An interview about my book “I’m OK — You’re Not.”

An interview about my book “I’m OK — You’re Not.” June 15, 2010

Below is an interview done with me by upon the publication of I’m OK. What’s the main message of “I’m OK–You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Nonbelievers and Why We Should Stop”?

John Shore: It’s that endeavoring to fulfill the Great Commission with people who haven’t first asked to hear about Christ necessarily means violating Jesus’ Great Commandment to us to love our neighbors. I’m saying that in terms of practical applications, the Great Commission and the Great Commandment are too often like two trains trying to merge onto one track. It just becomes a wreck.

CB: Why? How do you mean that?

JS: Jesus’ Great Commandment to us is to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, right?—to love them absolutely and unconditionally, as He loves us. That’s our job; that’s what Christ told us was the complete encapsulation of all of his laws and commandments to us. The Great Commandment is the prime directive for us; it’s basically the entire Bible boiled down into one statement. We must love our neighbors. Well, if I try to talk into becoming a Christian a person who, for whatever reason, has already decided that they don’t want to become a Christian, then odds are exceptionally good that I will repel that person away from me. Because no matter how artfully or lovingly it’s put to them, the fact is that no one on this planet likes being told they’re wrong about stuff they believe—and (and this is a thing I think it’s sometimes too easy for we Christians to forget) everyone has their own thoughts and convictions on all the Big Life Issues, such as God, death, the nature of the soul, morality, etc. And if you’re telling someone that what you believe about those things is more valid than whatever they believe about those things, then the bottom line is that you’re telling them they’re plain, flat-out wrong. And that’s sure to alienate from you whomever you’re talking to. And then your relationship with that person will terminate. And unless you’re willing to get into seriously tweaking of the meaning of the word “love,” that means you just broke the Great Commandment with that person, since no one can love anyone with whom they have no relationship at all.

CB: That brings up two interesting points; first, modern evangelism (as opposed to traditional evangelism) seems to be what you are battling here, which I don’t have a problem with — modern evangelism has gotten woefully off track over the last century, and if you’re not going to do it right then don’t do it at all. I feel that this is why we need more evangelists in the traditional mold. Secondly, though, since you feel that most Americans have heard the Gospel, you say that we should let the chips fall as they may, thus exhibiting true love for those who have chosen not to accept the message. But, if they have received an insufficient portion of the Gospel (which many over the last century have received due to many factors, including misunderstanding the message, incorrect emphasis on nonessentials, or just plain bad evangelism techniques), wouldn’t loving our neighbor extend to making sure that they have received a full, complete, and loving presentation of the true Gospel?

JS: It certainly would. I am absolutely in favor of every single person on this planet receiving a full, complete and loving presentation of the true gospel. What Christian would say differently? But I’d like a lot of things that I can’t have. I’d love to fly. I’d love to turn invisible at will. I’d love bacon to be good for me. But at some point what we desire always has to bang into what’s actually true and possible. And the reality of my desire for everyone to know the gospel must run into the reality of what happens whenever I try (and however artfully or carefully or subtly or lovingly I try) to “share” the gospel with a nonbeliever–which is to say evangelize to a nonbeliever, which is to say try to turn someone who isn’t a Christian into a Christian. And the reality of that effort is that it’s bound to fail, because people (and remember that here we’re only talking about people who for whatever reason have already decided against becoming Christian) simply do not respond well to being insulted. And telling someone they’re wrong for believing whatever they believe about something as important as the Humongous Universal Issues that any religion or moral system addresses is about as insulting as anything you can say to a person. It can’t help but make you come across as condescending and disrespectful–as just about anything but loving. (Notwithstanding that we Christians, as I’m certainly aware, only mean it lovingly when we try to share the gospel.) How is that helping? How is that not violating the Great Commandment?

CB: Are you saying that (except for totally unevangelized parts of the world) there is no way of presenting a full, complete, and loving presentation of the true Gospel?

