Paul Prather

Paul Prather: 10 friendly suggestions for discussing your beliefs

In religion, there are few challenges thornier than discussing your faith with those who aren't part of your particular faith group.

I consider myself an evangelical Christian, among other things, which by definition means I tend to talk openly about what I believe.

But even if you're not an evangelical, even if you're not a Christian at all, even if you don't believe in God, sooner or later somebody at your office or in your apartment building or on your softball team will ask you to explain your religion or lack thereof.

Here are 10 friendly suggestions for discussing your faith, whatever it may be, without becoming an intolerant prig or a coma-inducing bore.

1. Tell your own story. Not many people give a snap about your pet theories on eschatology or your favorite passages from theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Everybody is a sucker for a good tale. Talk about key events in your life that shaped your beliefs.

2. Show the "before" and "after." A simple way to frame your story is to explain what your life was like before you arrived at your present tenets, and how it's different — and, if you're fortunate, improved — now.

3. Be honest. Don't sugarcoat your struggles, doubts or moral failures. Tell the plain truth. To misappropriate a line from Mark Twain, this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.

4. Be concise. Being honest doesn't mean pummeling people with every last detail of your three divorces, your addiction to meth or your former career as a flamenco dancer. Give your listener the Reader's Digest version.

5. Stay humble. Nobody possesses all the answers. If someone asks a difficult philosophical question and you don't know how to respond, say: "I don't know." If the other person wants to argue over an arcane point regarding the Second Coming of Jesus, politely disengage. Say, "Well, you could be right." Because she may be right. Even if she's not, and she probably isn't, you won't convince her by fighting with her.

6. Don't apologize for your background or your beliefs. Whether you came from a family of snake-handlers or attended a tony prep school, so what? That's your story. Whether you speak in tongues or practice Buddhist meditation, that's your right. Whether you possess only a ninth-grade education or hold a doctorate in Persian pottery, that doesn't invalidate your experiences with God, who equally loves uneducated people and folks with doctorates. You are who you are. Be who you are. God will use it.

7. Never judge or condemn the other person's background or beliefs. As you explain your faith, it's likely he will also explain his, and his may sound strange to your ears. Resist all temptation to feel superior. No one believes what he believes in a vacuum. He believes for reasons valid to him — and that may be valid indeed. If you'd led his life, you might believe as he does. Never judge his morals, either. If you'd faced the problems he has faced, you might be a worse sinner than he is; for that matter, in God's sight, you might be a worse sinner already.

8. Avoid church-speak. Go easy on the hallelujahs and Scriptures. Talk in plain, easily understood English. Unless you're in France. Then speak French if you're able. The goal is to communicate like a human being, not a religious puppet.

9. Preach Good News, not Bad News. I remember, 40 years ago, standing in front of my fraternity house with a few buddies. We were drinking beer and minding our own business. A sanctimonious guy came stalking down the sidewalk, stopped, pointed his finger at us and shouted, "You're all going to hell! Every one of you!" Bad icebreaker, religion-wise. Instead, try a little tenderness, as the old soul song says.

10. Don't worry about making converts. You're not selling auto insurance. You don't have to close the deal. Only God can change another person's heart, just as only God was able to change your heart — and presumably is still changing it. You're here to bear witness to your truth, to sow a seed. The Lord's capable of handling the rest of it on his own.