Would you expect an admirer to discredit you for being winsome? According to a few of his fans, one beloved public figure is not strident enough for our cultural moment. This leader has directed his energy and notoriety to build local churches and coalitions rather than a personal empire. Recently, he has been targeted for his lack of militancy in public life. After so many Christian celebrity fails and so much outrage in general, it hardly seems time to press for a sharper tone.
Nevertheless, a few notable figures in media recommend just that kind of shift. In his article in First Things, James R. Woods writes, “…being winsome in this moment will not guarantee a favorable hearing.” To accent his point, Woods centers his critique on one of his heroes. Tim Keller planted a church in NYC when many congregations were headed to the suburbs. For decades he has opened lines of communication across divides of worldview and politics. Nevertheless, Woods suggests his approach is outdated.
On the contrary, here are four keys to building bridges in public life and crossing them without compromising one’s message, no matter how stiff the wind….
A winsome tone is not a compromise
Keller has spent more time than most engaging people who question Christianity. He’s not blunt and concrete about moral issues before such audiences. Bright lines of truth do not always help clarify controversy. That can come across like you’ve not yet dealt with the other point of view or faced the complexity. As someone who’s been married more than a week understands, you can win an argument without winning someone to it.
Younger leaders like Woods are understandably frustrated about Christianity’s waning influence in American culture. But I’m not sure how playing whack-a-mole with every straying public policy will win friends and influence people. Addressing opinions this way misses a core reality within most debated issues. Secular culture wants maximum personal autonomy. Gender, sexuality, and even abortion all stand as proxy for this deeper issue.
How do you address the chaos that comes with so much emphasis on personal freedom and so little concern for public norms? Some younger Christian leaders answer with words, words, words. They’ve been formed by the attention economy: Never miss a news cycle, get scrappier, and show them who’s really on the right side of history. Kierkegaard provides a call back to the main thing: “Christianity did not come in order to develop the heroic virtues in the individual but rather to remove self-centeredness and establish love.” Biblical Christianity is inherently winsome.
A concern for the oppressed is not a compromise
Jesus explicitly instructs Christians to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. The call is to the margins, not to circle the wagons. I understand the concern these days about reducing faith to social activism. That can happen when people on the left get disillusioned with gaps between haves and have nots and blame Christianity as complicit with the status quo. But it can happen on right as well. A Christian message that neglects contact with people on the margins, mediated only by angry rhetoric, does not translate well to the general public.
The early church had massive influence because they spoke with words and deeds. A letter from the Roman Emperor Julian explains how Christianity went from the persecuted fringe to the official faith of Rome.
The religion of the Greeks does not yet prosper as I would wish, on account of those who profess it. Why then do we not observe how the kindness of Christians to strangers, their care for the burial of their dead, and the sobriety of their lifestyle has done the most to advance their cause?
The Christian message directs us inward to address the human condition. And it directs us outward to address social conditions. History bears out that healing hurts can earn the right to be heard. We can speak to the moral causes of that hurt when we understand the truth behind the cliche—they don’t care what you know till they know that you care.
Non-partisan is not a compromise
The main criticism of Keller centers on his “3rd Way” approach to public life. It’s more about standing for than against. More about finding common ground without compromise than going for dramatic partisan wins. Woods thinks this approach no longer works in an age of an aggressive secular agenda and hostility toward the church.
I agree with Woods’s assessment that secularism has become a bully. For example, individual autonomy cannot be challenged without consequences. Guardians of this view use victims as a shield and the label “oppressor” as a sword. It’s naive to think Christianity can just stroll along in such an environment. Activists like Richard Dawkins aggressively discredit anyone who suggests human beings are accountable to a higher authority.
So, we should indeed stay in public life and not stand back in some holy huddle. But people get it when you’re driven by fear to garner power. It’s not a good look, as they say— like just another tribe battling for control. We must learn to frame every position in terms of WHO we are for, not just WHAT we are against.
Love is not a compromise
To love someone is the will their good. There’s nothing sentimental about that. Sometimes it takes patience. William Wilberforce prevailed in bringing down the slave trade not by hating the slave traders but loving them–wanting something better for us all including them. MLK Jr. did not want justice only for black Americans but he could see how diminishing the dignity of one race diminishes the dignity of all.
Again, I’m as concerned as anyone about our culture’s slide toward Gomorrah. The fact that I’d put it this way tells you where I stand on a whole host of issues. But I have noticed after decades of pastoral ministry that people are not mainly thinkers with feelings but feelers with thoughts. Emotional arguments are frustrating to deal with. Trying to argue someone out of one is like trying to put out a grease fire with a squirt gun. Christians in public life can speak with far greater force when love is the motivating force.
Love carries weight
Paul’s most famous passage is often called “the love chapter.” It’s pretty funny and a little sobering to read carefully what Paul says about speaking truth without love. He calls even the most knowledgable person, driven by anything but love, a lightweight (1 Cor. 13:2). Why? I’ll leave you with these five reasons. IF I AM…
…interested in winning the argument but not winning you to it, then I have not love.
…willing to exchange influence for power, then my actions say, “I don’t really trust in a sovereign God.”
…ready to let ends to justify means, then I may need greater faith in the providence of God.
…determined to speak of every election cycle as a potential apocalypse, then I may have confused America with the Kingdom of God.