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Father Knows Best: How can I lead a friend to faith who is an atheist?

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By Martin Elfert

Hey Rev!

How can I lead a friend to faith who is currently an atheist?


House-ad_SPO_FKB_new_0429139Dear Leo:

Mrs. FKB and I recently had a visit with a friend who is a doctor. Our friend – in the Ann Landers’ tradition, let’s call her Tara – said that it often doesn’t take her too long to diagnose her patients and to devise a remedy for their complaints. What is time consuming and hard, Tara explained, is communicating the remedy to the patients in such a way that they do not reject it immediately. Patients are particularly reluctant, she told us, to accept the possibility that their diet, their level of physical activity, or their other habits might be being playing a role in their poor health.

What Tara has learned to do is to give her patients a face-saving “out.” She will tell them (entirely truthfully) that we all have different metabolisms. And then she will explain that their lab work has revealed that their habits — never exercising, eating nothing but Doritos, you name it — don’t work well for their particular metabolisms. “Other people can eat like that without difficulty,” Tara will say to the patient sitting in her office, “but I have hard news: it turns out that eating that way just isn’t good for you.” More often than not, her patients are able to accept that message. And as a consequence, they are able to accept the remedy that she proposes. They are able to change.

Tara has figured out how to tell a story in a way that her patients can hear.

Tara’s experience intrigues me not just because it is a fascinating insight into the human psyche (it is reminiscent of Eric Horowitz’s marvelous article, Want to Win a Political Debate? Try Making a Weaker Argument) but also because of what it holds in common with our work as Christians. We too are called to tell a story in a way that our neighbors can hear.

Your question, Leo, is one that I get asked often. A lot of folks want to know how to get a friend or a family member to participate – or participate more often or more deeply – in church. (I suspect that this question comes up especially frequently here in the Pacific Northwest, a context in which so many of our neighbors regard faith with some mixture of skepticism, indifference, or even hostility.) And I’m always quick to say that there isn’t some magic strategy that turns people into big-time Christians. Indeed, most strategies or “tricks” are actually counter-productive: the time-worn tactic of relentlessly reminding one’s adult son or daughter how infrequently he or she walks through the door of a church, for instance, is shame-based and it tends to do little except ramp up the resentments at Thanksgiving Dinner.

I’m speaking from experience. Back when I was a young man and I didn’t have anything to do with church, the many strategies of Christian recruiters sure didn’t work for me. I wasn’t able to hear the Christian story through pamphlets thrust into my hand on street corners, I wasn’t able to hear it through Bibles left in hotel rooms, I wasn’t able to hear it through smiling people with impossibly white teeth knocking on my front door, I wasn’t able to hear it through the embittered moralizing of televangelists. And I certainly wasn’t able to hear it through messages of shame or through threats of damnation.

The thing that I could hear, the thing that invited me to start wondering about whether there might be a place within Christianity for me, wasn’t a strategy at all. The reason that I started coming to church is that I met Christians who were leading lives that were so oriented towards justice, love, joy, beauty, compassion, and service — Christians, in other words, who were more concerned with holy action than with correct doctrine — that I looked at them and, like the woman in the restaurant in “When Harry Met Sally, I said, “I want what they’re having.”

Through the generous witness of their lives, those Christians were telling the Gospel story in a way that I could hear. That opened a door for me. Thanks to that open door, when those same Christians invited me to come to church with them, I was curious enough to say, “yes.”

If you hope to invite a friend or a colleague or a loved one into faith or deeper into faith, then see what happens if you begin not by asking, “How might I change them?” but rather by asking, “How might I change myself?” Where might you be called deeper into generosity, deeper into patience, deeper into forgiveness, deeper into wonder, deeper into love? To put that thought another way, see what happens when you ask yourself the question, “How can I tell Christ’s story with my life?”

Now, you may well change yourself and yet observe no change in your friend or colleague or loved one. If that happens, Leo, be of good cheer. Hold on to the assurance that, as the old saying has it, virtue is its own reward. Hold on to the assurance that the Holy Spirit is moving and at work in all of the places that She needs to be. Hold on to the assurance that all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. But also be ready. Be ready to be caught off guard by the person who hears the story that your life is telling and says to you, “I want what you’re having.”

About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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