My friend wanted nothing to do with Christians. What could I say to defuse her hostility?
By Matt Mikalatos
"I hate Christians,” Shannon said, her hands trembling and her teeth clenched. I had mentioned going to church in a casual conversation, and this was how she responded. Her anger took me off guard. Other times when I’d run into people who openly expressed their hostility toward Christianity, I’d found it easiest to ignore them politely rather than engage in conversations about spirituality. Shannon had just moved onto my street, however, and I didn’t want to respond to her that way. I wanted even more to tell her about Jesus. But how?
You’ve probably had similar experiences. Maybe a neighbor sneers when you get in the car on Sunday mornings or a coworker can’t stand the Bible verse on your wall at work. Perhaps a family member or an old friend says you have nothing in common since you met Jesus. Whatever the situation, interacting with people who have a lot of emotion invested in disliking Christians can be tough.
As I continued to ponder what to say to Shannon, I came across Prov. 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath.” I wondered, Is there a way I can talk with Shannon using gentle words that will disarm her anger and turn her toward Christ? I realized, of course, that the proverbs are wise sayings, not guarantees or magic formulas. I could respond gently, and Shannon might explode in anger. But Proverbs gave me confidence that speaking with kindness might be a way forward in our relationship. So I came up with five interrelated questions I could ask Shannon and others like her.
I’ve discussed these questions with people from many backgrounds and religious beliefs, with strangers as well as friends, with college students and coworkers, with men, with women, and even in small groups. Sometimes I talk through all five during one conversation. Other times I spread them over a series of interactions. I’ve found these questions to be a “gentle answer” that turns aside people’s anger about Christians well enough that they often become interested in knowing more about our loving Christ. The first two questions explore the reasons for people’s hostility.
Probing the Past
A simple comment about our church helping paint a neighborhood school could make Shannon wince. “Shannon, I can see that you’re upset,” I said the next time something like that happened. Then I asked my first question: “What would you say is the worst thing Christians have done in the last two thousand years?”
“The Crusades,” she answered without a moment’s thought, though I could tell she was surprised by my inquiry. “Christians killing Muslims to take over Jerusalem.”
Shannon’s response is typical. I’ve asked lots of nonbelieving friends to identify the greatest black mark in Christian history, and most say the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. Less common replies include the Salem witch trials, the violation of Native American culture by missionaries, and slavery.
My first instinct in these situations is to defend Christianity. Some of the answers people give reflect skewed or simplistic understandings of history, and it’s tempting to correct them. For instance, when my friend Jennifer talked about the hundreds of women killed in the Salem witch trials, I wanted to explain that only 19 people had been killed, 14 women and 5 men. But showing her that she was wrong and I was right wasn’t the point of my question.
So instead I said, “I agree that killing innocent people is a terrible crime.” This is true. No matter how many (or few) people were unjustly killed in the name of Christ, it was a horrific event. “As a Christian,” I continued, “I too am saddened and troubled by what happened in Salem.”
A comment like this can take my friends off guard. I don’t misrepresent my true feelings or opinions. I can agree that the wrongs of the past are terrible, whether or not I share their interpretation of history. Taking this approach allows me to acknowledge the evil of an injustice without becoming entangled in an argument about Christianity’s role in it or reacting as if I myself stand accused. When my friends see that they can trust me to recognize a wrong and express compassion, they’re more likely to respond honestly to what I ask next.
Uncovering the Wound
The second question is the hardest for me, as the answers can be painful to hear. But it’s important because it often uncovers the deep hurts that are causing people’s greatest anger. The question is, “What is the worst thing a Christian has done to you personally?”
I cried as Shannon told her story. When she was a young woman, her parents forced her to get an abortion. Her favorite uncle heard what she’d done and told her, “I can’t talk to you anymore. I’m a Christian, and Christians don’t have anything to do with abortion.” Fifteen years later he still refuses to speak to her.
