Last January, I made an unusual resolution. On New Year’s Day, like many people, I peel the plastic off a new planner and imagine its pages filled with earnest but unlikely ambitions, from reading the Bible cover to cover to praying the Examen every night. But last year, instead of changing a daily practice, I set out to change a pattern: I would begin to speak openly about my Christian faith. Doing so would require revealing my relationship with Jesus to many people outside of my church community for the first time.
I’m a resident of the “None Zone,” a title the Pacific Northwest was given nearly two decades ago thanks to a high percentage of residents that claim no affiliation with any religion. In a 2017 Gallup poll of Washington state, 47% of American adults identified as not religious compared to 33% of the general population. Seattle, in particular, is one of many progressive American cities where the cultural narrative says Christians are an anomaly at best or anti-intellectual and backward at worst.
When I made my New Year’s resolution, I had been living in Seattle for 15 years. I knew how to walk the line. If I met a non-Christian, I’d carefully consider when to reveal that I attend church. More likely than not, I wouldn’t mention it at all. When I was in grad school during that time, a friend was flummoxed to discover my Christian faith through a blog post I’d written, since I’d only talked about my Jewish family. When I did mention my faith, I would do all I could to let people know that I’m a Christian but not that kind of Christian—one that fits an urbanite’s “straw man” stereotype of evangelicals. I wanted to be the sort of believer you could invite to your party.
Over time, the strategy of withholding my relationship with Jesus began to backfire, and I started to wither inside. It takes time and energy to present different sides of yourself to different people; no one can be their own PR manager forever. I was swimming in murky and lukewarm waters in both my online and real lives, and I’d become disingenuous and detached. The vibrancy of my faith was suffering, too.
After decades of “playing it cool” in hopes that I’d pass an imaginary litmus test from my many agnostic and spiritual-but-not-religious friends, let me tell you: It only gets weirder to talk about faith the longer you wait.
I was well aware of the risks of opening up. I knew what it looked like when conversations with non-Christian friends went south, because it had happened to me several times over the years. These scenarios didn’t end in confrontation but in ghosting. Once, sitting outside a cafe in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, I told a public radio producer about my faith life and church attendance. The heavy weight of silence after I spoke was palpable. We finished our coffee, shuffled through a few more minutes of awkward conversation, and then bussed the table. I never heard from him again.
A similar scenario played out with an acquaintance I met in a writing class. Over pizza at a restaurant near downtown, I told her about my family of origin and talked about how my faith impacts my ethical framework. Instead of inquiring further, the conversation flatlined. We finished a final slice and parted ways.
I spent the next several years playing out in my head (and then avoiding) similar scenes with other acquaintances. But then the Spirit began to convict me in prayer to move past the shame I’d attached to the gospel. Slowly, God revealed the paradox I had created: The thing I most value, life with God, was the thing I’d hidden for fear of judgment.
During this past year of practicing a more public witness, I’ve learned a few things.
First, when we withhold our identities as Christians, we tacitly participate in the cultural narrative that we can manage how we message ourselves. The need for peer acceptance becomes an idol. But the Christian story reminds us that we can’t predict the outcome of our lives, nor can we control how others perceive or receive us. The Christian life resists the category of “personal branding.” Instead, it is generative and others-facing.
Second, I’ve learned that if you have a fear of talking about Jesus for whatever reason—maybe for what seem like good reasons—remember: The people you think are against you might actually be for you. Although I have been ghosted, the opposite has also happened. In the past year, I’ve had coffee with people from my past who are genuinely curious about my faith experience. These moments have been a gift. I’ve been able to deeply listen to and better understand the experiences of friends who identify as spiritual but not religious. Conversely, I’ve been given the space to speak candidly about Jesus.
Finally, I’ve re-learned what I know already but keep forgetting: I don’t sit at the center of the story—God does. As Christians, we believe that our lives are hidden with God and held by him, and that’s immensely liberating. By contrast, it’s tiring to exert anxious energy skirting around that reality.
I’ve seen this truth play out in my writing life as well. Last year, I started writing more publicly about faith and culture, but before I did, I pictured a couch with my critics seated in a row. I started to name them in my head—not just particular people from my past but also my own fears. Then I pictured each person or each fear getting up from the couch, one by one. Slowly, my fear was replaced with levity.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers an admonition that could have been written to American Christians in 2020. We’re counseled not to become like salt that loses its saltiness (Matt. 5:13) or a lamp hidden under a bowl (Matt. 5:15). Maybe in recent years, we’ve had the wrong idea of what it means to be salty. Instead of an in-your-face bumper sticker or another politically charged Facebook post, we are called to a much simpler practice: being present and transparent with our neighbors.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others,” Jesus says, “that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). We learn this passage as kids in Sunday School, and we sing it, too: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna to let it shine.” It’s an invitation intuited by children and easily muffled by adults.
Instead of speaking about our faith ironically or with a carefully chosen filter, let’s speak with transparency and boldness. Even better, let’s not go it alone. Let’s also speak with confidence about how God’s goodness changes us and changes our communities. We’re never going to reverse the tide of people leaving the church if we don’t speak plainly about who we are as the church body and what motivates us to pursue Jesus.
Yes, our lives might seem strange and even off-putting to some secular friends. But when we live honestly and openly, we become co-laborers with Christ and bear witness to the fact that it’s not about us in the first place.
Sara Billups is a Seattle-based writer exploring faith and culture and the co-host of the Ebenezer Podcast. Read more on her website and Instagram and in her occasional newsletter, Bitter Scroll.
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