Over coffee with friends following a great dinner out recently, the husband of the other couple said, “Methodist huh? That’s the next closest thing to Unitarianism.”
My mind immediately went back to a book my wife and I had read together some time back, The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, by Suzette Haden Elgin. Chapter One: The Four Basic Rules. First, Know that you’re under attack. Second, know what kind of attack you’re facing. Third, know how to make your defense fit the attack. Fourth, know how to follow through.
Our friend’s comment, as innocent as it may have seemed, was a verbal attack. But I wasn’t surprised by it, so I was not at a disadvantage. Knowing this gentleman fairly well too, I recognized that it was meant to engage us in a your faith/my faith debate. I also knew that this man was not a seriously-committed believer himself. So, I quickly formulated a defense. I chose first to draw him out more, to investigate his arsenal.
“I’ve heard that said before,” I said, “stated different ways perhaps. But how have you come to believe this about Methodists?”
“Oh, just what I’ve heard.”
Having set him up for an appropriate defense I then asked, “So, you’ve not actually inquired from any authoritative source just what Methodists do believe?”
“No, but I’ve heard from others who have, and they say that Methodists don’t know what they believe.”
Okay, I had successfully employed the first three principles. Notice, I chose not to respond indignantly or with an overly aggressive re-tart. There’s no faster way to loose a verbal argument than to loose your cool. Often, it’s exactly what your opponent wants. Remember, verbal self-defense is a Gentle Art. Questions are a great deal more gentle than statements.
“Well, I may not be the best authority on the subject, but I have been a seriously-practicing Methodist for many years now. Would you like to hear what I believe?” This was the initiation of my follow through, the fourth principle. It was an opportunity for evangelism that I was not going to pass-up on if given the invitation.
“Sure, tell me.”
“First and foremost, Methodists believe, as do other main-line Christian denominations, that Jesus Christ is our risen Lord and Savior. Unitarians may individually believe this, but for them, it isn’t bedrock. It’s bedrock for us. We believe that God will comfort, guide, and forgive every person, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. We believe that serving others and Christian faith go hand in hand. We find peace with God and spiritual fulfillment both in solitary moments of prayer and reflection, and in serving and worshiping in a community of faith. We believe in making our private and our public actions congruent with our faith. And finally, we are a connectional church that, I believe, is making a real difference in the world, not just in our local communities.”
“Yeah,” my opponent said, “but I’ve heard that Methodists don’t take a stand on important moral issues like abortion and homosexuality.”
“Methodism has established its collective positions on these and many other issues in our Social Principles, which are part of our Book of Disciplines. The social principles are based on majority opinion and they do evolve over time. But none of these are binding on our members because we recognize the great diversity of opinion out there, and we do not want to take any position that would have the effect of denying anyone from the healing, forgiving power of Christ. Perhaps you’ve heard our slogan: Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”
At that, someone else changed the subject, and I yielded the floor, so-to-speak; I had dominated the conversation long enough. But I smiled gently across the table in the direction of my opponent, mentally committing to spending more time later with this seeker of the truth.
The bottom line of of this is that, to effectively evangelize, we must be prepared with the knowledge of what we really do believe, a willingness to share what we believe, the ability to do so with conviction, and language skills. None of these come naturally or easily. They take practice. But, as disciples, that’s our calling. One never knows whose soul we might help save.
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