Note: This article is part of a special Patheos Symposium, Passing on the Faith: Teaching the Next Generation. Read more perspectives here.
Whatever religion you practice or profess, talking about your faith can be a sticky business. Some people aren't comfortable discussing religion at all. Others are so determined to gain converts that they won't listen to any other views. For Bahá'ís, sharing our faith without proselytizing is an important, but tricky, balancing act. How do you convey the passion that fuels your faith without making others uncomfortable? How do you invite people to explore other viewpoints without being pushy? How do you cope when someone puts down beliefs that are close to your heart?
Growing up as a Bahá'í, I remember how hard it was sometimes to discuss my faith. My hometown was predominantly white and Protestant. Belonging to a religion filled with Middle Eastern names and a universal outlook was, to put it mildly, "weird." I had some wonderful Christian friends, but I was told by others that I was destined to burn in hell. It didn't matter that Bahá'ís believe in Christ and the Bible. My beliefs didn't fit their definition of "Christian"; therefore, I was doomed to eternal damnation.
That's a lot to take in as a kid. I didn't believe it, but refuting that notion without becoming confrontational was challenging. And dealing with feelings of rejection—especially the rejection of a faith that was so dear to me—was also difficult.
Recently, I found myself in the position of coaching my daughter through a similar experience with one of her close friends. It made me realize how far I've come in sharing my faith more naturally and letting people have their opinions without letting them upset me.
Here are some lessons I've learned:
Be open to faith-based conversations, especially with your friends. When you belong to a minority faith, it can be easy to feel nervous when people bring up religion. But a lot of that feeling can be mitigated by your attitude. If you love your faith, there must be some pretty cool things about it. If you see a spiritual conversation with someone as an opportunity to share and learn what's awesome about each other's beliefs, it's a lot less daunting when someone brings up religion.
My daughter and her friend had to learn to navigate disagreements about certain aspects of religion. But they also learned that you can always find common ground, and that even when you disagree, spiritual discussions can be bonding. The conversation is the important thing.
Don't be afraid to tell people what you believe. Everyone has beliefs about life, death, and our purpose in this world, and sharing those beliefs is a natural part of sharing yourself with others. When you think of it that way, faith becomes a natural part of everyday conversation. Simply put, sharing "you" with the world includes sharing what you believe. And that's awesome. That's real. It's nothing to be afraid of.
In addition, sharing yourself with others—your beliefs, your questions, your joy, your talents—will help you create relationships that can deepen into true friendships. When you're connected with others, sharing your faith usually comes naturally. It doesn't have to be a chore, or something separate from normal life.
Let people have their opinions, and don't take them personally. My faith is incredibly important to me, and it can be painful when people reject it or attack it. But I've learned that people hold onto their beliefs and opinions for a wide variety of reasons, very few of which have anything to do with me or my faith. I've learned to share my beliefs without expecting people to accept or embrace them. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. But I share them because they are real to me, because they make sense to me, and because I see the value in them. Others may not see those things, or they may take years to understand them. We all have our own journey, and we must respect others as they tread their spiritual path.
Listen and learn. It's so easy to believe that we have the right answers, the right beliefs, the "true" faith. But we all have a lot to learn from each other. As a Bahá'í, I believe that all of the world's major religions come from one God. So I love it when people quote the Bible, or share the wisdom of the Buddha, or explain the pillars of Islam in their conversations with me.Each faith tradition has beautiful aspects we can incorporate into our own spiritual lives. I've learned to see each discussion about religion not only as a chance to share my own faith, but an opportunity to take spiritual lessons away as well.
How do you approach sharing your faith?