Are you a Christian? And does that matter?

Several weeks ago, one of my friends and fellow MWW peeps, Kelsey Timmerman, posted an entry on his blog that I think everyone should read and discuss. It’s called “Are You a Christian?” One thing that I didn’t expect when my book was published is how many people have asked me to tell them my faith story—What denomination am I? When did I come to God? What is my church background?—before they hear what the book is about. I thought the prayer topic would come first.

I admit, I am often surprised by things that, upon reflection, I realize shouldn’t surprise me. I want to believe that people aren’t judging me, that they’re simply trying to put me into some kind of category to make it easier to put what I’m about to say into context. We do it all the time—Is the speaker a man or woman? What color is she? How old? Where does she live? What does she do for a living? Do we have any friends in common? We note cultural differences, career training, even hobbies as a way to frame or evaluate the information that person is about to give us.

Gathering information isn’t bad. It reminds me of what I’ve said for years—that doubt isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It all depends on the reason you’re asking—are you trying to find a legitimate reason to reject God, or are you seeking to know Him better and draw closer?

A similar concept applies here. And I don’t know about you, but this train of thought leads me to all kinds of questions. Do we have a right to know whether someone is or isn’t a Christian? Do we get to make a judgment call about where someone is coming from or whether it’s relevant to the discussion at hand? Although the questions in and of themselves aren’t necessarily bad, when we ask them, I think we mustn’t overlook the most important one: Why does it matter? Are we merely observing, or are we limiting or stereotyping someone?

Those are some big questions worthy of reflection. And before you get offended, let me say, I’m asking this of myself, too. I absolutely like to know where people are coming from. In my better moments, my intentions are good. I like to understand the motivations behind actions, the reason people hold certain opinions. But I have to admit, sometimes I ask those questions as a way to vindicate myself, to reinforce the stereotyping I’ve already done. (See? I was right about her.)

In Kelsey’s post, he tells us that when he was talking about big, global, humanitarian issues, someone wanted to know whether he is a Christian. It made me think: would we (as Christians) use a negative answer as a way to discredit all the good he’s done, all the insights into people he has to share? Isn’t it still good, whether or not it’s motivated by his faith? Aren’t the stories about people’s lives still worth sharing, whether or not the teller is coming from the same faith tradition you are?

As the posts on Facebook (and, really, everywhere you look) focus more and more on the election, we’re in danger of a whole lot more of this kind of judgment. Of course, you can absolutely look for common ground, find people who are like-minded and know you’re not alone in your views. We all do it, and that’s part of how we build relationships and connect to others.

But don’t let the categorization of a person matter more than his (or her) actions. We’re not here on this earth to be on opposing teams. It’s not us vs. them (or at least it shouldn’t be). We’re all in this together. And even if we don’t agree, we can work side by side. I’m not someone who believes it’s my place to change someone—it is my hope that I will model the kind of generosity and kindness that will reflect the love I have for God. It’s God who will do the changing. It’s God who will open hearts and minds. It’s God who will reveal truth.

I hope that I can remember that next time I’m on Facebook. And that I will pay attention to the person—and the way he or she treats others. Because those behaviors (compassion, generosity, kindness) say a whole lot more about a person than any descriptor (Democrat/Republican, Christian/Muslim/Buddhist/Atheist) I might apply. But that’s only my opinion, and there’s a lot to think about.

I love Kelsey’s post, and I can tell you that he is genuine and empathetic, concerned and involved, loving and motivated by his compassion. He feels a great responsibility to treat each person’s story with respect and reverence, and I admire him tremendously for the work he does. (Do yourself a favor and read his article in Relevant Magazine, and you’ll see that for yourself.)

But really, this post isn’t about him. It’s about us. What do you think about these ideas? Do you or don’t you think someone else’s faith is relevant to your opinion of them and what they do? What can we do to notice the person rather than categorically applying a label? Do you think it is good to surround ourselves with like-minded people or can we learn more—and share more of our faith—when we get involved in lives of those who think or live differently than we do? Please comment. It’s a discussion I’d love to have—and I welcome opinions that are different than mine!

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