third option, I want to go there.”
People who spoke up in our focus groups clearly want freedom to pick and choose from various spiritual beliefs, keeping what they consider valuable and relevant and rejecting the rest. Like people scooping up food at a buffet, they consider it their right to take it or leave it:
Austin guy: “I also don’t think it’s necessary to believe in the myth of Resurrection or even God in order to take His teachings as a philosophy. I don’t think it’s necessary to believe in supernatural occurrences, just to understand the point of His teachings.”
A woman in Boston recalled: “We had a youth pastor who basically was very young and hip, and he sat down and the first thing he said to us was, ‘The Bible is a book of stories written by men, interpreted by men, and it’s just to help us understand our faith.’ And so, of course, that got me to think, ‘Oh, this is just a book of stories. This isn’t necessarily the Word of God.’ We all had this very inquisitive group…It was very open, learning about other faiths and being inquisitive about how our faiths are tied together, rather than what separates us. That’s at 14, I started learning about that. My mom was nontraditional, into metaphysics, and so when I started having these questions, then I started asking her, ‘What are these other faiths?’ and ‘What goes on?’ She really was the one who helped me to understand metaphysics, universalism, Buddhism, all of these other things.”
And people take issue not just with the Christian message—what we say—but how we say it. Some prefer we simply keep our beliefs to ourselves:
The same Boston woman shared: “Then there’s [sic] other people that I’ve encountered that have tried to force the Word down my throat and tell me that I’m going to go to hell.”
A guy from Phoenix said, “I think a big thing for me, at least, is when people are so out with their religion where it’s just so in your face and it’s so pushy on me. I really don’t like that. It really turns me off. Even when it’s not forceful. I find it odd sometimes because I think that your relationship with God and religion is just something that you should share with yourself and God. I don’t think that it’s something that should always be talked about and always be out there.”
These comments all ring true with what I hear all the time as I encounter people as a pastor and in everyday life. So how do we respond? Do we shut up, ramp it up… or maybe change our approach? We will explore this more in upcoming daily devotionals.