In my experience, Mennonites live by the adages “Actions speak louder than words” and “Faith without works is dead.”
One of the things that drew me to Anabaptism was its emphasis on “walking the walk” more than “talking the talk.” I was raised in a church in which passionate shouting was the hallmark of faithful gospel preaching, so it was refreshing to discover a Christian tribe known as the “quiet in the land.”
I’m convinced the most effective way to bear witness to the truth of Christ is to embody the truth we profess and demonstrate the utility of our faith with our lives. Yet I also believe that for us to fully embody and live out the truth of Christ, we must first understand it conceptually, on some level, and, in turn, communicate our understanding to others. This is core to the church’s mandate.
I Peter 3:15 tells us: “Always be prepared to give an answer [explanation] to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
More than a few Mennonite leaders have suggested that we’ve done a great job demonstrating and passing on our principles, ethics and values of peace and justice to others with gentleness and respect, while often failing to communicate to others, including our children and grandchildren, the reason we live this way, namely, our new life in Christ. I’m not sure how fair or accurate this critique is, but it highlights the need to both demonstrate our faith with our lives and communicate our understanding of the truth, intelligently and meaningfully, with words. I believe we must dialogue about truth, not only to share our understanding of it with others, but to authentically pursue the truth ourselves.
A few months ago, a friend of mine was grieving over the dying art of conversation. He said, “Meaningful dialogue is becoming an endangered species.” He was not only referring to the gong show that qualifies as political discourse these days, but also what passes for dialogue between friends, colleagues, church members and acquaintances.
He identified many factors contributing to the loss of quality conversation, including social media, political correctness, narcissism, entitlement, postmodernism, suspicion of others and limited attention spans. For the most part, I agreed with him. We need a revitalization of quality dialogue in our world and I’m convinced Christians are called to be part of this revitalization.
Jesus was a master communicator; even most atheists agree on that. He was a conversational genius. Disciples of Jesus would be wise to not only study his teachings, but also the way he taught. We need to learn the ropes of his remarkable approach to conversation and communication. This requires developing certain skills and practices, such as active listening, asking good questions, establishing shared interests, and resisting the need to be right so we can remain open to other perspectives and a greater understanding of truth.
One of the most peculiar hindrances to meaningful conversation nowadays is focussing more on our terminology than the truth. Many people have a greater commitment to their jargon—doctrinally sound or politically correct language—and the cultural currency of certain ideas in their society, group or church, than to the pursuit of truth. The perceived value and “appropriateness” of certain ideas and beliefs becomes more important than whether these beliefs and ideas are actually true or not.
C.S. Lewis talked about this in his book The Screwtape Letters, in which Screwtape, a seasoned demon, mentors an apprentice demon named Wormwood in how to lure a Christian away from his faith.
Screwtape writes: “A few centuries earlier . . . humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They . . . were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But with [mass media] and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’
. . . . Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the church. Don’t waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That’s the sort of thing he cares about.”
This is Pt. 4 of of “The pursuit of truth” series. To be continued . . . .
Troy Watson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is pastor of Avon Mennonite Church in Stratford, Ont.