Dustan is twenty-seven years old and grew up in a Baptist church in Santa Cruz. When he got to high school, he switched churches and became part of the high school ministry I was leading. He became a leader in the youth ministry and influenced others. Since he was in student leadership, I spent quite a bit of time with him during his high school years. However, he ended up leaving the church in his senior year and has not returned. He no longer thinks of himself as Christian.
Dustan wants me to explain why I say that all of the Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman stories of virgin births, baptisms, and resurrected saviors that predate Jesus are just myths. He wants to know why I say that Jesus’ story is true, especially since the other stories all predate Jesus, even by as much as three thousand years.
Some people might respond to Dustan by saying, “Oh, of course those stories aren’t real; only the Bible is real,” and end the conversation there. But that wouldn’t be respectful of him. Or they might say that I should just explain to him the gospel and tell him that he shouldn’t pay attention to the other stories because they are satanic, that he’d better repent and leave it at that. But that wouldn’t be respectful of him either. I frequently ask non-Christians to read the Bible or to look into what I’m saying to see whether it is true. I have to be ready to do the same thing myself or I will be a hypocrite. I need to do some research and articulate intelligent answers to people’s claims. So I have some work cut out for me, since I have never really studied Dustan’s question before.
When discussions like the one I’m having with Dustan come up, we can be energized by knowing that we’re engaged in the lives of people who are asking us questions. We are told in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” So when Dustan asks me to give him reasons for what I believe, I need to do some homework so I can give him answers for the hope I have in Jesus, a person who is not just some mythic hero. And what is thrilling to me is that despite his questions and the fact that he isn’t part of a church, Dustan is open to talking about Jesus. Jesus is the point of the conversation.
Dustan emailed me and said, “I’m totally into debating this, just because it’s SUPER interesting to me. And growing up idolizing Jesus, I’m still fascinated by Jesus and his effect on the world.”
Jesus is not just interesting to Dustan, he is “SUPER” interesting. And I love hearing that Dustan is “still fascinated by Jesus and his effect on the world.” I’m looking forward to getting together with Dustan to compare the Jesus of the Bible with the mythic hero he is talking about.
My constant questions to church leaders are, Who are the Dustans in your life? Who are you having ongoing relationships and conversations with? Are you training the people in your church to have a missional heart? Are you creating in your church a culture that encourages people to hang out and develop relationships with those who like Jesus but not the church? And when you answer questions, do you do so with “gentleness and respect”?
It’s really an exciting time to be on the mission Jesus has sent us on. It’s thrilling to be in various church worship gatherings — on the West Coast and the East Coast, in the Midwest and in the Bible Belt — and see hundreds and sometimes thousands of people from emerging generations worshiping God and lifting up the name of Jesus. Sure, the overall outlook is not great, but I have great hope, as long as we learn how to get out of God’s way. The negative perceptions of people outside the church are hardly ever about Jesus; they are about us:
- Bill Maher, who hosted the television show Politically Incorrect, once said, “I’m a big fan of Jesus. I’m not a big fan of those who work for him.”
- Movie director Woody Allen is credited with saying, “If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he wouldn’t be able to stop throwing up.”
- Most people today are aware of the well-known quote attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “I like your Christ; I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” (Gandhi was known to frequently quote the teachings of Jesus and even had a picture of Jesus Christ on the wall over his desk.)
The people interviewed for my book They Like Jesus But Not the Church had much the same types of things to say, which is why our calling is to live out our faith in our culture so that people see that not all of Jesus’ followers fit the stereotypes.
If we ask God to change us where needed, and if we would only be the church, there is so much hope. Today I just talked on the phone with a young twenty-something who, through a relationship with someone in our church, recently put faith in Jesus at a prayer meeting. I also got an email from Molly telling me what she is learning and how she is growing in her faith and in her excitement about Jesus. Yesterday as I was driving down the road, I happened to pass the girl who was a practicing Wiccan before she was baptized. We just got an email from a mother who is part of our church telling us how one of the friends her daughter brings became a Christian over the past few months and how excited this mom was about that. Last week I got a phone call from a twenty-five-year-old homosexual asking about our church. He was thinking about coming to our worship gathering, having heard about us, but was wondering how we would feel about that. He asked me what we believe, and I explained our theological position without hiding anything from him. I also expressed how much we would welcome him into our church and that I would love to meet with him. He said he would be coming to visit, and I look forward to meeting him.
I’m not trying to suggest that our church has it all together. Believe me, if you hung around our church long enough, you would see otherwise. We struggle every single day trying to motivate people to serve the mission and on various ministry teams. We are constantly trying to keep people from thinking that the church is the worship gathering rather than the midweek community groups. Sometimes leaders don’t show up or we don’t have enough ushers or greeters. We have plenty of technical problems, and sometimes messages go too long or don’t connect. We have creative ideas for prayer stations that end up bombing. But we are passionate about constantly trying to develop a missional heart, and that’s why some people who like Jesus but not the church are giving us a chance. More than just giving us a chance, they’re giving the church in general a chance. I don’t believe people are looking for churches that are all together. They are looking for churches that care about Jesus and will care about them.
So if your church doesn’t have it all together, don’t be discouraged. If your church doesn’t have it half together, don’t be discouraged. It isn’t about the music or preaching or programs; it’s about having a missional heart, fully dependent on God’s Spirit, and not being afraid to make changes and take risks for the gospel.
Adapted They Like Jesus But Not the Church by Dan Kimball
Copyright © 2007 by Dan Kimball, published by Zondervan, used with permission.