I live in the South. To be clear, my family loves it here. We love our city, love the culture, and love the people. As with any region of any nation at any time, there are certain barriers to the gospel that are somewhat unique to that area.
This is the land of “bless your heart” and passive aggressiveness. This is the domain of non-invasive questions and image consciousness. We, as Christians in the South (and I mean “we” since I am one), have had the tendency to think of politeness as one of the fruit of the Spirit. But while this overall sense of politeness makes for a general pleasantness in society, it can also be one of the barriers to the gospel that we, as Christians, must recognize.
Fundamentally, we must recognize that the gospel is actually quite impolite. At a basic level, the gospel forces us to come to terms with some very uncomfortable truths about ourselves – namely, that we are worse people than we would care to admit, and more powerless to do anything about it than we are comfortable to talk about. Before Christianity lifts our heads, it always cuts us at the knees, and that cutting is painful. Humiliating. Impolite.
Specifically, then, here are three such ways in which our gospel witness might be hampered if we are first and foremost committed to being polite:
- Our politeness can make us delay unnecessarily.
If we are committed primarily to politeness, then we will find ourselves always looking for just the right time to “intrude” on someone else with the truth of the gospel. And yet there is actually never the right time to confront someone with his or her great need. Conversely, of course, if we truly see the gospel as the great and eternal truth of the universe, then there is actually never the wrong time to intrude on someone with the gospel, no matter how impolite it might seem. Of course, we might pick our words carefully, but we should be conscious of our tendency to continually delay a gospel conversation over and over again.
- Our politeness makes us communicate unclearly.
The Bible does not suffer from a compulsion of politeness. Instead, God is committed in His Word to telling us the truth in starkly clear terms. In the Bible, we find an unabashed description of ourselves as lost. Dead. Without hope. There is no buffer to our self-image here, for the Bible recognizes that there is too much at stake for a lack of clarity. But when we are primarily concerned with politeness, we will always be tempted to soften these difficult truths. We will always lighten the implications of both our state without Jesus and the call to die that intrinsically comes with following Him. We will, in an effort to be polite, end up presenting a softened down version of the greatest news in the cosmos.
- Our politeness makes us live in self-conscious fear.
There is a particular kind of boldness that comes upon us when we have truly and regularly encountered Jesus. It is the kind of boldness that compels us, in love, to live and speak the Word of God to those around us. We are charged, as the ambassadors of Jesus to both comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. We do this in freedom, for ultimately we know that we give an account to God and to God alone. But when we are ruled by politeness, we find ourselves second-guessing every conversation for we have begun to care more about what people think of us than whether we have been obedient to the call of Jesus.
Friends, there is nothing wrong with being polite. But there is a great deal, I think, wrong with being polite at the expense of everything else. As Christians, we must remember that the greatest of these is love. Love for God, and love for each other. It’s this love that pushes us to engage others with the gospel, telling the truth, and being willing for the sake of that truth to be seen as impolite.
Even here in the South.
Michael Kelley lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife, Jana, and three children: Joshua (10), Andi (7), and Christian (5). He serves as Director of Groups Ministry for Lifeway Christian Resources. As a communicator, Michael speaks across the country at churches, conferences, and retreats and is the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal: A Boy, Cancer, and God; Transformational Discipleship; and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. Find him on Twitter: @_MichaelKelley.