It started over dinner when Bill* said something to me that seemed like
"Here's my theory," he said, squeezing lemon over thinly filleted perch.
Then he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially: "I think man created
God, not the other way around."
I winced and probably even recoiled.
"Oops, did I get you with the lemon?" he asked, looking genuinely
I was surprised he didn't know what was wrong. His "theory" was as unwelcome
to my ears as acid would have been in my eyes, and I suspect he knew it. Bill
enjoyed goading me about my faith, baiting me with provocative comments that
showed his indifference--even hostility--to the gospel. But this time I tried a
"Hmm ... tell me what you mean," I replied, forcing myself not to go on the
defensive. I shoved a bite of fish into my mouth and tried to look pleasantly
interested. Skeptics usually brought out the fighter in me. It was hard to give
Bill airtime when I wanted so badly to go one-on-one.
Some judge a church simply by its potential to provide for their
needs--scratching them where they itch.
"Simply stated, I think God is an invention of man. Weak people need a
god-like being to tell them how to think and act. So eons ago some guy imagined
that a powerful force was talking to him, and the idea caught on. And
bingo--from that grew a whole culture we call religion."
I almost gagged.
Bill's wife spoke up, followed by another dinner guest. Their
college-sophomore son weighed in and so did his girlfriend. Suddenly, I found
that others around the table had opinions on Who God is, a subject I had long
ago resolved in both my heart and my head.
In the past, I would have stifled such a debate with comments implying
"don't mess with me on this issue; I know the Truth." (And I did, no doubt
about it, although my comments might not have been eloquent.) But on this night
I just listened, playing the proverbial fly on the wall.
Student: "God is real, but Christians are out of touch with what's going on.
His live-in girlfriend: "Yeah, they think sex is dirty and tell their kids
The stats correlating premarital sex with the divorce rate swirled in my
head, but I bit my lip.
Bill's wife: "I know morals are in the Bible, but who can trust it? Some
monk probably spilled ink on a key passage and changed the meaning." The old me would be beating my
drum about inerrancy, but for now I just listened.
Finally, the other dinner guest, Sam, spoke up: "I used to attend church.
Pretty regularly too, but I finally quit. Now I go to Starbucks and read the
Sunday paper. Or I just sleep in."
Why? I wanted to know. The reporter in me couldn't stay quiet.
A story unfolded. Over the next half hour this 42-year-old marketing manager
told how his faith journey had ebbed and flowed--from a commitment to Christ as
a teen-ager, to leadership positions in a college fellowship group, to thoughts
of the pastorate in his 20s, and then to disappointments, bitterness and
finally apathy in his 30s. Now Sam was stuck in six-year-old habits. He had
evolved from making excuses for not going to church to simply not going and not
caring who knew.
And Sam's relationship with the Lord got the same attention: none. He no
longer prayed, studied the Bible or attempted to associate with people who
After dinner, Sam told me: "It just didn't scratch me where I itched. I
didn't meet people [at church] who seemed a lot like me. I didn't hear things I
could relate to. People there made [following Christ] sound so easy."
Did he try different churches? Really try to get to know some Christians and
what they were about?
"No," he was honest enough to answer. "It became easier and easier just to
Over the next year Sam and I spoke on the phone at least half a dozen times.
I found I was able to address him more directly, because I listened to him and
really heard him. Sam used a marketing term to describe what I said to
him about my faith and how I found that my church involvement
nurtured it: "You're using targeted marketing. You're helping me to find my
I took that as a compliment.
I haven't heard from Sam for four to five years. But I've thought often how
holding my tongue at that dinner party piqued my interest in learning why some
people simply sleep in on Sundays.
Since then, I've become a collector of peoples' anecdotes and explanations.
Some are folks who claim to know the Lord, although perhaps marginally. Others
are skeptics who won't darken the door of a church except for weddings and
funerals. Many are people in between, who haven't yet learned how relevant are
today's churches, services, pastors and other dedicated professionals, such as
missionaries. Nor do they realize how many lay people are finding solid
direction for their lives by throwing their feet over the side of their bed on
Sunday mornings and heading to the place where they learn how to follow
Many excuses are lame. People who sleep in come in all shapes and sizes.
A dental hygienist's excuse made me laugh: "The best talk shows are on
Sunday mornings. It's when I catch up on what's happening." Can't you tape
them? I wondered.
Like Sam, some judge a church simply by its potential to provide for their
needs--scratching them where they itch, as Sam put it. It's an egocentric point
of view spilling out from a culture which is increasingly me-oriented.
Many people seem to lay their lack of interest at the door of the
church--the very place they eschew, because they believe it's irrelevant,
although they don't go there, of course, to find out if it could be
"Church people are living in the wrong century," a single mother in her 30s
said. "I can't live up to the standards they expect. My life isn't that
Variations on the same theme echoed again and again. People thought the
church was out of touch, thought Christians made following Christ sound too
easy. Pat answers and canned presentations were what they expected. They were
hungry for real people, with real lives.
By listening to what non-Christians say about what keeps them from the
faith, we can identify some of the barriers that we and our churches can try to
Carolyn Curtis is editor of On Mission.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC