Christian show or tell?

I recently had a brief and good but challenging conversation with a friend about Christian belief. It wasn’t a long drawn out one, but as they were explaining the ins and outs of why a particular belief was important, I could feel my body tense up and my heart shut down.

The only thing I could think of was “I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t want to talk about this.”

It felt crappy because I want to be able to stay in and listen well and converse about theology when I need to.

At the same time, I realize that I feel so done with picking apart belief that sometimes even a simple conversation about it sets me on edge and makes me briefly want to re-consider agnosticism.

I am not saying my feelings are good to lean into. My defenses are important to examine and that there’s obviously some work that needs to be done so I can engage in these kinds of conversations more freely and fully without wanting to run for the hills.

I also know this person’s heart and there was absolutely no malice in it.

But as I was reflecting on it, trying to get to the heart of what was going on inside, I think my aversion to belief conversations dovetails into a much deeper struggle I have with Christian “telling.”

Telling what we should believe.

Telling why we need to believe.

Telling what’s right and wrong, who’s in and out, what’s truth and not-truth.

Telling in words, words, and more words.

For many generations now a lot of Western Christianity has built a large and strong empire on Christian telling. On a model of people sitting in rows facing forward having someone tell us what to believe. On a framework of particular beliefs and doctrines and dogma. On a “we’ve got the answers and let us tell you what they are” culture. On a multi-billion dollar book & music & schwag industry.

For many, it still works, and obviously the Christian industry financials remind us that Christian telling is still profitable.

But for a whole lot of other people who have exited traditional faith, are on their way out, have really bad tastes in their mouth from faith experiences, or are longing to live out their faith in more tangible in-the-flesh ways, I think it’s run its course.

I believe one of the reasons modern Christianity is so topsy-turvy right now is because people are tired of Christians “telling.”

Too many words and not enough actions behind it.

Too much judgment and certainty not enough love and humility.

Too much control and not enough example.

Too much of a systematic theology and not enough of a practical one.

Too many unhealthy hierarchical systems bent against those on the underside of power.

Too much separation and not enough connection.

Too much telling and not enough showing.

Yeah, I think the world is crying out for hope, for Christian “showing.”

It’s one of the reasons so many people across faith experiences have a huge crush on the Pope. His demonstrations of love are what the world is watching.  It’s fascinating to watch. Sure, he says a lot of great things, too, but the part that people are really resonating with is seeing his actions–watching him touch lepers, wash feet, open his own doors to refugees, visit prisoners, and embody Jesus in a way that we are so drawn to.

Showing is so much more compelling than telling.

The world is watching.

Our neighbors and friends and family are watching.

Heck, I’m watching.

At this point, what I see and experience is what’s fueling me forward.

In fact, it’s my best hope.

One of the reasons I am still “in” when it comes to believing in Jesus and his weird, wacky, upside-down-redemptive-ways-that-I’ll-never-be-able-to-get-my-head-around is that I have amazing friends here & all over the place who are don’t tell about Jesus but are actually in the trenches day after day, month after month, year after year–engaged with people in really hard places, showing and reflecting his love with actions not just words. They aren’t doing it for their health or because they will lose God’s love if they don’t; it’s far too hazardous for that.

They’re doing it because Christ’s love compels them & they see the kingdom in the least likely places, in ways that defy words, in situations where “telling” doesn’t work.  Where words fall flat because people have heard them all before and they definitely haven’t put food on the table or restored their dignity or drawn them closer to God or healed their relationships.

I know that there is power in words and inspiration and proclamation.  And even though it sounds like it, I’m not trying to create a dualistic view of all show, no tell. Of course, words matter and the Spirit works in all kinds of mysterious ways.

But I do also strongly believe that we’ve been so tilted to “tell” that we will need a whole lot of “show” over a lot of years to change the tide on our reputation.

Here’s to more show, less tell.

Showing equality.

Showing honesty.

Showing humility.

Showing forgiveness.

Showing kindness & compassion.

Showing presence.

Showing peace.

In thinking about this topic, I am always busted. When I read this list, I realize how much I need to show these things in hard-to-stay-in belief conversations, too.

Yep, I’m reminded yet again, showing is much harder than telling.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

16 Comments

  • Of course, there are those that think they are “showing” by vehemently fighting against gay marriage, working hard to shut Planned Parenthood down, gathering at Chick-Fil-a in huge crowds, etc. rather than the showing Jesus you refer to, which sounds more like Jesus to me than fighting gay marriage does…

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  • This is stunningly good, Kathy. RIGHT ON. Thanks so, so much. (and the random former Methodist has a point, too, sorry to say . . .)

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  • Great sharing, Kathy. (And I know you do plenty of showing!) To be a tiiiiny bit theological about it, it seems the “antidote” to complex systematic theology is not “no theology”, but what I think of as minimal theology. I mean whatever a given person has a need for to make sense of God, reality and oneself. It varies with the person. Once a few basics are in place (such as God is Love, always available, totally FOR all of us [and non-coercive, non-punishing]), one can try to communicate around these.

    I don’t have many chances to discuss this in person with people, but the little I do, I think I see it working well. Seems the fewer the core “beliefs” the easier to find and work from common ground and emphasize how both we and our conversation partners can enjoy and apply the basics of God and faith in the actions you well describe. It’s sort of like we pre-decide which “hill” we will engage (not “die” or even “battle”) on, and try to find ways to slide past the other stuff or deftly change the subject.

    Oh… another tactic that might help: Keep drawing the other person out with “minimal prompts” like “Tell me more”, or “Go on…” and answer a q. with a non-challenging q. or statement throwing it back to them politely. Possible example: “I wouldn’t mind sharing my view, but I’m interested in what makes this an important question [or issue] for you.” (If it’s NOT important, they’ll probably drop it.)

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    • i am so with you; it isn’t throwing out theology. we all have one and our frameworks matter. i really like your thought of minimal theology, keeping it simple and core, and as you said “seems the fewer core “beliefs” the easier to find and work from common ground…” so good! see you in a few weeks in my favorite city on earth!

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      • Thanks. I’m looking forward to that gathering/discussion! But if the predicted El Nino hits us by then your fav city may be pretty wet! (We had an early sample with nearly an inch of rain in some county spots last week end… quite a bit for this early.)

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  • This reminds me of these lyrics of an old song: “Don’t tell me I’ve got a friend in Jesus, without showing me first that I’ve got a friend in you.” I can’t remember who sang it, but that little phrase has always stuck with me…

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  • Yes! Correct theology is theology well-lived. Show, don’t tell. Even as believers most of us use this rule when thinking about other believers. If there is no showing, no loving others as Jesus told us to do, we doubt there is much behind the “telling” that other self-identified “Christians” often times love to practice. If we as believers think this way, should we not think that those who don’t believe would also?

    Reply

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