After the ‘Hot Button’ Is Pushed (Strategies for Engaging Skeptics about the Faith)
By Chris Moon
Imagine the following scenario:
You are sitting in the bleachers at your child’s soccer game on a Saturday morning. It’s a beautiful day, and you strike up a conversation with another parent whom you have seen at several games. You find you have a lot of things in common—but not everything.
When your new friend asks what you’ll be doing the following day, you casually explain that you’ll be at church in the morning. Then you remember your pastor’s encouragement, and you offer the invitation: “You are more than welcome to come with us. We could do lunch afterward.”
The other parent smiles and politely declines, but then says, “I’ve got a real problem with any religion that condemns people because of their sexual preferences.”
A million things seem to race through your head at once, including the realization that you are subtly being called out for being a Christian—and for being WRONG. You feel the urge to defend yourself and the faith.
But at the same time, you’d like to keep this budding friendship intact and live out Jesus’ call to spread the gospel.
So, what do you say next?
The reality is that for many nonbelievers, Christians simply are wrong about many of the hot-button issues of the day—abortion, gay marriage, global warming, environmental concerns, women’s rights, immigration, gun rights, war, Israel, and terrorism. And for some of those nonbelievers, it doesn’t matter that Christians don’t even agree on all those issues.
The fact is, the so-called “Christian” view is quite different from their own, and they aren’t going to move one inch toward faith because of it.
And so how do we speak to unbelievers who are convinced the positions of so many Christians on these hot-button issues are just wrong—immoral even? Is there a way to move the conversation beyond these lightning-rod subjects that so easily divide us and toward subjects that can connect a person’s heart and mind to the life-giving gospel message?
CHRISTIAN STANDARD asked three Christian college professors, each an expert in apologetics, for their thoughts. Their answers, in part, centered on a simple human ability.
“Really listen to these people,” says Philip Kenneson, professor of theology and philosophy at Milligan College in Tennessee. “Be a little less quick to give an answer, less quick to try to convince the person that even though it looks like we are wrong, we are really right.” Christians don’t have a reputation as being good listeners, he said.
“It’s all about attitude,” says Curtis Holtzen, professor of philosophy and theology at Hope International University, Fullerton, California. “There are some skills involved, but I think there are some attitudes that are more important. What’s most important is entering into a conversation where I say, ‘I’m here to listen as much as I’m here to talk, and I’m here to learn as much as I’m here to convey my belief.’”
Holtzen says he frequently tells his apologetics classes: “Other people are only going to be as willing to listen to us as we are willing to listen to them.”
Beyond the Talking Points
Holtzen says one of the first goals a believer should have is to make sure skeptics aren’t allowed to paint all Christians with the same brush.
Not all Christians believe the same way on every issue. Even as believers strive for unity, they all must admit there is wide diversity of opinion about many issues. Believers should remind skeptics of that fact.
“I would shy away from the idea that, ‘Here’s what Christianity believes,’” Holtzen says. “I think it’s important that the people we engage in conversation know that they are conversing with an individual and not a spokesperson (for the faith).”
That relieves the believer from having to defend the views of other Christians—views that may run counter to his or her own. There’s no question that well-meaning Christians disagree about many hot-button topics—from gun control to the death penalty.
The key in this is to allow the believer to begin to dig down below the surface—beyond the hot topics—to the core beliefs of that skeptic. What are their assumptions about the faith, and why do they hold those assumptions?
“I’m a big believer in getting to presuppositions when we say we believe something—getting to the issue of why do we believe that is the case,” Holtzen says. “That’s where the truth lies and probably where the more interesting questions are.”
The Art of Asking Questions
To do this, the believer should begin asking questions—lots of them, says Richard Knopp, professor of philosophy and Christian apologetics at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.
“(Ask) questions that would prompt deeper conversations and not merely that would allow this individual to get by with their initial statement, ‘I don’t like the way Christians believe about such and such,’” Knopp says. “That statement is a claim that is coming at the issue from a perspective that needs to be clarified. It should give rise to a number of questions—not sophisticated ones—that clarify what they mean by that. Ask them why they think that.”
For example, Knopp says, if a skeptic complains that all Christians are Republicans, a believer ought to counter that with a series of questions: “Why do you think that’s true? Is it really true? Does it have to be true?”
By the end of this process, the skeptic should be considering whether it’s possible he or she knows enough about the global and historical Christian faith simply to throw all its adherents into the same political and ideological basket.
And questions can be the key to unlocking the human heart.
“A part of my rationale for this is if anybody can come up with all the answers, it would have been Jesus,” Knopp says.
The Gospels, he says, show Jesus asking as many as 173 questions of his listeners.
“I want to know why it is that someone who has all the answers is asking all the questions,” Knopp says. “A part of what I take from that is that Jesus is teaching us something in a pedagogical way about how we can best go about interacting with people who are resistant to what we are trying to say—as they were in Jesus’ time to what he was trying to say.”
Questions oftentimes reveal that people don’t have as strong a grasp on a subject as they thought they did. This likely results in an attitude of greater humility in the mind of the skeptic. And humility opens the door to change.
Looking in the Mirror
But, of course, this is a two-way street.
The Christian must approach the conversation in a compassionate and humble way, Knopp says. The believer must “genuinely come across as a fellow seeker and want to genuinely understand” why skeptics believe the way they do.
“I find most people are a lot more interested in a conversation if both sides are open to being teachable,” he says. “I don’t want to be anybody’s project. I think people see that a mile away. If somebody wants to enter into a genuine conversation with me, where we’ll both be better off at the end, that’s different.”
Sometimes the person who comes across as skeptical of the faith is not so much skeptical as wounded. Perhaps that person has been hurt by the church or knows someone who has been hurt by the church. Or the wound could go much deeper than that.
But the person likely isn’t going to discuss those deeper issues right off the bat. Instead, he or she will want to talk about more global concerns about the faith.
The Christian must approach the conversation wanting to dig down to the root, not making the person a project or, as Kenneson says, “just a cardboard cut-out where all the things I know about them is that they’re wrong.
“It’s not a strategy so much as it is a posture toward the world that says we have some things to learn too. I can’t love my neighbor if I don’t know who my neighbor is,” Kenneson says, adding that the discovery process may be a lengthy one requiring more than one conversation.
And Christians should be OK with that too.
“God has been patient with us,” Kenneson says. “Can we extend that kind of patience?”
There’s one final layer that Kenneson says Christians shouldn’t forget. God isn’t just looking to bring new people into the faith. He’s also looking to grow those who already are his disciples. And he’s always teaching.
“This encounter with them might make me a better Christian,” Kenneson says. “God might teach me something through them. Are we teachable?”
Chris Moon serves as pastor of Stanton (Kentucky) Christian Church.