Conversation with a None in the sauna

“This seems like a great place to meditate,” he said. I usually don’t talk to people in the sauna other than God. It’s too hot to carry on much of a conversation. So I said back to the guy, “Yeah, I really like to pray when I’m in here,” which at least partly meant, “I’m praying; leave me alone.” But then he said back to me, “I don’t know how to pray,” and I was like, okay, God, make it a little more obvious that you’re testing me. So I said, “In my faith tradition, I have learned to say what we call the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner. I say it over and over again to focus on God and let go of the things that are holding me back from connecting with Him.” And so it began.

He shared with me that he grew up Hindu but he didn’t go to the temple because all the prayers that they said at the temple didn’t seem to make much of a difference in how his fellow Hindus lived their lives. He said the most important thing is to listen to your conscience and follow what it tells you so that then you can have inner peace. I tried to be respectful and use terminology from his religion which I somewhat bungled, at least according to him. I asked him if it was right to call the inner peace moksha and following your conscience dharma, and basically he said not exactly.

I said that for me, the biggest problem with following my conscience is all the walls that I put up trying to pretend that I haven’t made any mistakes and that Jesus makes it possible for me to have integrity about my mistakes and receive healing and deliverance from them. He said that he already knew all about Christianity, because in the military in India, he had to study all the religions they could possibly encounter in order to know how to interact with them respectfully (India is much more religiously pluralistic than America). He said something along the lines of all religions being the same and that he was mostly an atheist which I guess makes him a “None” to use the religious categories of the recent Pew Study of American religious life.

I can’t remember all the details of the rest of the conversation. I was living in two paradigms at the same time, trying to have a respectful interfaith conversation in order to learn what God had to teach me through a man who was my elder by about 30 years, but also cautiously and respectfully sharing with him what God has taught me. I think I was mostly faithful as a witness, perhaps a little too timid. I’m hoping that seeds were planted. He clearly wouldn’t have said, “I don’t know how to pray,” if he wasn’t looking for something. There was one point in the conversation where I got a little aggressive and he started to talk as though he were more Hindu than he had let on, so I backed off a little bit.

I certainly wasn’t going to say, “If you died today, do you think that you would go to heaven or hell?” I don’t disbelieve that there are two eternal destinies (which I join Carson Clark in understanding very differently according to the Eastern Orthodox conception). But I think that is utterly the wrong way to introduce the gospel to anyone. It’s one thing when you’re at a 19th century camp meeting (which is where this form of evangelism originated) in an America where almost all people were at least nominally Christian and everyone in attendance has come expecting to be pummeled with fire and brimstone by the preacher in order to be carried ecstatically to an experience of God’s deliverance. But the idea of engaging strangers on the sidewalk or in the sauna with that question is utterly ludicrous to me, and I’ve finally acquired the courage to say plainly that it’s not Biblical.

You have to read the Bible very creatively to get it to support that form of evangelism. Famous sidewalk heckler Ray Comfort is willing to twist up Bible stories to support his evangelism by bullying method and even has the gall to call it “the Way of the Master.” I wrote about what people like him have done with the John 4 story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. This approach is often backed by an arsenal of Bible verses from Paul’s letters, but we often forget that every single one of those letters was written to people who were already Christian, so insofar as we have to walk on that lily-of-the-field-smothering Romans Road, we do so for the sake of discipleship, not evangelism.

One of the most important books I’ve read on evangelism is Live To Tell: Evangelism for a Postmodern Age by Brad Kallenberg. Kallenberg was a hard-core 4 Spiritual Law Romans Roader as a campus minister in the 80’s and 90’s. He trained the students under him to do 5 minute sidewalk sinner’s prayer conversations, but as time went on, he realized how utterly ineffective this “evangelism” was. Most of the people who let you “pray Jesus into their hearts” when you go about it this way are doing so because they’re tired of arguing and they just want you to leave.

The type of evangelism that Kallenberg proposes is much more organic and patient, recognizing that when somebody is drawn into Christianity, it is rarely a Damascus Road experience, but more often a gradual transformation by which Jesus becomes a part of the story that they tell about their lives. Though Kallenberg’s evangelism is mostly long-term relationship-building, there is a place for interacting with strangers, but it’s about awakening curiosity rather than attacking their dignity according to the terms of a worldview that they haven’t accepted and are probably unfamiliar with.

I actually have quite a few sauna conversations. A young man several weeks ago who has been having a tough time opened up to me about his struggles and his aspirations. Because of the nature of what he was sharing, it felt appropriate to invite to him to my church and tell him that I would be praying for him. I don’t know what God will do in the life of my new agnostic Hindu friend. Maybe he’ll feel challenged to go back to his temple. Maybe he’ll walk in the door of a Christian church. I just hope that I was faithful and that God will show me how to be a better witness if I wasn’t.

6 thoughts on “Conversation with a None in the sauna

  1. I’ve been working on figuring out a new way of “planting a seed” evangelism. I think it’s a mistake to think that one encounter will bring a person to Christ, but perhaps we can plant a little seed that piques curiosity or make some one think. What I’m working with right now is basically, “my faith teaches me that God is love, so anyone who is devoted to love is in some way devoted to love. But really being devoted to love is hard – things go wrong it can be costly which is what Jesus’ life and teachings have taught me. Being willing to sacrifice for love is what I think Jesus’ life tells us. And we can trust that however hard and painful it might be, God will redeem it – like when Jesus died and was resurrected. Of course, we’re going to screw up on the way, but my faith teaches me that because of the work of Jesus, my sins are forgiven, so I just need to keep picking myself up and trying again.” Obviously, there’s more to Christianity than that, but I want to frame it in a way which is both faithful and rather different than what most people have heard before. When I’ve done this, most people have responded in a way which seems to indicate that they might have to think about that. I figure if I can point people to God in whatever way possible, I can trust God to do the rest.

  2. This is a lovely story, Morgan. Thank you. And thanks to Brad Kallenberg for writing well about the transition/transformation he went through from 4 Laws to lifestyle evangelism, meeting and loving people over the long haul. Praying with you for your new sauna partner, that he might find that emptiness filled with grace.

  3. I don’t have a lot of sauna conversations…mostly because being half-naked with men in a steamy room in a towel is not something I do on a regular basis. I do get into a lot of coffee-shop conversations. I’ve been learning that just asking questions helps. Asking questions as long as you can until the Holy Spirit gives you something actually worth saying, something that person needed to hear–they might start to listen to you after that. I mean, I’m not shy about the Gospel, or talking about Christianity. It usually comes up pretty fast. (“Well, what do you do for a living?…” “Oh, I teach ancient Greek and Hebrew literature…”)

    In any case, I think you probably were a good witness. I myself usually jump in on assertions like, “All religions are the same” sort of things, but, I gotta figure God had you there at that time for a good purpose.

    Blessings, bro!

    • Yeah when you get to be a yuppie like me, you’ll probably find yourself in the sauna more often as a way of letting off some steam. Sorry bad pun. Yeah I kind of rolled my eyes at the whole “All religions are the same” line. I’m not sure how to respond to something like that because I don’t want to be argumentative. I normally just say things along the line of “Well, what I’ve found in my spiritual journey is…”

      • I think a question is a good way. Something like, “Really, how do you figure?” Or, if you want to call shenanigans a little more forcefully, “Really, you think they’re all the same? Even insert X and Y?” I mean, you’re asking them, giving them a chance to explain themselves, and you’re getting them to consider the statement they just uttered. Honestly, questions, are super helpful at that point.

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