Sara Billups is a Seattle-based writer exploring faith and culture and the co-host of the Ebenezer Podcast. Read more on her website and Instagram and in her occasional newsletter, Bitter Scroll. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Last January, I made an unusual resolution. On New Year’s Day, like many people, I peel the plastic off a new planner and imagine its pages filled with earnest but unlikely ambitions, from reading the Bible cover to cover to praying the Examen every night. But last year, instead of changing a daily practice, I set out to change a pattern: I would begin to speak openly about my Christian faith. Doing so would require revealing my relationship with Jesus to many people outside of my church community for the first time.
I’m a resident of the “None Zone,” a title the Pacific Northwest was given nearly two decades ago thanks to a high percentage of residents that claim no affiliation with any religion. In a 2017 Gallup poll of Washington state, 47% of American adults identified as not religious compared to 33% of the general population. Seattle, in particular, is one of many progressive American cities where the cultural narrative says Christians are an anomaly at best or anti-intellectual and backward at worst.
When I made my New Year’s resolution, I had been living in Seattle for 15 years. I knew how to walk the line. If I met a non-Christian, I’d carefully consider when to reveal that I attend church. More likely than not, I wouldn’t mention it at all. When I was in grad school during that time, a friend was flummoxed to discover my Christian faith through a blog post I’d written, since I’d only talked about my Jewish family. When I did mention my faith, I would do all I could to let people know that I’m a Christian but not that kind of Christian—one that fits an urbanite’s “straw man” stereotype of evangelicals. I wanted to be the sort of believer you could invite to your party.
Over time, the strategy of withholding my relationship with Jesus began to backfire, and I started to wither inside. It takes time and energy to present different sides of yourself to different people; no one can be their own PR manager forever. I was swimming in murky and lukewarm waters in both my online and real lives, and I’d become disingenuous and detached. The vibrancy of my faith was suffering, too.
After decades of “playing it cool” in hopes that I’d pass an imaginary litmus test from my many agnostic and spiritual-but-not-religious friends, let me tell you: It only gets weirder to talk about faith the longer you wait.
I was well aware of the risks of opening up. I knew what it looked like when conversations with non-Christian friends went south, because it had happened to me several times over the years. These scenarios didn’t end in confrontation but in ghosting. Once, sitting outside a cafe in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, I told a public radio producer about my faith life and church attendance. The heavy weight of silence after I spoke was palpable. We finished our coffee, shuffled through a few more minutes of awkward conversation, and then bussed the table. I never heard from him again.
A similar scenario played out with an acquaintance I met in a writing class. Over pizza at a restaurant near downtown, I told her about my family of origin and talked about how my faith impacts my ethical framework. Instead of inquiring further, the conversation flatlined. We finished a final slice and parted ways.
I spent the next several years playing out in my head (and then avoiding) similar scenes with other acquaintances. But then the Spirit began to convict me in prayer to move past the shame I’d attached to the gospel. Slowly, God revealed the paradox I had created: The thing I most value, life with God, was the thing I’d hidden for fear of judgment.
During this past year of practicing a more public witness, I’ve learned a few things.
First, when we withhold our identities as Christians, we tacitly participate in the cultural narrative that we can manage how we message ourselves. The need for peer acceptance becomes an idol. But the Christian story reminds us that we can’t predict the outcome of our lives, nor can we control how others perceive or receive us. The Christian life resists the category of “personal branding.” Instead, it is generative and others-facing.
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Source: Christianity Today