Other friends’ experiences aren’t any better. Steven had a brick thrown through his window because he’s gay. A list of Bible verses was rubber-banded to the brick so he could look them up and “see what God has to say about homosexuality.” Allison was sexually abused by a leader at her church. Sam was mocked because he didn’t do well on the church basketball team. Jennifer, a modern-day witch, has received verbal abuse from Christians at her college, while Jeff’s youth group teased him mercilessly because he belonged to the “wrong” political party.
Although some people relate personal traumas like these, others give generic answers such as “Christians are judgmental.” If I’m asking strangers how they’ve been wronged, it’s not surprising to hear stock responses. People share as much as they are comfortable with. That’s OK. I don’t pressure them to relate personal stories. Those who mention generic hurts may be considering their real wounds as the conversation continues. They may even choose to share those with me later, after our friendship has developed. People don’t always wait for deeper relationship, though. Even strangers may openly talk about hurts they’ve received at the hands of Christians, if only to prove that Christians are bad people.
Regardless of what my friends share, I don’t defend the actions of those who harmed them. Nor do I speed past their answers. I’ve learned to keep eye contact and listen attentively. I avoid crossing my arms or leaning away from them, because these gestures communicate skepticism about what they’re saying. I don’t try to discover “the other side of the story” or push them on their interpretation of events. The fact is, whatever happened, my friends have been hurt by someone claiming to be a Christian. I want to enter into that hurt with them.
So I don’t try to cheer them up or convince them it will all be better. I don’t tell them that the person who harmed them wasn’t a Christian or that “most Christians aren’t like that.” Instead, I mourn with them. Sometimes I cry with them. I apologize that this happened: “Shannon, I’m sorry that your uncle cut off relationship with you. I can only imagine how painful that must be.” At times I’ve apologized on behalf of Christians in general: “Steven, I apologize that you have experienced Christians as hateful and unloving. I hope we will do better in the future.” I also make sure they know they can trust me not to repeat the wrong: “Shannon, I’ll never cut off our relationship because I disagree with your actions.”
I linger on this part of the conversation as long as my friends have more to say. People would detect insincerity if I were to push past their experiences to a gospel presentation. Instead, I focus on being patient and showing love through my empathy.
The most painful thing about people’s responses to the second question is that somehow the horrible things that have been done to them have become conflated with Christ in their minds. They feel He’s abusive or hateful or cruel because of their experience with Christians. As it turns out, they actually disagree with themselves. The third and fourth questions can help them see that.
Discovering the Real Jesus
Question three is the easiest one: “What was Jesus’ main message?” Without exception, everyone I’ve asked—Shannon, Jennifer, Steven, and Allison included—has said the same thing: love.
I reinforce this conclusion simply and quickly. “That’s a great answer,” I’ll say. “Jesus told people the two most important commands in the Bible are ‘Love the Lord your God’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” If the person is interested, we might look at this conversation in Scripture together (Mk. 12:29-31 is a great place to go). Another passage I might mention is Jn. 13:34, where Jesus told His disciples, A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
These verses affirm Jesus’ clear emphasis on love. My friends have shown deep theological insight in their answer, and I want to acknowledge and celebrate that. I don’t say things such as, “Yes, Jesus’ message is about love, but ultimately it’s about God glorifying Himself.” Pointing out those distinctions at this stage would make them feel stupid and is better done later.
I don’t spend a lot of time on people’s reply to this question, other than to highlight our agreement. Their response leads naturally into my next inquiry.
Putting It All Together
The fourth question I ask is, “If it’s true that Jesus’ main message was love, would you say that the actions of the people from the first two questions reflected the true teachings of Jesus?” The answer is self-evident. Everyone agrees that people actively following Jesus’ teachings of love will not participate in genocide, abuse people sexually, cut off relationships for imperfection, or maliciously inflict pain on those around them.
When I posed this question to Shannon, her eyes lit up. “No!” she said. She had just taken pieces of information she already had and put them together in a different order in her mind. Her old perspective said her uncle had hurt her because he was a Christian, so she concluded, “Christians are bad.” She now realized that yes, her uncle had hurt her and yes, he was a Christian, but his unloving actions weren’t in line with the true teachings of Jesus. That led her to a new conclusion: “Although my Christian uncle has done painful things to me, Jesus is not reflected in those.” Shannon’s changed perspective was especially powerful because she arrived at it on her own, not by me “correcting” her.
