What causes these conversations to go wrong? The most common reason is that believers launch into a defense of the faith before finding out anything at all about the skeptic.
Instead of jumping right in to address some objection or present an argument, Christians would be much better served by asking a few important questions and then listening carefully to the answers.
For example, these queries work wonderfully at the beginning of a conversation:
“Tell me a bit about yourself. Do you have a background in Christianity or some other church or religion? Have you always been a skeptic? If not, how did you arrive at your position?”
“I understand you don’t believe that Christianity is true, but what worldview do you hold, then? In other words, I realize you think that Christianity offers false answer to life’s biggest questions, but what do you think are the right answers?”
“Speaking of the answers that Christianity offers, could you tell me the Christian message from your perspective? What is the story of the Bible as you understand it?”
There are several reasons this method leads to more fruitful evangelistic and apologetic conversations.
First, it builds relationship and defuses animosity. As Hugh Hewitt writes: “When you ask a question, you are displaying interest in the person asked. Most people are not queried on many, if any, subjects. Their opinions are not solicited. To ask them is to be remembered fondly as a very interesting and gracious person in your own right.” (In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition, p. 172). Greg Koukl adds “[Questions] invite genial interaction on something the other person cares a lot about: her own ideas.” (Tactics, A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions p. 48)
Second, it keeps the two sides from addressing people and positions that don’t actually exist. As I write in my new book,
Too many religious conversations involve people talking past each other because they haven’t taken the time to find out what the other person actually believes. The result is that each side tries to knock down a straw-man version of the other’s position. The skeptic argues against a version of Christianity that the believer does not hold and the Christian attacks an atheistic worldview that the unbeliever does not hold. Then they wonder why the conversation never gets anywhere. (p. 49)Third, it offers the opportunity to present the gospel without being preachy. When you ask the skeptic about what he or she believes the Christian message to be, you will inevitably find that they have some poor theology. You can then step in and gently say, “Well, that’s not exactly what Christianity teaches. In order that we can understand each other clearly, let me share with you how I understand the Bible’s message. “
Fourth, it helps bring to light some of the underlying non-intellectual reasons that people reject Christianity. Many skeptics do not base their unbelief on a hard examination of the facts or a deep analysis of the various philosophical arguments. Rather, a variety of other factors are at play, including painful experiences with Christians, anger at God over a heartbreaking loss, and the desire to rationalize immoral behavior. By asking a few questions, the Christian can become more aware of what is going on under the surface.
A conversation with skeptics that doesn’t start with some good questions will almost always lead nowhere. Avoiding that mistake will help us be much more effective at reaching the world for Jesus.
Apologetics 315 Guest Writer Donald Johnson has served in vocational ministry since 1993, including extensive experience as an inner city youth worker and young adult pastor. He has a B.A. in Theology, Missions and Intercultural Studies from San Jose Christian College, an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, and an M.A. in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has also done graduate work in the evangelism program at Multnomah Seminary and the philosophy of Religion program at Talbot School of Theology. His newest book is How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics. Hear his interview with Apologetics 315 here.