Last month I was helping out with a number of student missions. One mainstay of the university mission is a "lunch bar." The Christian Union provides free food, there's a talk (often with a provocative title) and then the speaker fields questions.
I was not the lunchtime speaker at the last mission I helped with so I got to sit in the audience and watch. What I learnt at those lunch bars has stayed with me because it has implications that go far beyond the student world. Here's how it unfolded...
The talk titles for this mission were fairly provocative and the Q&A session was facilitated by a roving mic which the questioners held to command the room. Those two facts led to an interesting and perhaps predictable dynamic. Only certain people have the confidence to take the mic and therefore if it's a particularly hot topic, you are in for a spicy 10-15 minutes at the end.
What happened pretty much every day was that we had a number of Christians from the CU, a number of guests of those Christians, some randoms who came for the food and some randoms who came for the hot topic. We then heard an excellent talk which tried to honour the question but which was basically a presentation of Jesus in 20 heart-warming minutes. Then the questions came. Invariably those who self-identified as unbelieving took the mic first and asked pointed questions. Every now and again a genuine enquirer was brave enough to ask a question on topic, but not often. And by the time our hour was up, we'd gotten well and truly off the beaten track into the realm of "Old Testament genocide" or some other subject equally far from the set topic.
Once the official time was up though the temperature in the room cooled significantly. We would turn to our neighbour and almost invariably their reaction to the event was:
"Hadn't thought about any of that before."
"My granddad died last month and it's made me wonder."
After every lunch bar we'd have sensational conversations - about the John's Gospels given out, about the talk, about random "religious questions" they'd always wanted to ask. Very little mention was made about the Q&A and if there was conversation about it, the number one impression they got was how the speaker reacted to the angry questioners. Very few could even remember what was said, even though it was just minutes earlier.
And here's what I've been thinking ever since: Don't be cowed by the angry questioner with the mic. He doesn't speak for the room and "refuting" him isn't the goal. We can try to respond thoughtfully sure. But our deeper goal is to engage graciously and our ultimate priority does not lie with the mockers. They sneered in the Areopagus (Acts 17) and they will sneer today. So what? Paul preached, some sneered, some believed, Paul moved on. Let the sneerers take the hindmost.
How often are we intimidated by those who have the microphone - those who speak loudest in the media - those who set themselves up as spokespeople for the culture? We could spend all our time fretting about the messages that dominate the airwaves. We could waste our days wishing to wrest the mic from others or fantasizing about how we might refute them publicly with devastating smack-downs. Or we could just get on and preach the gospel, ignore the sneers - they will always come - and engage our neighbours who just aren't where the sneerers are at.
Don't be deceived - the guy on the mic does not speak for the room. Those in the media do not speak for your friends. Preach the gospel, turn to your neighbour and let's engage those conversations - the fields are still white for harvest.