Can Christians Really Care About People?

There is a nagging question I struggled with during my last year at my Christian university. When I made public that I had turned away from the Christian faith, the responses were much more varied than I had anticipated. A few were blatantly negative: “I’m disappointed in you,” one girl told me. Most were simply curious. But the strangest thing happened, people who I had never spoken to before began suddenly popping up in my life. Most of these individuals are part of what I came to affectionately-not pejoratively-call the “God Squad.” It became obvious though that these people were concerned with one thing: getting me saved. Most of them were tactful enough to not go right for ‘the conversation,’ but it was fairly apparent that their only concern was that I was a lost soul who needed redeeming. And they were there to kill me with kindness for Jesus.

I didn’t mind, really. If a bit misled, and more than a bit patronizing, the gesture was at least well intentioned. In their defense, they had my eternal soul at heart. You have to appreciate the effort. But it does call into question the extent to which these people actually care about their non-Christian friends as people rather than projects. I am fairly certain that under normal circumstances I would never engage in any kind of friendship with the people I’m referring to, we simply don’t share much in common. Yet they were willing to transcend our differences with an alternative motive.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing out an accusation that these Christians are disingenuous. But it seems to be an interesting psychological bit that they would be motivated to attempt befriending me, the heathen atheist sinner kid. It got me thinking about how I perceived my non-Christian friends when I myself was a believer, and I think I perhaps suffered from the same syndrome.

Interestingly, one of the largest barriers to my atheism was that I had an atheist friend. In my mind, the ultimate purpose of our friendship was for me to somehow learn how to answer his objections to faith and bring him back into the fold. I never would have admitted it then, but a big chunk of my time and effort into that friendship was spent working to get him “saved.” That kind of concerted effort to convert someone really clouds your perception of them. It wasn’t until after my de-conversion that I really learned to value him as a friend for who he was. I mean, that element was there before, but it was trumped by my quasi-conscious goal of getting him saved. That’s only one example, I can think of dozens of people who I invested time and energy in because I wanted to draw them toward faith.

The question, then, is can Christians really care about people as individuals? Or non-Christians doomed to remain generic unsaved souls in need of a savior? It’s a question I’ve been dealing with for a while now. It causes no small bit of paranoia in discerning the motivations of my Christian friends. I mean a lot of people are very obvious–the ones who all the sudden started saying “hi” to me when we would pass, but I had no recollection of ever meeting them before. But how many of the people who I was already friends with all the sudden reduced my personhood to “atheist” and nothing more?

It’s really a fascinating psychological question to wrestle with. By definition, Christians (evangelical, anyway) must attempt to propagate their faith by converting others. With that kind of driving motivation, how can they possibly care about the person as an individual? At the very least it creates a very fine line between genuine and patronizing. Certainly many Christian charity workers donate their time to the homeless because they are driven by compassion for the individual persons, but then how many Christians donate their time because the homeless represent a distinct example of the “lost?”

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15 Responses to “Can Christians Really Care About People?”

  1. croixian1 Says:

    Very interesting point. I am an atheist myself and I would like to expand on your original question of whether Christians really care about people.

    Several months ago a caught a news article on Yahoo! about a church missionary group in Africa. (Many apologies, I’ve since forgotten the name of the church) They went there to assist in the handing out of food, water, clothing and minor medical care and medicines. Fortunately they were caught withholding all of these items and services until the local ‘clans’ and communities went into a tent nearby and listened to an Evangelical sermon.

    This church group was removed from this ‘outpost’ area and sent back to America.

    So this plays right into your original question, did these Christians really care about the people, or did they really care about increasing the head count in their flock?

  2. Derek Rishmawy Says:

    Yeah, I understand you on this one to a degree. I’ve often gotten annoyed with other Christians and even gotten into arguments with some street-evangelist people over this kind of thing. There is something kind of off with the way some of them go about it or even what they think ought to be their goals. They tried to convert me and seriously pissed me off inthe process. That being said, I think its a bit of a false dichotomy between “actually caring about someone” and “just trying to save their soul.” The reason most of these people are trying to save your soul is because they care about you, even if a bit abstractly at first. I dunno, its kind of like asking whether a doctor actually cares for you just because he’s always trying to get you to improve your health when he’s with you.