JS: I’m glad you included as a caveat the totally unevangelized parts of the world, since like any Christian I certainly do feel that the gospel should be most heartily shared with anyone and everyone who has virtually never heard it. Those people, however–people who have never heard of Jesus Christ–sure don’t live in America. Or if they do, I have no idea where they are. The great news for all of us is that the Great Commission has been fulfilled in this country. Just about anyone we’d stop to talk to on the street is already familiar with at least the basics of our faith: That Jesus was God in human form; that he was born of a virgin; that he performed miracles; that he died on the cross in atonement for our sins; that he was resurrected. Everyone knows those core fundamentals of our religion. And there are two kinds of people who know that stuff and are not Christian: Those who for whatever reason have decided they don’t want to be Christian, and those who are still open to the idea of becoming Christian. To the latter group–that is, to those who have somehow communicated to us that they’re open to hearing the Good News–we should of course share our hearts out about Christ. Because they’ve essentially asked for that input. That’s an entirely different dynamic than the one I’m talking about in this book, which is that wherein we try to evangelize to people in the former group–to those who already know they don’t want to be Christian. There, we fail–there it’s not possible to present a full, complete and loving presentation of the Gospel. We can try doing that, of course–but as any of us who ever has tried it knows, it’s going to fail. Because the other person isn’t going to hear our beautiful message. What they’re going to hear is … well, in “I’m OK,” I present statements from over 50 non-believers from all over the country, each of whom relates what exactly they did hear and feel when in their past Christians tried to “evangelize” to them. Those testimonies make for some deeply sobering reading. The bottom line is that we break the Great Commandment every time we really make a point, or try in some concerted, purposeful way, to talk a nonbeliever into becoming a Christian. (And that is what evangelizing is, even though a lot Christians–and especially, I’ve noticed, a lot of Christian leaders–try to pretend that that’s somehow not what evangelizing is, which I think is in and of itself telling.) Because no matter how lovingly we mean what we’re saying, the other person is still going to feel (at the very least) disrespected by our telling them that they’re horribly wrong for not believing the same thing we do. And love without respect isn’t a kind of love any of us would want for ourselves. Love without respect is no love at all; it’s patronizing. And I’m pretty sure Jesus never enjoined us to be patronizing to our neighbors.

CB: But most of the non-believer testimonies clearly indicate that those individuals do not have an accurate grasp on what the core of Christianity or proper evangelism is. (Sample quotes from these testimonies include: “[Christians tell people] ‘You’re bad, and wrong, and evil’…”, “I found that mainstream Christian religion did not offer the support I needed…”, “Didn’t Jesus preach that we should all love one another?”, “I grew up learning the positive message of Christ: Do well and treat others with respect…”, “Constantly telling someone they’re going to hell is not a good way to convert them.”, “The Christian emphasis needs to fall back to human compassion, not the need to be right.”, “I’m frequently approached by Christians…who ask whether I’ve accepted Christ as my savior.”, “…follow the Ten Commandments to find peace in your own life…accept that you are…exactly where you need to be…”, “‘…if you don’t follow [the Christian religion, then you’re evil, and are going to hell.'”, “…a God who would send people to hell was simply too cruel for me to believe in.”, “I…would like it if people…didn’t try to push [their values] on me.”, “I can’t ignore everything I know intellectually…and simply replace it with faith.”) Wouldn’t that lack of knowledge of the Gospel put them back into the “unevangelized” column?

JS: Well, two things. First, you really took those small lines out of context. The thing that makes those statements so trenchant and impactful is that they’re so clearly thoughtful, and good-natured. (In their most recent issue, in fact, Outreach magazine said these statements make “I’m OK” “a must-read not just for pastors, but for anyone who has a passion for the Gospel, yet lacks the ability to see the Church as others often see it.”) I don’t think you meant to, here you have kind of made it sound as if in their statements the non-believers are just ranting or raging in a one-dimensional, irrational sort of way. That’s hardly the case. Secondly, even in the little quotes you’ve culled, I’m seeing a lot of stuff that isn’t … debatable in any way. You know? They’re just … simple facts and truths about what these people have experienced. The one lady didn’t get the support that she needed from the Christian churches to which she went. Jesus did preach that we should love one another. Constantly telling someone they’re going to hell isn’t a good way to convert them (and, in any account, all we’re doing is presenting that person’s opinion; we’re not evaluating these statements at all). That one person really does feel as if she’s frequently approached by Christians who ask her if she’s accepted Jesus Christ as her savior. That other person did find the Christian God too cruel to believe in. The one person would like it if people would stop pushing their values onto her. These are all just … rational, subjective realities and experiences for these people; these really have been their experiences with Christians. There just … facts, like that. I’m not sure how what they’re saying–even in this highly-edited version of what they’re saying–shows that these people remain “unevangelized.” But maybe I’m missing something you’re saying?

