I should have seen it coming. Frank Turk says something nice and encouraging, but he’s setting me up. At the end of his comment (#1 here) he’s going to pull out a tough question, and expect me to have some kind of answer. They always sneak up on you that way :) .
Seriously, though, it’s a good question: “What’s the best approach to resolving this rampant ignorance of what is and isn’t the Christian faith?”
We can view this either tactically or strategically, immediate/local or long-term/big picture.
The Tactical Answer
The example he gave calls for a tactical approach:
I’m sitting at lunch with my boss, for example, who is a nice guy but not a Christian. He asks me what I did this weekend, and it turns out I spent part of it with my care group at church and we had a great time. In telling him that, he looks a little stumped because he sees church as a place you go and not as a people called out.
So I say to him, “you and your wife should come and join us some time. The worst that could happen is that you eat some cheeseburgers.”
And his reply is: “Thanks, but I’m not into that stuff.”
“You mean friendship?” I ask him. “Or Christians?”
“No offense of course,” he says, “but I just don’t believe that stuff.”
Seeing the apologetic/evangelistic opening, I dive in as jesus did on the road to Emmaus. “What stuff?”
“Well, that the earth was created in 7 days. Whales eating people. Fire falling from the sky.”
Given this actually happens all the time, what should I — or any of our resders — do when confronted with this sort of rejection of “Christianity”.
I would say, congratulations for getting off to a good start on a spiritual conversation. That’s a good start, you ask? Any start can be a good one. It depends on where you go from there.
The first place to go is to prayer. (Silently and non-obviously in the moment, obviously!) Prayer is both tactical and strategic, and it’s not just a Sunday School answer. It brings God into the picture to do the work only he does.
Then what? For this I’m going to punt over to Gregory Koukl of Stand to Reason, who has developed the best equipping I know of for tactical situations like this. He calls it, appropriately enough, Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. I’ve read the book and recommend it highly. The easiest place I know of to find related material online is at the Apologetics 315 blog.
Koukl explains how to use questions, as Jesus did, to get to the heart of a matter. If this were my conversation with a boss, I would certainly try to keep the conversation going with questions (or variations thereof), like, “I’d be interested to hear about what you think Christianity is,” or “What’s been your background with Christians or Christianity?” If he were to say something that I thought needed challenging or exploring, I wouldn’t challenge it right off the bat. I’d use Koukl’s first “Columbo question” (read the book to know why he calls it that): “What do you mean by that?” And I’d try to keep a respectful mutual dialogue going.
In the background of all this, I have my convictions and my reasons for believing them. (I did mention it was crucial to know your convictions and the reasons behind them, didn’t I?) At some point, God will open a door either to ask a key question or make a key statement that will keep the conversation moving forward, and at the same time put the truth out in the open for discussion.
That’s my wholly inadequate summary of Koukl’s truly excellent guidance. It’s not enough, but if I whet your appetite to look at what he has to say, I’ll be grateful to have done that much. (He’s not paying me to say any of this, by the way.)
The Strategic Solution
Speaking of inadequate, though, we could engage in tactical-level conversations like this all week long and still miss our biggest, most important opportunity. That’s where the strategic approach comes in. Strategy, I remind you, has to do with long-term, big picture objectives and actions. The church isn’t generally very good at strategy. We focus on this year’s ministries, often just inside our own four walls. (I’m working on this and another strategic priority in a forthcoming book project. I didn’t really mind Frank’s question as much as I pretended I did. That doesn’t mean I deserved his kind words, though.)
This hypothetical boss’s question sets up a good illustration of the problem. What’s he really communicating, after all? He’s telling us he thinks he knows what Christianity is about, and he thinks it’s pretty stupid. This isn’t just a hypothetical belief from a hypothetical boss, though. Christianity’s position in our culture is such that we’re not looking very intellectually credible. We’re in a weak strategic position, and it’s hurting our day-to-day witness.
Now, I told you this was about the big picture and the long term. If you’ve studied church history or the history of ideas, you can take a long look backwards and see a time when we held quite a formidable intellectual position in Western culture. The arts, literature, and philosophy (including natural philosophy, or science) were ours along with theology. In the past few hundred years we let our position slip away from us. The story of how that happened is told in brief yet fascinating form by Os Guiness in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What To Do About It. The sad thing is that there’s no good reason for evangelicals not to think. (Did I mention how crucial it is to know your convictions and the reasons behind them?) The encouraging thing is that in some fields, notably philosophy and history, evangelicals have been turning this around: we’ve come to the table and developed a presence.
We need more of the same. I envision a day when hypothetical bosses don’t ask such uninformed hypothetical questions; or if they do, they ask not with scorn but with genuine curiosity, as in, “I’ve heard this is what Christianity teaches. Could you help me understand how it makes sense?”
That day will come, in fact I think it is coming. It will come as a result of Christians valuing learning for the glory of God, not just in theology, but in all legitimate disciplines. It will come by way of churches granting scholarships, and by parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, pastors, and youth leaders encouraging students genuinely to be scholars. It will come by the intellectual weight of those students’ scholarship. And it will come by other Christians’ pulling together in a commitment to learning, at whatever level is appropriate to each one’s aptitude and circumstances.
The strategic answer is no quick fix. Dream with me, though, of the day when Western culture comes back to an appreciation of Christianity’s genuine intellectual capacity and potential. There’s no reason it can’t happen.