    As for Croixian1’s comments: I’d like to point out that these people left America to go to AFRICA. I’m going to say its pretty safe to assume that the host church is in America and is not likely expecting to have the African villagers start showing up on Sunday and contributing a tithe! Oh, and I’d like to point out: sitting through one sermon is small price to pay for supplies and food all that. Also, think about it from these missionary people’s point of view: what’s more important? Food for a week or knowing Jesus forever? To the missionary, it’s knowing Jesus forever, so in their mind they making sure they are loving these people by making sure that they hear about Jesus. You might not agree with them, but since they’re the ones who actually went to Africa to help these people while you only read about them on Yahoo, I hardly think you’re in a positiion to look down your nose at them on this one.

  3. croixian1 Says:

    So Derek, you find it acceptable to force your beliefs on someone else in exchange for food, shelter and medicine? How very Christian of you.

  4. Just for the sake of providing a balanced view… first of all, the missionaries weren’t forced to go to Africa in order to dispense supplies–credit is due there (though I have some qualms with certain consequences of short-term mission trips). Also, I’m hoping that they weren’t aggressively forcing people to attend the service inside.

    On the other hand, I do think it is a bit in poor taste to withhold supplies in order to earn converts. At the very least, I would question the theological underpinning that creates an attitude of that nature.

    But then again, at least two of us are lacking on the details of the event.

    My ultimate point is that for me when I was a Christian, and in my observations of other Christians, there is a way in which peoples value is reduced to whether or not they conform to Christian belief. The difference between that and a doctor is that the doctor makes no pretense that his first priority is the health of a patient.

  5. guiltyconscience Says:

    CTC, I have been following your blog for quite some time now and would like to express my appreciation for your honest and earnest questions and reasoning. Thank you.

    In regard to the Christian’s capability to care for others, you pose an interesting question. I agree with Derek in that perhaps the intentions in requiring the Africans in contact with these missionaries are pure. It may be the case that from their genuine care for the individuals present in that community was their motivation for going to Africa. Yet I understand croixian’s point.

    I agree that force does not seem to be the idealistic way of going about the communication of care, though it seems to be the “Christian” way of doing things. From the parable of the lepers, it is clear that Jesus’ did not withhold any services from non-believers. In fact, there was only one who returned to thank him. So, where do evangelicals get off withholding services until someone comes to faith. There are plenty of people who are turned away-not officially, but through the cold shoulder because of their lack of conformity. The frustrating thing is that sometimes it’s merely a matter of social status, sexual orientation, political affiliation, etc… Way to exemplify love, grace, and all that jazz.

    Short-term missions, something that seems a fad in Christian churches at the moment. I would be interested in hearing more about your “qualms with short-term mission trips”.

    GC

  6. Derek Rishmawy Says:

    General clarification: Based on what I know of the situation down there, I likely would have gone about things differently in the distribution of things. In fact, when I went down to serve in New Orleans after Hurricaine Katrina, my church did do things differently. We handed out food and clothes to anyone and if they wanted to talk that was cool, but if they just wanted to food we didn’t force them to. We always let them know we did it in Jesus’s name, but nobody seemed to mind much, especially since we were giving them stuff that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. I think we can all agree that there is a better way to go about it.

    Croixian: As for “forcing your beliefs on someone in exchange for food”: Seriously? Is that what you got out of my response? Here’s my thing, I would just like a little perspective on the whole thing. Overall, I think what the missionary people were doing was ok. (Overall, not entirely.) They were bringing food to people who wouldn’t have gotten in otherwise, they were supplying them with stuff that they wouldn’t have acquired if it weren’t for them, and they were overall doing a good thing. They shouldn’t have refused services if people didn’t want to hear, but again, I’d like to point out that they were services made possible by the missionary people. Its not like they jacked stuff from the clans and would only return it if they listened or something.

