Why Christian?: People Want to Know Why We Believe

Why Christian?: People Want to Know Why We Believe

September 25, 2015 by

Last week I attended the Why Christian conference in Minneapolis. Organized by Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber, this event has raised lots of questions. But for me, it really catalyzed the importance of that simple question, why. Why do we do what we do? It’s a crucial question for churches to answer, and even more crucial that we share those answers.

Sometimes it’s too easy to get lost in the work of the church.

Why ‘Why’?

When the conference was announced there seemed to be some confusion about what this conference was all about. Why Christian? What kind of a question is that? Why is there a conference exploring such a basic question? I think some people expected it to be a conference of wishy-washy people watering down their faith.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

It was a conference of people wrestling with their faith. Not just doubting and questioning, but grappling with it because they want to win. They love Jesus and are willing to wrestle for him, struggle for him, cling to him.

This is a question rooted deeply in hope.

The Most Important Question We Can Ask

So while some people were confused by the conference, I think that confusion highlights how important it is.

Because I think the question—why Christian?— is one of the most important questions churches can ask. Why do we believe this faith? Why do we do church? In the midst of a world that calls us crazy, a world that rejects so much of what we hold dear, a world full of pain and hurt and loss, a world where our churches are plagued by hypocrisy and judgment, where our own hearts are unsure and doubting—how can we believe in the midst of all this?

What keeps bringing us back to this ridiculous, crazy faith?

Why do we show up every Sunday and do it again?

Why?

The question—why Christian?— is one of the most important questions churches can ask.

Why is Branding

It’s not just an important question for churches to ask. It’s an important question for anybody to ask: Why do you do what you do?

Every business, every organization, every person should have an answer to this question. You’ll notice that the organizations who truly succeed have a solid answer and they constantly come back to it. In essence, it’s a branding question. What are you all about? You always come back to it because it’s central to who you are. Answering that question is a way of confirming again and again why you do what you do. It’s a way to initiate new people, to explain and re-explain so there’s no doubt of your purpose.

It might feel repetitious to staff members, but that’s how you hammer home your brand.

If our churches aren’t answering why we’re doing this stuff, then we’re doing something wrong.

Why ‘Why’ Matters for the Church

So back to the church. Why should we be asking why?

Because this is the question the world is wondering. It’s a question we need to answer. If our churches aren’t answering why we’re doing this stuff, then we’re doing something wrong.

If we don’t answer it, we let others answer it for us. We let silence answer it. We let false doctrine fill in the gaps. We let stereotypes and false impressions tell our story for us. We let televangelists and charlatans speak for us.

That’s not OK.

We need to answer this question because we have an answer. It’s the story of our faith, it’s the purpose for what we do. Answering ‘why’ is literally the great commission. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing.

And it’s so good.

“Answering ‘why’ is literally the great commission.”

The stories that were told at Why Christian were powerful. They broke my heart. They opened my eyes. They strengthened my faith and encouraged my heart. They challenged my intellect and sharpened my theology.

Peter tells us to always be prepared to give the reason for our hope. And it’s not just a formula or pat answers. A statement of faith or the creeds or John 3:16 don’t quite cut it. As beautiful and powerful as those things can be, they don’t always have the spark of life. It’s the stories of our lives that make faith become real.

Why we believe is so much more than a slogan.

And if we can manage to be that real and authentic, people will listen.

Lost the Plot

I talked to a church planter and pastor at the conference, and he explained that he was there because sometimes it’s too easy to get lost in the work of the church.

“If we’re tweeting beautifully, humming along with our communication plans and organizing perfect events, but we’re not telling people the reason why we believe, then we are nothing but empty busyness.”

We have so many events and channels and details to manage, so many plans and strategies and messages that we’re always working—that we forget these grander questions. We don’t question what we’re doing, we don’t challenge our preconceptions—and if there’s any trend in the history of the church, it’s that we screw things up, we stick with the mess, and we enshrine it into our traditions so that it’s sacrilege to question any of it—and we get stuck.

Suddenly we’re not making any sense to the world, not because we’re crazy Jesus people, but because we’re ridiculous religious people. We don’t make sense any more, and not in a good way.

  • We’re too busy planning our Facebook posts to explain why we believe in the incredible mystery of the cross.
  • We’re so focused on trying to pull off Sunday every week that we never get around to that reason why we do Sunday.
  • We’re so myopically focused on our community that we forget the neighborhood around us.
  • We’re so intent on explaining this passage or that bit of doctrine that we’ve missed the big picture.

Why Christian? It’s a question we need to be answering. If we’re tweeting beautifully, humming along with our communication plans and organizing perfect events, but we’re not telling people the reason why we believe, then we are nothing but empty busyness.

So What’s the Why?

OK, you get it. We need to share why.

So what was the particular why that I found so inspiring at Why Christian? Glad you asked. As I look over the quotes I tweeted from the event, a lot of them feel diminished from a lack of context.

Instead, I’ll tell a few stories.

“We’re at our best when we fully own the weird. There’s nothing worse than a church trying to be something it’s not.”

And Then Sunday Comes

Tiffany Thomas is the pastor of South Tryon Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and talked about following the music to find faith. She compared a wealthy, uptown congregation in New York and her own low income congregation and both found such restoration in music. Everything washed away and they stood before God as broken people. She went through a litany of indignities and suffering her congregation faces—“and then Sunday comes,” she said. There’s a choir filled with addicts and the homeless, but despite all the hardships they face they can sing out in praise to God. “Because they believe it,” Tiffany said, “they make me believe it.”

I’ve felt like that, so desperately needing Sunday to come. There’s nothing magical about a day of the week and our faith is pretty clear that God will meet us right where we are. You don’t have to walk in the door of a church to find grace. But if there’s one place you can almost always find it, it’s the church. Or at least it should be.

