If we change the question, I will have to change my answer

A couple of days ago, Eddie Arthur wrote a blog post in which he spoke about the need to contextualise the gospel. He argued that people are no longer asking, ‘is Christianity true?’ but rather, ‘does Christianity matter?’ You can read his original article here. I wrote a little response to that yesterday offering some reasons why I thought Christianity did matter. You can read that one here. Eddie has responded to that one here and this is my response to him.

The reason why I’m responding again – and I don’t really think Eddie and I disagree, to be honest – is simply because I think he has moved the goalposts. His original question he believed needed answering was, ‘does Christianity matter?’, which I answered. But he has shot back, yes, but it’s not enough. He now says (I suspect this is what he meant all along), Christianity needs to be seen to matter. So, the question wasn’t really ‘does Christianity matter?’ but rather ‘can you tangibly demonstrate that Christianity matters?’ Now, you might think I’m being pernickety – maybe I am being – but I think those are two very different questions.

If you ask me to tell you why Christianity matters, I will build a case explaining the consequences of not believing. I will show you that it is true and, as such, its claims have a real impact on you one way or the other. I will explain to you why and how Christianity really does matter. It will start with the fact that it is true and then move to explain all the real-terms consequences of that truth.

But if you ask that slightly different question – if you ask me to demonstrate to you the effects of the Christian worldview lived out in practice – I’m going to do something altogether different. I’m not going to start with the truth claims of scripture, I’m going to start with the life-change of the people who subscribe to it. I’m going to point you to my former Muslim friends whose lives have been radically altered because they came to believe in Jesus. I’m going to show you people who have the resources to live elsewhere who are choosing, not just to do work in, but actively live in, deprived communities. I’m going to show you people dedicating themselves to serving the poor in practical ways and those who dedicate their lives to such things because they believe the gospel is the deepest need. I’m going to show them the Christian marriages that the world may scoff at in theory, but that they also admire in practice. I’m going to show you the gospel lived out in reality, in plain sight, in places that others who do not know Jesus have no interest in going.

But, of course, I didn’t do that because that wasn’t what was asked!

I agree with Eddie, if the fruit of our gospel is simply an invite to a meeting on Sunday once a week, we have demonstrated nothing significant at all. But if the fruit of our gospel is serving others, growth in the fruit of the Spirit that have further impact on how we live, lives radically changed, evident love of one disciple for another and other such things, then we have shown Christianity to make a tangible difference.

But, in all honesty, I can show the results of faith and done nothing to prove that Christianity matters. At best, like alcoholics anonymous, it might show that it can improve lives sometimes and, like local government schemes, it can have a positive community impact. But there is nothing particularly unique about those things. If all I’ve got is that, then I haven’t demonstrated why Christianity matters at all. At best, I have shown people that Christianity is reasonably good at doing some of the things that quite a lot of other people can do reasonably well too.

If people want to know why Christianity matters – and matters more than these other things – the approach needs to be more than showing the fruit of Christianity lived in practice. I agree with Eddie, that if all we have is proclamation, fine words doth butter no parsnips (to paraphrase James 2). If there is no tangible evidence that our belief actually leads to anything worthwhile, it is hardly a faith worth believing in. But if my ‘proof’ that Christianity matters is just my fine deeds, I’ve offered absolutely nothing unique at all. Christianity is just one way, among many other perfectly good ways, of achieving some nice things. That doesn’t mean Christianity matters. It, at best, means it might be nice. But if people are drawn to that more than anything else, we are effectively calling them to a gospel of self-improvement rather than one that tells them they can do nothing to improve themselves or their communities at all! Alcoholics anonymous, drug rehab clinics, charities and government schemes all achieve those things too.

If the adage is true that what you win them with, you win them to (or, what you win them with, you will have to keep them with), if that thing isn’t Christ himself, we’ve not really helped anybody. We’ve got to ensure that we convey clearly that the reason Christianity matters is because Christ matters. The reason Christianity is valuable is because Jesus is valuable. The reason to be a Christian is because Jesus is ultimately satisfying and sufficient. The reason Christian works is because of Christ. The reason any of the good things happen in our community is because Jesus makes them happen. We need to be clear with people that what matters is not the fruit per se, it is Christ. Jesus is what makes Christianity unique. What he gives us, what he does for us, what he effects in us.

And so, we need to be clear what questions people are asking. We shouldn’t tell them they’re the wrong questions to ask either. But if they want to know why Christianity matters, that starts and ends with Jesus, his truth claims, the evidence for it and the what he gives to us. If they want to know if Christianity works, that starts with the fruit of our belief and works backwards to show that the fruit is only a result of our trust in Jesus.

But if Eddie is going to change the question, I’m going to have to change my answer. Not that the questions he is asking are wrong, of course! But they are clearly different.