Sharing Your Faith with Atheists Doesn’t Have to Be Scary
According to a 2016 Pew Research Center study, the number of Americans who identify as atheists has nearly doubled. As atheism has expanded, we’ve seen a rise of high-profile atheists. Outspoken personalities like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens have proffered popular arguments against religion in general—and Christianity specifically.
The proliferation of atheist social-media groups has helped bolster the arguments of the average atheist, and empowered them to be more vocal about their beliefs.
While we shouldn’t be intimidated by vocal atheists, many in the church have found it difficult to defend their faith against them. They don’t feel prepared to debate an atheist, and when they try, it devolves into an argument.
The idea of talking to an atheist doesn’t have to fill you with fear. In fact, you can learn to confidently share your faith with anyone!
Think tactics, not arguments
Greg Koukl, the founder and president of Stand to Reason, has created a course for Zondervan called Tactics: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. It’s intended to help the anyone use some very specific tactics to steer a conversation in a direction that’s helpful, and give you the tools you need to share your faith.
The following interview is adapted from this course:
Discussing tactics for sharing our faith
Most people just jump into a discussion about their faith. How is using tactics different?
Koukl: No strategy, however brilliant, can win a war. The devil, as they say, is in the details. Individual soldiers must engage, deploying assets and destroying obstacles to gain an advantage, dodging bullets all the while.
Though we are following a diplomatic model and not a military one, the military metaphor is still helpful to distinguish strategy from tactics. Tactics, literally “the art of arranging,” focus on the immediate situation at hand. They involve the orderly hands-on choreography of the particulars. Often a clever commander can gain the advantage over a larger force with superior strength or numbers through deft tactical maneuvering.
I think you can see the parallel for us as Christians. We may have personal experience with how the gospel can change someone’s life, but how do we design particular responses to particular people so we can have an impact in specific situations?
So tactics is about deciding how to engage someone?
Koukl: Tactics can help because they offer techniques of maneuvering in what otherwise might be difficult conversations. They guide you in arranging your own resources in an artful way. They suggest approaches that anyone can use to be more persuasive, in part because they help you be more reasonable and thoughtful—instead of just emotional—about your convictions as a follower of Christ.
In a practical way, how would you describe how your course helps someone understand how to engage skeptics and those opposed to the gospel?
Koukl: The goal is to find clever ways to exploit someone’s bad thinking for the purpose of guiding them to truth, yet remaining gracious and charitable at the same time. When I talk to someone about Jesus, my aim is to manage, not manipulate; to control, not coerce; to finesse, not fight. I want the same for others.
There is an art to using tactics, and learning any craft takes time and a little focused effort. It takes practice to turn a potentially volatile situation into an opportunity. If you learn these tactics, though, I promise that you will get better at presenting the truth clearly—and sometimes even cleverly. I will guide you, step by step, through a game plan that will help you maneuver comfortably and graciously in conversations about your Christian convictions and values.
If you are an attentive student, in a very short time you will develop the art of maintaining appropriate control—what I call “staying in the driver’s seat”—in discussions with others. You will learn how to navigate through the minefields to gain a footing or an advantage in conversations. In short, you will be learning to be a better diplomat—an ambassador for Jesus Christ.
Can you share your faith without conflict?
Fear of conflict is one of the biggest obstacles people face when they think about sharing their faith. Is that a legitimate fear?
Koukl: Trying to make your case with another person, even if done carefully, brings you dangerously close to having an argument. Some people think anything that looks like an argument should be avoided.
In one sense they’re right. Squabbling, bickering, and quarreling are not very attractive, and they rarely produce anything good. With these types of caustic disputes, I have a general rule: If anyone in the discussion gets angry, you lose.
When you get angry, you look belligerent. You raise your voice, you scowl. You may even begin to break into the conversation before the other person is finished. Not only is this bad manners, but it begins to look like your ideas are not as good as you thought they were. Now you must resort to interruption and intimidation. You begin to replace persuasion with power. This is not a good strategy. It is never really convincing, even if you are successful in bullying the other person into silence.
Right. You also run the risk of them getting upset.
Koukl: You lose in that case, too. People who are angry get defensive, and defensive people are not in a very good position to think about whether or not your ideas are good ones. Instead, they are too interested in defending their own turf.
It’s good to avoid quarrels. Indeed, the apostle Paul tells us quite clearly that as the Lord’s representatives, we must not be the kind of people who are looking for a fight. Rather, we’re to be kind, patient, and gentle toward our opposition.
So debates should probably be avoided, huh?
Koukl: Not necessarily. If the notion of truth is central to Christianity, and the ability to argue is central to the task of knowing the truth.
But we often hear people say that “you can’t argue anyone into the kingdom.”
Koukl: While it’s true that no intellectual argument could ever substitute for the act of sovereign grace necessary for sinners to come to their senses, in Paul’s mind that didn’t rule out debate.
And according to Paul’s custom, he went to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that the Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead. . . . And some of them were persuaded. (Acts 17:2 – 4, [emphasis added])
You might also be able to think of examples from your own life where taking a thoughtful approach with someone made a big difference in his response, maybe even a decisive difference. Simply put, you can argue someone into the kingdom. It happens all the time. But when arguments are effective, they are not working in a vacuum.
So when you use one of your tactics, what is your ultimate goal?
Koukl: It may surprise you to hear this, but I never set out to convert anyone. My aim is never to win someone to Christ. I have a more modest goal, one you might consider adopting as your own. All I want to do is put a stone in someone’s shoe. I want to give him something worth thinking about, something he can’t ignore because it continues to poke at him in a good way.
When a batter gets up to the plate, his goal isn’t to win the ballgame. That’s an extended process that takes a team effort. He just wants a chance to get a hit. If he connects, he might get on base and into scoring position. Or he may drive another batter home, even if he never makes it to first. In the same way, I never try to hit the winning run. I just want to get up to bat. That’s all
In some circles there’s pressure for Christian ambassadors to “close the sale,” so to speak. Get right to the meat of the message. Give the simple gospel. If the person doesn’t respond, you have still done your part. Shake the dust off your feet and move on. In my view, though, you don’t have to get to the foot of the cross in every encounter. You don’t have to try to close every deal.
Removing the stress of needing to “close the deal” is huge. That’s probably a game changer for a lot of Christians. What else can people expect to get from your course?
Koukl: I promise I will give them a game plan that will allow you to converse with confidence in any situation, no matter how little you know, or how knowledgeable, aggressive, or even obnoxious the other person happens to be.
After completing this course, I expect that they’d be able to:
- Initiate gospel conversations effortlessly
- Present the truth clearly, cleverly, and persuasively
- Graciously and effectively expose faulty thinking
- Skillfully manage the details of dialogue
- Maintain an engaging, disarming style even under attack
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