“Because they believe it, they make me believe it.” -Tiffany Thomas

Later in a panel discussion Tiffany said that what keeps her from becoming cynical is that she believes in the product we’re selling. “Because I believe in that product so much, it’s important to me to have a voice that sells Christianity in a different light than the ones screaming,” she says. “Sometimes people think the loudest voices are the only voices.” She tells a story about someone responding to one of her blog posts by saying, “She’s making me hate Christians less and less.”

“If I do nothing else,” Tiffany says, “that keeps me in the game.”

Jesus told us that we may be hated. But let’s be hated for what we actually believe and not the false stereotypes and the impostors who don’t speak for us. Any time we can correct a wrong impression and point someone to the truth, that’s the gospel going forth.

“It’s important to me to have a voice that sells Christianity in a different light than the ones screaming.”

Let the Children Come

Then there’s Jodi Houge and her church without a building in St. Paul, Minn., Humble Walk Church. They don’t have a big staff and a fancy facility where they can send the children away, so they intentionally work the kids into the service. “We tend to plan worship for those who can read,” Jodi says, “and preach to those who are educated and have a long attention span.”

“We’re at our best when we fully own the weird. There’s nothing worse than a church trying to be something it’s not.” -Jodi Houge

She talked about making the prayers of the people truly of the people and opening it up for anyone to pray. 5-year-old Obadiah always takes the lead and runs with it. One time he prayed for his mom and dad, then asked God to make his sister stop hitting him. She chimed in that she didn’t hit him, and a sibling argument erupted right there in the middle of the service. Obadiah’s father interrupted and redirected his son back to the prayer.

“Ugh… just help us!” Obadiah finished.

And Jodi says, “Lord, in your mercy,” and the congregation responds, “Hear our prayer.”

As an often frustrated father, that’s it exactly. “Just help us!” is not the polished prayer you hear from the pulpit, but it’s the honest prayer I need in my life. (It reminds me of Anne Lamott’s three prayers: help, thanks and wow.)

“We live out the reversal of the gospel by letting those with the least power lead us,” Jodi says. In this case, it’s the children.

Her church is kind of weird. They’ve got kids being kids in the service, they often meet in the back of a bar and their most popular Christmas event is Beer & Carols.

“We’re at our best when we fully own the weird,” Jodi says. “There’s nothing worse than a church trying to be something it’s not.”

“We live out the reversal of the gospel by letting those with the least power lead us.”

Come Into the Light

Then there’s the story of church planter Kerlin Richter, founding priest of Bushwick Abbey in Brooklyn, N.Y. She tells one of those stories of addiction and pain and self-harm. She described herself as a “high-functioning leper.” She descended to a point where it was so bad she just needed to “get the hell out of crazy.” So she wandered into a tiny Episcopal church.

“The light through the stained glass lit up these 10 little old weird people,” she says. “And I caught a glimpse of Jesus.”

“It was like walking out of a dim room, into a bright, sunny day. I was so struck with the beauty of the world that I feared for my sanity.” -Kerlin Richter

She talks about going to church like a compulsion, finding Jesus in each one. “They told this weird story of love with a body, that could not be contained in eternity, and it busted out,” Kerlin says. “For me, having a body was not always good news. But when I met Good News that had a body, I was hooked.”

After so many years of searching and pain and numbness, when she finally discovered Jesus, “It was like walking out of a dim room, into a bright, sunny day,” she says. “I was so struck with the beauty of the world that I feared for my sanity.”

“Just help us!” is not the polished prayer you hear from the pulpit, but it’s the honest prayer I need in my life.

Sing Your Song

Perhaps the most endearing story from Why Christian has become known as the ‘trombone of redemption.’ Emily Scott told a story of being different. She had a song to sing, but never felt like anyone would let her sing her song. She took up the trombone and faced all the gender stereotypes that loud brass instruments are for boys, and girls are supposed to play meek and mild instruments like the flute. But she played the trombone and she played her way. Until she started to get into serious classical music and her music teachers tried to make her play a certain way, the accepted way.

They were silencing her song.

“It’s not being good at something that makes me worthy. It’s that I am a child of God.” -Emily Scott

“You may have been told there is something wrong with your song,” Emily says. “Your hair is too curly, your skin is too dark… you may have been told your voice is too much, too loud, too baritone. I’m here to tell you, you were told wrong. There is nothing wrong with your voice. There is nothing wrong with your song.”

Her message resonated with the room. But the next day it came home when the worship leader found Emily a trombone and brought her on stage for a solo intro to “Amazing Grace” and then a rollicking “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

I’m not sure if I can properly set up that moment or even if the video can capture it, but it was a beautiful instance of the acceptance we find in the family of God: “It’s not being good at something that makes me worthy,” Emily says. “It’s that I am a child of God.”

What’s Your Why?

These are the stories of the faith I hold dear.

The world is asking why. And churches need to be answering.

The next question is how: How do we answer this question in our churches, in our sermons, in our Facebook posts and in our bulletins.

I think telling stories is a good start. The classic testimony time has fallen out of fashion, but I think it can be a powerful way to share the stories of what God is doing in our midst. I’m sure there are lots of other ways, and I welcome you to share your ideas in the comments.

“The light through the stained glass lit up these 10 little old weird people. And I caught a glimpse of Jesus.”
Post By:

Kevin D. Hendricks


When Kevin isn’t busy as the editor of Church Marketing Sucks, he runs his own writing and editing company, Monkey Outta Nowhere. Kevin has been blogging since 1998 and has published several books, including 137 Books in One Year: How to Fall in Love With Reading, The Stephanies and all of our church communication books.

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