CB: Let me put it another way: You have offered these anecdotes as proof to support your underlying premise that evangelism doesn’t work. These are those people’s actual experiences, and some of the points they make are true in their experience. But by examining their experiences (or feelings about their experiences) one can look for clues as to whether they had been properly evangelized. And going by what they actually wrote (admittedly, they were edited for emphasis and space, but I don’t think the edits contained any bias either way as the intention was for their words to speak for themselves), the problems that they had were inconsistent with an accurate Gospel message. I touched briefly on traditional Evangelism as opposed to modern evangelism, and this illustrates it very well – the modern Gospel (with it’s Christian jargon and polarizing ‘God has a wonderful plan for your life’ and ‘sinners burn in hell’ extremes) does a disservice to non-Christians. The Gospel is not about the things mentioned in the anecdotes (getting support, ‘only’ loving one another, the aforementioned burning in hell, using Christianese, pushing values, or incorrectly addressing core elements of the faith correctly, like God’s justice in the ‘cruel God’ vignette, or evil), which makes it difficult to understand how they can be used to bolster your premise. If (and I am using this hypothetically, so please bear with me) American non-Christians are not properly evangelized – if they haven’t been given enough information to adequately make up their minds on this subject – should we still leave off evangelizing them or could they then be considered unevangelized and therefore part of a valid missions field?

JS: Well, do let me be clear that these testimonies from people who in the book I call “Normies” are tangential to the book itself. There’s about five of their statements at the end of each of the book’s ten chapters (under the heading, “Ouch”) and … that’s it. They’re just randomly presented statements from nonbelievers talking about their experience with Christians trying to evangelize them. (I say in the beginning of the book how I went about collecting these statements; I hardly put out a call for Especially Damaged or Particularly Incensed nonbelievers.)

But do let me see if I understand what you’re saying. Are you saying that, yes, these people (and by extension, everyone who essentially shares their experience and assessment of what it’s like to be evangelized) have, in fact, been clearly wronged or in some way transgressed upon by Christians who tried to evangelize to them–but that the discord that resulted between them and the Christians who spoke with them is not due (as “I’m OK” says it is) to the very nature of the evangelical encounter or dynamic, but rather to the fact that whomever evangelized to these people simply did it wrong? Have I understood correctly that that’s what you’re saying? That if the evangelizers had said something other than what they did, the Normies with whom they were speaking might not have been so … whole-heartedly repelled by what they said?

CB: Yes; if what they (as a people-group, not just as individuals) have been presented with is not the Gospel, then aren’t they, by definition, unevangelized?

JS: That’s a strange kind of logic, though. That’s like saying, “If every time you’ve been beat up it hurt, then that just means you’ve never beat up right.” But getting beat up always hurts. Having someone tell me that I need to adapt their belief system as my own (when, again, I haven’t in any way signaled that I’m open to that transformation) is always going to be offensive to me. It’s always going to strike me as being intrusive and condescending. Unless you know of some special way to evangelize that doesn’t involve communicating to the nonbeliever that they really need to, or definitely should, become Christian, then I can’t understand what kind of message you’d send that’s different enough from what all the other Christian evangelizers are saying that it wouldn’t necessarily come across as arrogant and obnoxious (even though of course you would certainly not mean it that way). I mean, how many ways are there to present the gospel, to communicate who Christ was and is? It’s not an especially complicated truth. But maybe there’s a better way of saying it that I’ve just never heard, read, or been taught by anyone.

CB: Which evangelism methods did you consider while researching for your book? Are there any that you are coming against specifically by writng “I’m OK…”? You don’t include a bibliography, but what resources did you find most helpful in your research?

