A while back I had flown down south for a speaking gig. I was sitting in the Birmingham Airport and I was fairly exhausted. Dan Kimball's new book, They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations, which I had been reading was on the seat beside me (it has great, provocative cover art). I was (re)-listening to the audiobook version of Brian McLaren's, A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey on my iPod. This guy (a businessman by the look of him) came and sat across from me on the seats facing me. He was talking on his cell phone and I noticed that he had an iPod in his shirt pocket. After he got off the phone, he waved at me and got my attention. "What are you listening to...just music?" he asked as he pointed to my iPod. I explained that I was listening to an audiobook, and his face lit up.
It seems that he listened to audiobooks too, and was quite a connoisseur. We chatted about that a while, and then , in an odd coincidence, we both got calls on our cell phones. When we got off our phones, he pointed at Kimball's book and asked me what it was about. I explained the premise, and we launched into a conversation about faith. Apparently, his wife and son are both very "religious", and from what I can tell, very evangelical and conservative (theologically and politically). He was not any of these things, and quite frankly couldn't understand them. He told me that I seemed like an intellegent guy and then asked how people could be all over the spectrum on faith...you know...from militant atheists (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, etc) to mindless Jim Jones cult members who drink poisoned Kool-aid. We talked about all of this for a while. In our conversation, I told him that I did not believe that God or faith could be empirically proven or disproven and that both atheists and believers at some point in their lives make a decision whether or not to believe and generally spend the rest of their lives building a case to support that decision. He seemed pleasantly surprised to hear me say this, and also seemed to resonate with it.
At some point in our conversation, it was announced that our flight was running late. Eventually, they called for us to line up. By this point in our dialogue, we were discussing some of his criticisms of Christianity as he had seen it. Oddly enough, I didn't even feel the slightest bit defensive. I simply listened. I agreed with many of his criticisms because they were valid. In some cases I offered different theological perspectives that actually confirmed or allowed for his criticism. In a few places, (but just a few) I suggested that his perspective might be off and offered some context to clarify. By this point, we were in line and another guy (another businessman by the look of him) joined into our conversation. When we began to board, guy #2 (I'm choosing not to use their names here) said he was really enjoying our discussion and asked if we could sit together on the flight and continue it (we were flying Southwest, which has open seating on their planes). Guy #2 was also still recovering from a major back injury and asked me to help him with his bag. We continued our conversation on the flight, and by the time we landed we felt like old friends. As we stood, they both pulled out business cards and handed them to me so we could keep in touch. Unfortunately, I had forgotten mine so I told them I 'd shoot them an email so that they could have my information. Guy #1 said that would be great because we'd be able to recommend audiobooks back and forth to each other. They hurried out into the terminal while I got Guy #2's bag out of the overhead compartment. Since the flight was about 20 minutes late I had to run off to catch my connecting flight. I handed off guy #2's bag and told them how much I had enjoyed talking with them but I had to run to catch my flight. Guy #1 called out after me and said "Seriously, don't forget to email me. You are the only religious person I have ever enjoyed talking to. I'd really like to keep the conversation going." I consider that one of the highest compliments I have ever been given in my life.
I don't tell you this story to brag or to give you some kind of "evangelism methodology". If anything, I was ill-prepared and not really all that open to it at first (remember, I had headphones on). I have emailed back and forth a few times with Guy #1 and the conversation is still going, but to my knowledge he hasn't made any faith commitment yet, and he may never. Our developing friendship doesn't hinge on whether or not he makes that decision. My point is this: he is an honest, truth seeking person who is interested in the good of the world. His major objections to Christianity were generally based on his experience with Christians that in many ways seemed to be moving the world in the opposite direction. He didn't need to be argued with. He didn't need to have the "correctness" of God and Christianity logically proven to him. He certainly didn't need a high-pressure sales pitch. He needed to be listened to. He needed dialogue. He needed affirmation. He needed perspective and context. Most evangelism methodology would not have allowed for any of this. In a recent email reflecting on our airport conversation, he said this:
" It is refreshing to see, in you, a different take on faith, than the box that I had lumped most evangelical Christians in to. It gives me hope that there must be many more out there like you, searching for their own interpretation of "why" and as you pointed out "what".
We need a whole new crop of open minded thinkers like you if your generation is going to solve the real issues on this Planet. War, mass hunger, rampant diseases such as AIDs, and the biggee Global Warming. Unfortunately for you, our generation was clueless and made it our mantra to "live for today" and to not think of the Planet as an expendable resource.
Best of luck in your life. If you ever write anything that you would like an objective ear, or need a "wise man's" opinion on career or life path, please feel free to contact me. I have been lucky to have had many completely different lives and I love dishing out free advice. "
Though I'm not totally sure why, this exchange has given me hope. God is still working in the world, and he continues to use us in spite of ourselves.