June 10, 2019

Online Dating and Evangelism?

I feel like I need to tell you upfront that I didn’t join Tinder to spread the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all of my potential matches. I do hope you already knew that. But after three years, a laundry list of bad first dates and a handful of short-term relationships, I learned that I have become readily equipped with all of the skills I need to be an evangelist. I’m no longer involved in online dating rings - moving from the San Francisco Bay Area to Northwest Arkansas meant a swift and jarring shrinking of the dating pool. Also, online dating in a college town when your match radius only reaches the campus population you are responsible for pastoring to is an absolute non-starter. I’m now in an #offline relationship. Still, I use the skill set entrusted to me to by God, developed with a little nurturing by Tinder and OKCupid, every single day. There are quite a few transferable skills between partially blind dating and talking to strangers about Jesus. And maybe, the online platforms that the church has given side eye to are actually doing the work of equipping the saints of God.

When you sign up for online dating you also sign up to meet with near strangers who you may or may not recognize in the bar or coffee shop based on their profile picture. I can now recognize the “are you Samantha?” look from across the room. People who are meeting up with someone they’ve never seen in person have a standard partial eye contact, friendly face vibe. I learned to coach someone on how to identify me. I am no longer intimidated by walking up to someone and ask them if they are waiting on me, even if I might mistake an unsuspecting bystander for the person I am actually trying to meet. Nowadays I regularly get inquiries from college students who want to know more about the Episcopal tradition. Thanks to all the practice I’ve had putting myself out there, for romance and for Jesus, I am no longer afraid of looking foolish or being rejected. These fruitful conversations about God, Jesus, faith, theology, and doctrine wouldn’t happen if I was too intimidated to find a stranger in a coffee shop with only “I’m wearing a striped shirt” to work with.

Most of the time the first question someone you are just getting to know asks is: “What do you do for work?” When you work for a church this means putting your faith out in front. When I first started dating, I contemplated telling people that I worked for a non-profit or did programming for kids, pretty much anything but “I work for a church.” Upon further examination I came to the decision that in order to live authentically I needed to claim all of me, even when I was anxious that another none or done would write me off as un-dateable. To a fellow millennial none or done, being a Christian is actually a liability. It's the quickest way to get rejected or simply misunderstood for being 'that' kind of human.

Once I went out with someone who later told me that they stalked my Instagram (don’t worry this is totally normal millennial behavior) and saw that my timeline has a lot of photos of religious stuff. They said to me: “I almost didn’t show up because of that.” They went on to tell me they didn’t mean this as a mark against my character, their father was a pastor and because of this they were carrying too much Christian baggage of their own.

I had to learn that other people’s religious baggage didn’t undermine or call into question my own conviction. I don't need someone else to affirm my faith, that is a job only I can do. When we act out of fear, we do others and ourselves a disservice. Learning to share all of me, including my Christianity, has been a blessing that came out of many moments of rejection.

I was asked on more than one occasion “But… how religious are you?” when I shared with someone that I am a Christian. My answer: “I spend 40+ hours a week in a church building and feel vocationally called to the church so, like… that religious?”

After answering this question several times it dawned on me that people weren’t actually asking me to rate my religiosity on a scale of one to ten. They were curious about two things: what does it mean to be a practicing Christian and how do my beliefs inform my actions?

Now, people don’t always have the best of intentions. I’m positive that on more than one occasion the asker was attempting to snoop out what my position on sex before marriage is. People were curious about whether I line up with their preconceived notions about Christians. They wanted to know what to expect. Do I drink? Do I swear? Do I listen to music? What kind of Christian am I? How does practicing Christianity shape my life and how might it shape how they relate to me?

In order to address these questions authentically I had to get really good at talking about what I believe and the theological ideas that underscore those beliefs. Many people today are so far removed from religiosity that they can’t imagine what it would look like to be a person of faith practically. Just describing to someone what your theological viewpoints are or what your spiritual practices look like can help them shift their understanding of what it means to be Christian. Being an evangelist requires the ability to articulate your faith in this way.

When you tell someone you are a minister, they probably want to share their list of grievances. If you listen to them in a non-judgmental way, they are probably going to trust you. When someone trusts you, they are probably going to want to tell you more. I got really good at listening to the tough stories that people needed someone to hear. Even though at times it was frustrating to have someone dump their spiritual timeline on me when I was looking for the spark of romance, I am grateful that I cultivated my ability to provide this sort of pastoral care. Today, I am much better at setting boundaries about when I am willing to do emotional labor in this way. Going out on lots of first dates that never turn into second dates you get used to putting yourself out there without a promise of return on investment. This is a key element of evangelism too. Lots of time churches enter the evangelism arena hoping it will earn them more pledge income, young families, or diversity. This approach is self-serving and it turns human relationship into transactions. When we enter any relationship thinking about what we are going to get out of it we fail to live into God’s call to right relationship. I am not motivated to go out and tell people about Jesus for the image boost. My investment of time and energy in sharing the Good News is not given in order to lock in a return of one more saved soul. I tell people about the God I love because God loves me. And because I believe God has the power to give life and to liberate all people.