JS: Beyond the “Normie” testimonies that I collected, and the studies and data that I use (and of course credit) in the second chapter of the book–material that as far as I can tell proves that, despite the 50 to 60 billion dollars a year George Barna tells us our churches annually spend on domestic ministry, we’re not gaining any more converts at all–I didn’t do any formal research for this book. It just wouldn’t have made any sense for me to research different evangelical “methods.” Doing that would be like writing a book about exactly how and why it is that when cars run over styrofoam cups they smash those cups–and then doing research on what sorts of cars smash styrofoam cups when they run over them. They all do. Research over. It doesn’t matter how you say or put it, if in any way you communicate to another person that they’ve made a mistake for not choosing Christianity over whatever it is they have chosen to believe in, then you have been disrespectful to that person. Which means that with them you have broken the Great Commandment. What’s to be “researched” there? There you’re just dealing with core truths about the nature of human interaction. Telling someone who’s not a Christian that they should be is what evangelizing is. And there can only be so many ways to say that exact same thing. It’s just not a … research-type book.

That said, though, I did spend some time on the websites of four popular evangelical programs: Alpha Course, Campus Crusade for Christ, Evangelism Explosion International, and Way of the Master. Relative to any sort of unique “evangelical method,” I honestly didn’t see anything even almost new on any of these sites. How could I have? There is nothing new in that universe. There can’t be. If you’re trying to share the gospel, and you speak English, then there are only so many words you can use. And no matter how you mix those words up, what you’re always going to in fact be saying is, “You need to change.” Which people don’t like to hear. We Christian’s don’t. Why we expect anyone else to?

CB: In your Q&A section you mention the guilt and shame associated with sin as humankind’s main spiritual hurdle. What is your understanding of sin as pertaining to how we convey to nonbelievers its seriousness?

JS: I’m glad you mentioned the Q & A section, because only the first third of “I’m OK” is specifically about the relationship between the Great Commission and the Great Commandment; it just doesn’t take that long to establish that the Great Commandment basically outranks the Great Commission. (In the book I say, “Besides, doesn’t a Great Commandment totally trump a Great Commission? Isn’t it a much bigger deal to be commanded to do something than it is to be commissioned to do it? If you arrived at your office one day to find five grim, strapping guys in dark suits waiting for you, and one of them stepped forward and said, ‘We are from the government of the United States of America, and you have been officially commissioned to do something for us,’ you’d be mighty impressed, for sure. But if that same guy said, ‘We are from the government of the United States of America, and you have been officially commanded to do something for us,’ you’d have a heart attack. The first statement was pretty darn dramatic. The second . . .… well, killed you.”) The second third of the book is about exploring what the Great Commandment really is. Saying that we want to fulfill the Great Commandment hardly lets us off the hook; this section goes into why and how that’s true. And the final third of the book has to do with how, once you have established a real and trusting relationship with any given Normie, you might want to go about actually talking to them about your faith and religion; it’s basically filled with some ideas about Normies that we might do well to bear in mind as, together with them, we begin to explore our mutual beliefs and attitudes about God and spirituality and so on. And the last part of that third of the book is the Q&A you mentioned, in which I posit the specific arguments against Christianity that are most typically posed to us by nonbelievers–the same arguments about the faith that all we Christians always hear. Such questions are good and fair; it’s here that I present good and fair answers to them. Christianity is a rational faith, and these are ways to discuss it without having to resort to the kinds of language non-Christians often find so alienating.

I believe the specific passage to which you’re here referring occurs on the book’s page 154, where I posit that the question about our faith we’ve been asked is: “All Christians ever seem to think about is sin. It’s a sin to have premarital sex, to curse, to be gay, to watch certain movies . . .… it’s like they think it’s a sin to be human. How can that be healthy?” To which I say … well, this:

“A: Be gone, spawn of Satan! No . . .… wait, wait: Scratch that response. The correct answer is: Yes, we Christians are indeed very concerned with sin—but not in the way that people usually think that we are. Perhaps we haven’t been clear enough about making this distinction, but for Christians, sin isn’t just the things people do—it’s what people are. To us, being born human means that by our very natures we must sin; the tendency to be selfish, greedy, lazy, arrogant, nasty little sensation-grubbers—to, in other words, put our own needs before those of anyone else, including God’s—comes absolutely hardwired into our DNA. (And, lest we forget, to a considerable degree it’s also how we survive.) The kinds of behaviors that reflect so poorly upon us are caused by our being naturally programmed to behave in exactly those ways. That’s what we mean when we say that people are born sinners: We really do mean born. Which means that all of us are also born destined to suffer the inevitable consequence of our ‘natural’ sinning, which (among a lot of other awful consequences) is guilt. Guilt is natural to every human, because acting like a complete jerk is natural to every human. And for us, escaping from the interminable, cyclical nightmare of guilt and shame is where, thank God, Christ comes in.”

