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Unbelievers

Using a brief video clip from a Seinfeld episode, “Puddy is a Christian,” we interviewed Unbelievers at four universities to discern which approaches they would find most beneficial in considering the message of Christ.

The Interview Questions:

1.  Are you familiar with the characters in Seinfeld– Elaine and Puddy in particular?  [Watch Clip “Puddy is a Christian”]  (esp 2:01 – 4:06)

2.  What were the funniest moments to you?

3.  What words would you use to describe Puddy’s version of Christianity?

4.  How is Puddy’s behavior or attitude consistent with what you think Christians are like?

5.  How is he inconsistent with your view of Christians?

6.  Elaine tells Puddy near the end of the clip: “You should be trying to save me! … If you think I am going to Hell, you should care that I’m going to Hell. Even though I am not going to Hell.”   Do you agree or disagree with her that he should be trying to save her?

7.  Have you ever had someone explain to you who Jesus is and how you could know him?

8.  What was that experience like?

9.  If you have any Christian friends who think that Jesus is worth getting to know, how would you prefer they talk to you about him?

10. If Christians are seen like Puddy (or somewhat like him), what advice would you give to genuine followers of Jesus as they seek to tell others about him?

The Interview Feedback:
In our focus group interviews of unbelieving students, we asked them 10 questions related to the video. From these questions, we have distilled their thinking to be:

Puddy, the stereotypical Christian in the Seinfeld clip, is portrayed by our respondents to be: “uncaring (of Elaine), selfish, insensitive, dogmatic, hypocritical, selfish, rigid, elitist, intimidating, hypercritical, condemning, hollow, and sarcastic.”  (Question #3)

Many saw Puddy’s brand of Christianity as a humorous overstatement of how Christians act (i.e. Puddy is not consistent with their view of Christians), but some did see points of similarity to the Christians they observe in our culture.    Students made comparisons to the “preacher who yells at everyone on the campus” (a regular phenomenon on most large university campuses), and to a Christian character in the film Borat.  (Questions #4 and #5)

Some also viewed Puddy like the Christians they know in his judgmental, superior feelings.  One focus group commented: “…Christians push their beliefs on you, especially if you don’t fit their mold.”  Another student added that Puddy resembled Christians she knew, “having the Christian fish (on his car)… but [they] don’t truly believe anything.”  Another said, “They listen to Christian music, have fish on their cars, then tell everyone they are going to hell.

We used the video clip to explore whether unbelievers thought it was legitimate for sincere, well-intentioned Christians to talk to others about Jesus.  In the clip, Elaine yells at Puddy for not caring about her spiritual condition.  She says, “If you think I am going to hell, you should care that I’m going to hell.”  Surprisingly, many of the respondents thought it was inappropriate for Puddy to try to “save her.”  “He should not try to convert her.”  “No, don’t save her.”  “He put that bad thought into her head (about going to hell), and that’s the real problem.”  “I wouldn’t care if I was dating someone of another faith (I wouldn’t try to convince her).”  “If [Elaine] wanted help to be saved, then and only then, could Puddy help.  The initiative had to begin with her, not with Puddy.”  The strength of these opinions surprised us.  (Question #6)

Of note, 31 of the 34 respondents said that they had someone already try to explain to them how they could know Jesus.  One female student said she’d been told “six times.”  Those experiences were generally neutral or positive, though some said it was forced upon them.  Another noted the “bait-and-switch” tone of some Christian attempts to talk about religion.  One said, “The majority of people who have attempted to convert me have used the ‘sledgehammer of faith’ when talking.  Instead of casually bringing it up, they want to force it upon me.”  Another said, “People tried to convert me, and it seemed disrespectful because I already had the choice given to me (earlier).”  At the very least, some unbelievers perceive a degree of disrespect from the efforts of Christians to share their message. (Question #7 and #8)

The best feedback from these interviews occurred in the final 2 questions.  First, If you have any Christian friends who think that Jesus is worth getting to know, how would you prefer they talk to you about him? (Question #9)   Most thought the approach is key.  It should be “kind, honest, loving, not condescending or overbearing, helping me understand, letting me come to (my own) conclusion, don’t tell me I’m going to hell, non-confrontational, not preachy, respectful, open to questioning, waiting until I bring it up, and begin by asking questions.”

On the other hand, some of our efforts will inevitably fail no matter how sensitive or respectful we are in our approach.  One young man said, “No offense, but I don’t think Jesus is worth getting to know.”  Another, “I’m not going to learn what I believe from someone else.”  Another simply preferred that Christian friends wouldn’t try at all, because “religion among friends can be a source of conflict, and they shouldn’t talk about it or force anything on to one another.”I’d prefer they didn’t.  I’m an adult capable of making my own decisions.”

The final question was a “catch-all,” asking for general advice on how we should tell others about Jesus.  Answers mentioned respectful behavior, accepting people where they are at, be genuine, be open-minded, care for people, love them, don’t be hypocritical– live what you preach.

Conclusion
These interviews with Unbelievers persuade us of the following:

• The method of the messenger has become the message.
Our audience wants a respectful, non-confrontational approach, but when the messenger is perceived to be disrespectful or hypocritical, the message is considered irrelevant.  This has implications for training believers and for creating new tools/approaches to reach this generation.

• They are convinced they’ve already heard.
Regardless of how we adapt our evangelistic approaches, it is significant to know that our audience thinks they’ve already heard the message of Jesus (even if, in fact, they haven’t). Of the 34 unbelievers we interviewed, 31 felt that they’d already heard the message of Jesus.

• They believe their conversational autonomy trumps our initiating compassion.
For many, the power to decide when and with whom they will have a discussion about Jesus is a higher concern than the notion that believers feel compassion toward them in initiating a conversation about Jesus.  Therefore, didactic or presentational approaches (as opposed to questioning and conversational approaches) may not get as much traction as in the past.  We need new tools, of the right kind.

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