‘I can’t believe in religion! It is the cause of too many conflicts around the world.’ So one of the service users of our social work services told me earlier, in no uncertain terms. And now I find myself sitting down to write from a chaplain’s perspective on presenting Christianity to a sceptical world!

Being a chaplain means being out there, meeting people where they are in the midst of life, amidst the joys and sorrows, the messiness and busyness of the everyday. One of the things I notice about this is that people are not slow to tell me what they think of the church and religions generally. Indeed there is often a refreshing honesty about the conversations with people outside the church. Perhaps people in churches feel they cannot say such things to their ministers, or that they should show a minister their faith not their doubts!

But the reality is that most of us, however long we have been Christians, have questions, doubts and reservations. That’s what being sceptical means according to the dictionary, Sceptical: not easily convinced; having doubts or reservations. It seems important to me to meet honesty with honesty, and let’s face it there are difficult passages in the Bible that are hard to reconcile with modern day understandings, the church does have something of a chequered history, and I’m not always proud of what she says or does. So my response to the encounter I started with was to try not to go on the defensive but to agree that religion hasn’t always managed to live out a message of peace and reconciliation. Not going on the defensive is important as often people makes comments out of their own defensiveness. It’s better to try to diffuse the situation. To the rough sleeper in the day centre who when I introduce myself to him says somewhat belligerently ‘I don’t go to church’, I may well respond that that puts him in a majority in this country and I’m the oddity because I do! We laugh and the conversation continues…

I find it is also important to try and get behind the statements made or questions asked. Having in some way tried to draw alongside by not being defensive and acknowledging their point, I might well follow up with a question such as ‘Is there a particular reason you say that?’ Sometimes it is something current in the news that sparks the comment – a war, a revelation of abuse by those in a position of religious authority. In those cases I listen, and often an interesting discussion opens up. Sometimes a person will dare to share that it is their experience, this is how a church has treated them. Then the important thing is to listen now as a representative of the church, to hold the story as precious, perhaps to say I am sorry to hear how they were treated. In essence I am trying to embody another, different, picture of Christianity to what they experienced previously. Such trust is not easily won, and will require patience, remembering, and ensuring I acknowledge them the next time I see them. In a world that is sceptical, even cynical, about religion then the integrity of my actions with my words is important. And where I make mistakes, which I do, it is important to apologize rather than make excuses.

There are times when people don’t seem to really want the conversation to actually go anywhere. They just want to tell me all that’s wrong with the church, the world etc. Whilst I will listen the first time, if the conversation just repeats without going anywhere then I find it better to spend my time elsewhere, mindful of Jesus instruction to his disciples to shake the dust from their feet where they did not find a welcome. I’m not in the business of forcing people talk deeply of spiritual things, but neither am I willing to just be a whipping horse! I will always still smile and wave at them next time I see them and maybe in due time we will have a different conversation.

Others are really keen to discuss matters of spirituality. I am endlessly fascinated by the discussions at the Day Centre Spirituality Group that are wide-ranging and deep. The group suggests the topics they want to look at and we arrange that into a programme drawing people in as guest speakers where needed. Here I do find myself at times doing ‘Christian Apologetics’, though I would never call it that in the group! But often people have only ideas gained from the media about what Christianity is about and are hugely helped to have a safe space in which to ask their questions. These often come back to how we approach the Bible and it seems important to me to share that whilst all Christians see the bible as authorative and formative for our faith that is not the same as taking it literally.

But the lively discussions we have in the group, together with many of the one to one conversations make me want to question the theme of this Cross Currents. In my experience the world is less sceptical than questioning. Many people do have some sort of belief. In the Census of 2011 25.1% of the population reported they had no religion. Whilst this was an increase from 14.8% a decade earlier, and whilst 7.2% of the population that still leaves a substantial majority of the population counting themselves as religious in some way. That gives a great starting point in terms of having conversations.

I do think apologetics will only go so far. In my experience, you can’t argue people into the kingdom of God. Again to take issue with the theme, in a sense I don’t try and present Christianity to the world, I do try and present Christ, and the Christ-like God, and explain why the understanding I have inspires me in the choices I make in life, helps me make some sort of sense of a complex world, supports me in times of difficulty and enables me to seek for myself and others life in its fullness.

I end these reflections with another story: one of our service users said to me recently ‘You’re going to a lot of trouble for us Ruth’, ‘Because you’re worth it!’ I quipped back quickly. But I meant it, everyone I encounter is deeply loved by God, enough that God gave his Son for us, and I need not to be defensive, cynical or judgemental about the world however it responds, but find ways of humbly sharing faith.

Ruth Bottoms, Chaplain to Social Work