CB: Outside of the painfully obvious (“Tell me about Jesus!”), what non-verbal clues do you feel could be taken to indicate that an unbeliever is willing to raise the discussion to where evangelism is possible? Do you think we should wait until they ask the questions verbally or, in the case of more reserved or timid individuals, are there indicators that we can look or listen for so we can take the conversation to the next level?

JS: Well, people are people. You can always tell when someone’s open to a real or serious discussion with you about your faith. You just have to be sensitive to other people’s signals, the same as we all are, all the time, in all of our communications with other people. Mostly I think what Christians have to do is be aware of the fact that non-Christians are always just waiting for the moment when any given Christian they know starts trying to convert them. Because if you’re not a Christian, you’ve been evangelized to so many times–you’ve so often had a Christian get in your face about what you believe, and how you should believe, and how you’re going to hell for not believing what they believe–that basically you cringe inside whenever you’re around someone whom you know to be Christian, because you know it’s just a matter of time until that person starts trying to turn you into a Christian. It’s just … painful. So to my mind, about the main thing today’s Christian has to be very careful to do is work against that stereotype. I honestly think the very best way to evangelize is not to evangelize at all. Just live your life. Be true to God. Be someone whom other people just naturally admire and respect. Anyone who is honorable, kind, thoughtful, and honest will draw others to them. And it’s a real challenge to be honorable, kind, thoughtful, and honest. It’s such a challenge that anyone serious about becoming the kind of person God means for them to be has enough on their plate, right there, to stop worrying about what other people are doing. We should tend to our business, and let God handle the business of others. I think we can trust that he’s up to that job.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • mark

    As always, well-reasoned, insightful, to-the-point (in a necessarily rambling way). Hey, did you realize that you were evangelizing your point on evangelizing the other way to someone who wasn't buying it. Hmmm, I kind of doubt that you were able to gain a convert on that day!

    Since there is nothing that I could add that would be anything other than expansion of the same theme, I have a few off-the-wall questions.

    1) How's Cat doing?

    2) If she felt up to it, would there be any way to convince her to write something for the site? She puts up with you; she must be interesting as anything else that might show up on these pages.

    3) How do you feel about fruit burritos?

  • denver

    It seems like the interviewer was hell-bent on trying to get you to admit, "You know, you're right, if these people had been properly evangelized to, then they'd have converted! It's a do-over! They don't count as having heard the gospel because they didn't hear it properly! And I know every evangelist out there knows how to do it better than every other Christian who ever tried before, so have at 'em!" …or something. I envision the interviewer as being a very annoying evangelist. LOL… but I think you held your ground well!

    PS… you really eat the burritos frozen??! And I thought my friend was odd for eating ramen noodles uncooked… XD

  • I highly recommend heating the frozen burritos.

  • I was wondering if anyone would say that. But, no: I prefer them frozen. I think you know I’m into building bridges. So, in my own little way, I like to think that, by gnawing frozen burritos, I’m building a bridge between Mexicans and Eskimos. Hey, man. Don’t thank me. It’s what I do.

  • Ally

    T’is my humble opinion that there is a difference between being open about your faith vs. being brazen about your faith. I have no issue stating that I believe in god during a discussion of any kind. It gives some background as to your view and lays the groundwork for your comments. Being open and honest, while respecting the views and backgrounds of others, goes a long way for a “witness.” As opposed to accosting people on the street with a color-laden brochure detailing hell.

  • Angie

    I had only gotten bits and pieces about the Great Commandment vs.the Great Commission and why you think we shouldn't evangelize. So now I have the full picture and can appreciate your views better. I can even say "I'm with you on this one" now.

    Ally, I agree with your opinion as well. We have to become more sophisticated — or maybe just more human — about the way we engage people. Not backing down or being timid but balancing that with respect and a genuine interest in the other person's viewpoint.

  • Ace

    I like their handmade chicken burritos better, myself. Trader Joes is awesome though.

  • I used to work at Trader Joe’s. One of the worst jobs I ever had. Terrible, terrible place. Was then, anyway.