“Evangelizing is not simply a matter of teaching and instructing and imparting information to the mind,’ said J.I. Packer, “Evangelizing includes the endeavor to elicit a response to the truth taught.” This quote gets to the heart of the complicated and often messy matter of gospel conversations.
Our faith as Christians is bound up with deep and often mysterious longings, emotions, and thoughts. While Scripture charges us to be “evangelistic,” our efforts to communicate our faith are often met with stress and trepidation. We fear our evangelistic calling not only because we question our own rhetorical skills, but also because we all know intuitively that mere words lack the power to communicate the totality of our experience with God.
A Story That Makes Sense
We are tasked with pointing unbelievers towards something ultimate; something that not only satisfies our longings but also reorients our thoughts and actions towards real, virtuous living. Christianity is the only story that makes sense of universal problems and, at the same time, provides the solution for them through the historical reality of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Understanding the unique nature of our message is important as we move towards the goal of being the right kind of ambassador to a world that is broken.
Everyone we meet is ultimately yearning to be back in the garden with God, because God made us to be in fellowship with him. As our creator, he implanted in us a sense of his existence (Romans 1:20). This is how Christians should think about all people. Before we prepare ourselves mentally to share our faith with those who deny God, we must understand that God made us all in his image (Genesis 1:26–27). As bearers of that image, we were made to seek him. Christians have been given a divine calling not simply to answer objections to our faith reasonably but to speak truth in a way that, through the power of the Spirit, unbelievers are drawn to Christ.
The Heart of Our Witness
At the heart of our evangelistic mandate is a willingness to view people as God views them. We were created by God and our hearts yearn to be with him. This is even true for those who deny that God exists. These atheists, as we label them, are seekers of truth and are themselves trying to discover answers to life’s ultimate questions. Let us imagine, then, an encounter in which we are talking with a person who believes that God does not exist. How should we engage such a person? Here are five suggestions.
1. Listen Attentively
First, we must understand that attentive listening is crucial to gospel engagement. Attentive listening means understanding the perspective of the one you are engaging. Since we are complicated beings, our beliefs are usually an amalgam of experiences and reflections, and it takes a desire to listen in order to understand those around you. An atheist might doubt your claims on an intellectual basis, but after listening you might come to realize that his or her true objections are based on emotion or are purely willful judgments. However, you will not know what that person’s specific objections and needs are if you do not first humble yourself enough to listen and know the person.
2. Identify Key Issues
Second, all reasonable people have an opinion on the fundamentals of reality. These universal reflections include, but are not limited to, questions about our origin as humans, the meaning and purpose of our lives, and our eternal destiny after death. Atheism, as a set of believed assumptions, has opinions about these questions, and many atheists are open and eager to share their answers. We should intentionally move the conversation to those key issues and compare viewpoints.
3. Define Terms
Third, it is crucial to understand that an atheist might be speaking your language but assuming different definitions of common terms. How you understand words like God, gods, religion, church, and sin can influence the substance and tenor of the discussion. Of course, in order to remain sensitive to how a person defines terms, you’ll need to be able to clearly define those terms yourself. This is one of the many reasons that thinking about your faith and studying Scripture on your own is so important as you prepare to speak with others.
4. Cultivate Curiosity
Being committed to the life of the mind as Christians brings us to the fourth point, which is cultivating curiosity. First Peter 3:15 states that we should “always be prepared” or “always be ready” to give a reason for the hope we have in Christ. Being ready or prepared means that we need to be curious about the world and the ideas that have held sway throughout human history.
As Christians, we should not be afraid of competing viewpoints and ideas. By cultivating a real curiosity concerning competing worldview claims, a Christian can grow in confidence when sharing his faith. Furthermore, demonstrating even a cursory knowledge of atheism shows that we are serious about a productive dialogue and that we respect their opinions, even if we do not hold them ourselves.
By understanding and studying an atheist’s worldview, one can draw out weaknesses in their viewpoint compared to Christianity. Can they live out their opinions in a real and consistent way? If they believe that they come from nowhere, have no ultimate purpose, and go nowhere after they die, what implications do those beliefs have on how they live and interact with others? These are honest questions that can have great evangelistic impact when they come from someone who is curious and respectful.
5. Be Christ-like
Finally, it is important to remember that the desire to engage with an atheist should not be borne out of a need for conflict but from a meek disposition; in other words, a witness that emulates Jesus Christ. G. Campbell Morgan wrote in his wonderful book The Great Physician that Jesus dealt with people both uniquely and universally.
Jesus understood that God created everyone uniquely and that there is no single methodology that will reach all people. However, Jesus also understood the universal truths that pertain to all humanity, including the fact that we all share a need to be saved and to be reconciled to our Creator. When Jesus encountered people, he met their needs intellectually, spiritually, physically, and emotionally. This should be our template as we prepare to encounter atheists, because we want to do more than teaching and instructing in our evangelistic efforts. We want to work in concert with the Holy Spirit in eliciting a response that will direct them towards salvation in our Lord Jesus Christ.