A couple of years ago, my family and I moved to the Westside of Atlanta. Like most people, who look at our neighborhood from the outside looking in, we understood it to be a low income, primarily African American community that was also culturally and religiously diverse. So, we thought we were coming to reach the socially and economically depressed, under-resourced, unchurched people of our city. As we began to engage our neighbors, we quickly realized that we would also be faced with the unique challenge of sharing Christ’s love with what could be classified as “Cultural Christians." Now before I get into some of the evangelistic challenges I've faced reaching this particular sub-group, let me first start by giving a definition of a “Cultural Christian”. I would define a cultural Christian as an individual who is doctrinally and relationally disconnected from the Christ of the Christian faith, yet “still significantly identifies with Christian culture due to family background, personal experiences, or the social and cultural environment in which they grew up” (Wikipedia).
The Hidden Communication Gap
One of the first and most apparent challenges I’ve faced living in this environment has been the communication barrier even with those who consider themselves Christians. In the past, my spiritual conversations with others went fairly well, at least from the standpoint that the listener left with a clear understanding of what was being said even if they disagreed with the content. This isn’t always the case with those living in my neighborhood.
I remember the first time I walked through the Scriptures with a 20-year-old young man who ”grew up in the church” and lived down the street from us. As we read through Colossians he had a number of difficulties both articulating and understanding certain words any 10 year old should be able to comprehend. At first, it caught me off guard, provoking feelings of insecurity around my own level of education and questions like:
How do I share in such a way as not to come off arrogant by my terminology and questions?
Is this even the best version of the Bible to be using right now?
How do I improve my skills of sharing truth in a way that anyone can understand?
Then my heart was grieved by how much this education gap affected my ability to effectively present God and his gospel to this young man. I left that conversation with of course more questions and as well a new perspective on the value of education and how important it is to solve this epidemic in communities like mine.
How do you convince someone who holds contradictory beliefs, that they indeed hold contradictory beliefs?
Since I first began learning about the community and culture of the Historic West End I have consistently encountered those who claim Christianity, yet don’t claim Christian beliefs or claim many others beliefs as well. Helping people see the contradictions evident in some of their beliefs has been the problem.
As a friend and I worked in my garden one day with a couple of young guys from down the street, one of them asked us about what it meant to have faith in God. I had previously ran into these two fellas on a prayer walk so this question was more of a follow up to what we had previously spoken to them about. To take full advantage of the opportunity, we expounded more on the Gospel and what true belief looked like. This time, however, was very enlightening as we learned more about their story as well as some of their beliefs.
While they affirmed several Christian truths they also explained how they believed in reincarnation. For them, death was merely a steppingstone into another life as something else, “probably as an animal or another person” they said. They also mentioned their uncertainty about whether this life was actually real or simply just a dream or figment of our own imaginations.
I could go on and on but soon I realized that over the span of the 19 years they had been alive, they had grown up with Christian principles but had been polluted by everything and anything else that sounded good. This amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought seems to be very rampant in our context. No matter how much money people may have or their ethnicity this train of thinking is what I have repeatedly run into time and time again.
Despite the many challenges, The Lord is gracious and faithful. In continuing to walk with folks, I’ve learned that a lot of my time is spent merely listening to them, asking questions and carefully trusting the Holy Spirit to speak to people's hearts not their intellects and to peel away layer after layer of deceptions and lies through his Word. My only hope is that the Lord would ultimately open their eyes to see him for who He really is (2 Cor. 4:4-6).