This was an excellent time to ask Shannon the last question.
Inviting Them Deeper
“Shannon,” I said, “would you like to know more about the actual teachings of Jesus?” She expressed a voracious desire to do so.
There are a number of ways to follow up on such a reply. Inviting people to look at the teachings of Christ in Scripture is a great place to start. I might also read through one of the gospels with them, taking a portion at a time and meeting once a week to discuss it. We could watch a movie about Jesus together. Or they may want to get together regularly to ask questions about Jesus and Christianity.
If I invite people to church, I try to prepare them for what they will experience. It’s possible they are complete strangers to church and won’t know many of the things I take for granted, such as when to stand up or whether it’s OK not to sing the songs. I also tell them how my church welcomes visitors and what people typically wear. That way, they can avoid clothing that could make them feel like outsiders. However, my friends may be insecure around Christians until they learn Christians are safe. Instead of taking them to church, it may be better to start small, perhaps by introducing them to a trusted Christian friend over coffee.
Not everyone responds positively to the last question. Some people tell me straight out that they are still not interested in Jesus. That’s what Steven did: “So some Christians do bad things, but that doesn’t mean Jesus is bad. I still don’t want to know more about His teaching.”
It’s disappointing when people connect all the dots and then don’t want to look at the picture they’ve drawn. When that happens, I keep my responses polite but honest. “I’m sorry to hear that, Steven,” I might reply, “but I understand.” And I leave the door open for future conversations: “If you ever have questions, I’m available.”
I also like to let people know that I value how they opened up about their pasts. “Thanks for telling me about the brick being thrown through your window,” I’d say to Steven. “That must have been terrifying, and I appreciate that you trusted me enough to share that experience.”
A No-Lose Situation
After hearing about these conversations, you might wonder, Does asking these questions always go so smoothly? No, it doesn’t.
I have talked to a few people who were implacably committed to their anger, and nothing I said was going to change that. One woman translated my inquiries as “Bible thumping.” I silently asked God to allow her to set aside her hostility. Our conversation improved, but her anger still flared up as we talked. There’s not much that can be done in a brief interaction with a person who is reacting this way. I eventually abandoned the conversation, saying, “I can see that I’ve upset you. That wasn’t my intention. I care about your opinion, and if you’d like to discuss this calmly in the future, I hope you’ll let me know.”
Encounters like that are the exception, however. I find most people surprisingly open and even thankful as we walk through the questions. Sometimes the emotional intensity of the second question makes it better for us to leave the conversation there, but even then we’ve established a bond that allows me to pick up the dialogue later. “Sam,” I could say, “I’ve been thinking about what you shared a few weeks ago. Do you think the actions of those people who made fun of you on the church basketball team were consistent with Jesus’ teachings?”
However the conversation happens, whether all at once or spread out over a month, people are coming to a clearer understanding of who Jesus is. And by the end of our dialogue, they know a follower of Christ they trust enough to share their deepest thoughts, hardest questions, and greatest criticisms about Christianity.
When faced with inexplicably hostile people, these questions can help. Using them takes courage, but the risk is minimal. The worst-case scenario is that my friends remain spiritually hostile. But more often, I’ve found myself growing into deeper friendship with people who want to explore what it means to be the kind of Christian I’m trying to model: a loving, friendly Christian who listens. And the best-case scenario, is that these conversations lead to other conversations where my friends also become my brothers and sisters in Christ.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
MATT MIKALATOS is regional director for Campus Crusade’s international campus ministry. He wishes every Christian could experience living overseas and seeing that God is the God of the nations, not just of our culture.
© 2009 Matt Mikalatos. All Rights Reserved. First appeared in Discipleship Journal, Jan/Feb 2009, Issue 169. Discipleship Journal is a bimonthly magazine designed to help believers develop a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ and to provide practical help in understanding the Scriptures and applying them to daily life and ministry. Visit here to subscribe, or call 1-800-877-1811 (U.S./Canada) or 1-515-242-0297, M-F 7am-11pm; Sat/Sun 8am-6pm (CST).