By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker
If someone were to ask you "Why should I be a Christian?" what would you say?
I cannot think of a more challenging question for a Christian. It makes us wonder if we have anything to say to a person who is not a Christian that would at least encourage him or her to consider becoming one. It also makes us think about why we ourselves are Christians.
Whenever we talk with a non-Christian, it is more important to witness than to convince. We should listen to his or her story and, when we hear some question that comes from that person's experience, then we may share how the Gospel of Jesus Christ has enabled us to respond to that question in our own lives. We cannot argue anyone into faith in Jesus Christ.Nevertheless, there is room in preaching, teaching and conversation for giving some reasons why one should be a Christian.
Jesus is alive
In my view, the first response is to declare that Jesus Christ is alive, and he is calling each of us to be his disciple. We who are Christians believe that the one Jesus called Abba, Father, sent him into history as "the exact imprint of God's very being (Hebrews 1:3)." In his character, pattern of living and teaching we have "seen the Father (John 14:9)." This is a unique claim.
Since it is a claim that, if true, should cause one to change one's whole life, then we owe it to ourselves to test it. The main way to put it to the test is to read the Gospels in the New Testament. They must be read with an open mind and heart. Reading the Gospels defensively is to fail to take seriously the Christian claim about Jesus Christ. If we are willing to read the Gospels with openness, then the person of Jesus Christ impresses himself upon our mind and heart. While there are obvious differences in the Gospels, each portrays the same Christ. That is, the person of Jesus Christ communicates himself to us through the various witnesses to him. His gift of himself to us comes with a call to us personally as if to say, "Because I am who I am, why are you not following me?" This mysterious transaction between Jesus Christ and us occurs because Jesus Christ lives as the crucified and risen Lord and gives himself to us through the church and its book of original witnesses to him.
If someone dares to read the Gospels with openness and begins to sense the call of Christ, then he or she also should meet with Christians for conversation about their own experience of Christ. In the experience of others we begin to understand what is happening to us and how we can respond to this call. Worship with a congregation that celebrates rightly the sacraments of baptism and communion is also essential because these rites articulate in action the call of Christ to accept a new identity in the world and to live in communion with Christ' living presence.
There is no way to declare that Jesus Christ is alive and calling each of us to be his disciple without inviting someone to try a set of practices such as reading the Gospels, conversing with people of faith in small groups and participating in sacramental worship. The only reason someone would accept this invitation is because he or she senses something in our lives that he or she is seeking. Our witness matters more than our arguments, but our arguments offer a rationale for explaining why we are witnesses.
It's the best way to live
Why be a Christian? The second response is that the life of being a disciple of Jesus Christ is the best way to live.
Someone is not likely to find this response compelling unless he or she is dissatisfied with his or her life. Still, nearly everyone feels this dissatisfaction in some way at different moments in life. One may feel anxiety as great as floating on a turbulent sea with no firm ground in sight. This anxiety comes from lacking the buoyancy of faith in a God who cares for us. One may be oppressed by loneliness, which is overcome by being baptized as a member of Christ's church. One may feel rootless in a mobile society, but acquire a home and a heritage in the Christian tradition. Or, one may know guilt over having wasted one's life so far or having done harm that cannot be undone and find freedom in the Good News of Christ's forgiveness.
The Christian life offers not only a way of meeting our spiritual needs, but also a direction for how to live our lives. We are shaped by such daily practices as honesty, hospitality, kindness, charity and courage to confront wrong. Without these kinds of practices, our lives have little meaning or substance except merely trying to enjoy our existence. As we mature in the Christian life, we begin to realize that our daily practices have to be related to our responsibilities as citizens to advocate for social policies that are more just.
Our testimony that the Christian life is the best way to live is not likely to be compelling unless the person with whom we are talking sees in us a pattern of living that is attractive. Once again, we have to remember that convincing cannot be separated from witnessing.
The way things are
A third response begs time for much conversation but can be summarized by saying there is no vision of reality that is a more adequate interpretation of the way the world is arranged than the Christian view of life. Included within this view are Christian understandings of creation, the interpretation of the drama of human history, the meaning of suffering, the ordering of sexuality, the role of possessions in our life, the hope of life beyond death, and so on.
Anyone with whom we are talking probably has a basically secular view of the world. Since this is still a culture affected by Christianity, he or she probably makes some assumptions about what Christians think, which are probably very wrong. To sort through all the questions takes time.
I am convinced that there is no vision of reality that is as adequate as the Christian view. It has demonstrated its validity over and over for 2,000 years against alternative views, including Greco-Roman paganism and modern scientific materialism. It also will prevail over post-modern skepticism and relativism.
Consider one example. Christianity affirms that God created the world out of nothing. The pagan philosophers scoffed at this claim because they had inherited a worldview that assumed "matter" is eternal. The greatest of their philosophers, such as Aristotle, posited that there is a "prime mover," but the eternity of the material universe was assumed. Today, the majority of physicists agree that evidence shows the universe had a beginning in an instant of a "big bang" of energy. While Christian teaching about the Creator is not bound to any scientific theory in any age, our best scientific evidence today is consonant with Christian teaching that has been based upon revelation for two millennia.
Many secular people assert that there is no need to posit a Creator since science offers explanations for the beginnings of things, but they fail to perceive where the "laws" of the universe, which explain beginnings, come from or why there is something rather than nothing.
In the end, ultimately everything is a mystery. Religions always will exist because their response to the mystery of being is to offer another mystery to explain it. There is no escape from being enveloped in mystery, and we who are Christians have discovered that the mystery that makes the most "sense" out of the mystery of being is the mystery of God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.
To help others begin to perceive the Christian view of the world requires that we try to understand it ourselves. That is why being a Christian witness should involve a lifetime of Christian education. The role of pastors and Christian educators is to guide Christians in studying sound theological literature so that we may be able "to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you (I Peter 3:15)."
There comes a time when each of us must say "yes" to Jesus Christ in order to become his disciple. The British evangelist Bryan Green used to say that you cannot ooze into the kingdom of God; you must choose to enter the kingdom of God. While each of us must choose, every congregation ought to have a way of inviting and nurturing persons to come to faith. And, within every congregation that is effectively making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, there are members who are giving some kind of answer to the question, "Why should I be a Christian?"
Whitaker, a Mississippi native, is the bishop of the Florida Annual Conference. This commentary was adapted from e-Review, the online news service of the Florida Annual Conference.