    And by the way, I’d like to point out that its not like they were forcing them to convert. That, would be forcing their beliefs on them. Instead, it seems that they simply wanted them to hear information, a message, that they thought the clanspeople ought to hear and might even love to hear. So, they asked them to take 30 minutes of their time to hear about a God who says he loves them. Realize, missionaries think that Christianity and Jesus are good for people. So, they think people should hear about it. So, they try to find different ways to get people to hear about it. That’s why they’re missionaries. Admittedly, they screw up sometimes, but golly, most of them sacrifice so much, often-times their lives in places like Africa, and do more good than most people so I just think we ought to cut them some slack.

    By the way, CTC, thank you for your balanced view. I truly do appreciate that. And, yes, what you say about the way some Christians view non-Christians is true and quite unfortunate. Thats part of what I got into arguments with some of these street-evangelists about.

  7. guiltyconscience Says:

    Sometimes I wonder if Christians get ahead of themselves. Not all, mind you. I come from a Christian background and began to openly question religion throughout my college years.

    Anyway, sometimes it seems as though Christians want to send the cart ahead of the horse. Derek, I think you’re right. The services that those missionaries were offering wouldn’t have been available had they not traveled to offer them. I just think they may have things out of order. If Christianity is supposed to be so much different than the rest of culture, then it seems that instead of expecting response and assimilation and turning around a good deed in return, the services needed should be provided and then the opportunity to hear the “good news” would follow. If it is truly good news, wouldn’t its sweetness stand to wait through a meal? From what I’ve read in the gospels, that’s what Jesus did: forgive them of their sins, meet their need, offer them the opportunity to decide to follow or to walk away.

    Perhaps it’s not a matter of whether or not Christians are capable of caring for individuals, rather a matter of respect or no real sense of the other. From experience, it was hard as a dogmatic Christian to see another person’s view or to even consider it. There’s not enough open dialogue (That’s why I appreciate this blog)

    Too much fear or something. Evangelical Christianity seems to be all about having the answers everyone else has been looking for. But it’s not always as simple as a blind faith. We can’t just throw reason out the window. I’m rambling…

  8. croixian1 Says:

    Follow up:

    I’ve ripped apart Google trying to find that news article, to no avail. But I seem to remember that ALL aid was being withheld until the local clans sat through a sermon. THAT was the main reason they were sent home. They were free to have the tent and preach from it, but they were not supposed to make it mandatory in order to receive aid.

    I’m not hashing on all Christian Missionary groups, most of them just wish to help others, be they believers or not. Unfortunately there seems to be a growing sect of Christians (Mainly Evangelicals) who feel the need to forcefully promote their beliefs, even when it calls for holding aid hostage.

    This really was an outstanding blog posting, and i enjoyed reading everyone’s responses.

  9. “Can Christians really care about people as individuals?”
    It seems as though you’ve answered your own question:
    “Certainly many Christian charity workers donate their time to the homeless because they are driven by compassion for the individual persons…”

    Clearly, then, it is possible for Christians to care – and indeed “many Christian charity workers” do!

    As for the discussion about the missionary group (croixian1, if you happen to come across this, definitely let us know… it’d be interesting to know more)… I thought of something I recently read in Christianity Today (Sept. 2007 issue). The article can be found at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/september/14.38.html. Jayakumar Christian, the head of World Vision India (I think) said this during the course of the interview:

    “But we insist that in World Vision India, we do not trade our God for development. We do not trade our God to buy relationships. He is too precious for us to be bargaining with, too precious to be bargained for. He is not for sale.”

    That is the viewpoint with which I resonate.

    That said, I certainly agree that one ought to realize that the motivation of these missionaries was potentially – even probably – out of care for the receiving culture. Perhaps misinformed, but nonetheless out of care.

  10. Brian,

    Thanks for the comment.

