Talking about Jesus with non-Christian friends is a lot like talking about sex with children. The parallel is imperfect, I know. Still, I’m surprised at how much insight can be drawn from such a comparison. Think about it with me.
First of all, conversations about Jesus or about sex are best done in the context of relationship. Not that open-air preaching or 7th grade health classes are inappropriate; they’re just not the most effective. Such significant conversations typically work a lot better when nurtured by hours and hours of developing and observing a trustworthy relationship. Just like kids are naturally inclined to trust their parents for life’s most important lessons (provided, of course, that the parents generally prove themselves to be trustworthy), non-Christians will be a lot more willing to listen to a friend sharing about Jesus if they’re confident that the friendship is a real friendship: not just some bait-and-switch evangelistic technique. On the other hand, if some stranger just walks up and starts unloading on a non-Christian about Jesus, or unloading on an elementary school kid about sex, it just feels perverse and inappropriate. On rare occasions, such random interactions can work out all right — especially when involving direct questions and audience-appropriate answers reflecting a sense of delicacy and propriety. But more often than not, the uninitiated can walk away from these out-of-the-blue interactions feeling violated and disturbed.
Secondarily, my experience suggests that Jesus-education and sex-education work best when given in small doses — not in one awkward, overwhelming information dump. With our children, for instance, my wife and I started their “sex-education” very young — with simple bath-time reminders about the privacy of one’s private parts (aimed at protecting them from any kind of inappropriate touching). As they grew and became aware of their bodies, we spoke frankly with them about the proper names and functions for each part of the human anatomy. And when we sensed the time was right — based on a subjective analysis of their mental development and social stimuli — we deliberately filled them in on the more complete picture of how sex works and what sex means. With our children, this has pretty much meant “full disclosure” by early elementary school age: not too early in life, before they were really ready to handle such information, but not too late in life either, after they’d already figured things out for themselves through alternative sources of information (or misinformation). Timely, relaxed, contextualized, candid, and considerate communication has informed our children’s sex-education each step of the way, and as a result we’ve never really had the awkward “moment of epiphany.” Their awareness of sex has simply developed as the rest of their consciousness has developed. It’s been great, honestly. But how often do Christians get to experience this same dynamic in their attempts at “Jesus-education” among their non-Christian friends?
Too often, we put too much emphasis on “The Talk.” And too often, this happens too late in the relationship (if ever). Perhaps it’s because this is how we, ourselves, first learned about Jesus or about sex — but our minds naturally seem to drift towards this image of a single, solemn, monumental presentation of all the relevant information in one sitting. We get nervous about giving “The Talk,” but eventually we psyche ourselves up for it and plow through it with little awareness of how the information is actually being received. Then, we give a little slap on the back, say “I’m glad that we had this talk,” and then go on about our business without ever checking back in for further processing. It doesn’t work well for middle-school children learning about sex, and it doesn’t work well for non-Christians learning about Jesus.
Finally, the attitude of the initiated toward the subject sets the tone for everything. Those of us who are coming from a place of experience can make it seem really awkward and uncomfortable — even as we’re trying to say how natural and how great it really is to know Jesus, or to experience sex. It’s in our non-verbals, as well as the language that we use to describe things. If the initiated individual is comfortable talking about the subject, then the uninitiated will also feel comfortable most of the time. But awkwardness breeds awkwardness, and sometimes these conversations can go so badly that we’re emotionally-scarred for many years thereafter.
I don’t always handle these conversations perfectly — either with Jesus-education or with sex-education — but I’m learning as I go. And if you ask me, learning is a very good thing.