    As for my basic point, let me boil it down to this:

    Christians who believe in a literal heaven and hell see each person as on track to move to one place or the other after death. Because of this, what is (or at least should be should Christians take seriously their own Scriptures) most important to them is to attempt to make it so that as many people as possible go to heaven and not hell. If Christianity is true, then this is quite noble.

    If, however, Christianity is not true, there is another side to the story. All the work Christians invest in attempting to convert others really misses more important aspects of each persons character, personality, joys, sufferings, etc.

    I suppose, then, that the question really rests on whether or not Christianity is true. If it is, then Christians are quite noble in their efforts to convert others. If it is not, they are demeaning the value of persons on a very grand scale.

  11. guiltyconscience,

    it was hard as a dogmatic Christian to see another person’s view or to even consider it.

    Amen.

  12. Thanks for posing the thought-provoking (and soul-searching) question, “Can Christians Really Care about People?” I’ll be posing it to the people in our church in the very near future!

    Maybe this has already been made clear, but I would like to say that not all “Christians [who] take seriously their own Scriptures,” as was noted in the post today, have such a rigid (and I would say, cartoonish) approach to the Bible or to the world. I would say that those who love God and neighbor and enemy have a very different approach. That’s what dialogue is all about!

  13. I said a couple of weeks ago that I’d be posing your question to the people in our church. If you wish, you can read the result at http://www.wellspring-center.org/to boldly go…well, at least to go.htm

    Please forgive me if I misrepresented you in any way!

  14. H. Sullivan Says:

    Wow, I’ve come across this blog in an interesting fashion. I found this blog by actually Googling ‘Meaningful Love Activities’ to see if there were any ideas out there, other than the ones in my head, to open some peoples’ eyes to the people around them. Then I Googled ‘How to get people to care about their friends.’ I laughed outloud because I couldn’t believe I was actually Googling something like this.

    Thank you for posting the question, “Can Christians Really Care About People?” Please prepare yourself for my rhetoric; I ask a lot of questions. I am starting Campus Crusade at the college I go to, and I’ve been wondering this same thing. In general, if I care about people and am a busy college student, how will I have time to “care” about all of these people myself? If I truly care about them, then I will develop a strong relationship with each person. We will go do things together, help each other, have fun together, and, well, care about each other. My question is, “Is that even feasible?” Is it worth starting an entire ministry if I can’t have a personal relationship with everyone I come in contact with? Is that what ‘caring’ for somebody really is, having a personal, long lasting, mutually beneficial relationship with them? Can I truly ‘care’ about someone I don’t necessarily know well just on the basis that they are another human and I have not reduced them to Christian or Non-Christian? Does positive action count that doesn’t benefit a person directly from my hands in a caring way, but perhaps through someone else’s hands who is helping with Campus Crusade?

    This is just gibberish in a way, but seriously, what would ‘caring’ motivations be for starting an entire college ministry? What I must ask myself is, “What is MY motivation?”

    A: I would like to see college kids, who think they are too cool for school, actually step outside of themselves and start loving and caring for other people. It’s been a long standing question in my mind as to why caring is considered uncool. Some students have a very distinct attitude towards life, that caring about academics is dorky, and likewise, caring too much about another person is mushy. I am not coming from a place of negative experience from this, but I do notice that friends don’t even know their friends so well. That, to me, shows disconcern. I do care for people, all alike, and would like them to know that they are cared about. My problem might be that I care too much. I want to make sure every person has a place to go when in need of care, whether in the form of laughter, hugs, scolding, advice or just to be known and understood. This is something that is hard for some types of college students to find. I’m thinking the 20 year old snowboarder type who only cares about pot, boards and babes. I fear that if their eyes are not opened here, they will leave college and have a small chance of learning to care for others later in life. Should I try to even address this? –Someone stop my babbling, please!

    It seems this blog has not been blogged upon in a while, but I hope someone reads this and tells me what they think, not of my incoherent philosophy, but of the true idea of caring. What does this mean? Is relationship necessary? Because if it is, then I can only care for those that I have made the time to cultivate a meaningful relationship with.

    Please tell me what you think. Thanks for reading/bearing.

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