Basic Training For Talking About Your Faith
We all know we should talk about our faith. Often times, we actually want to, but don’t know how to do so without sounding like an idiot, crazy person, or comedian with a really bad segue (“You know, Steve, that fish sandwich reminds me of Jesus eating fish after he saved us from our sin. Are you a sinner, Steve?”) What do we do? How do we engage in meaningful conversation about the gospel with our family, friends, neighbors and co-workers?
One of the most powerful tools you have in your arsenal is your relationships. There may be times when someone asks you “what must I do to be saved,” but you’ve probably found that they’re few and far between. More frequent, though, are the conversations you find yourself having with people every day – at the office, over dinner, while catching a ballgame or taking out the trash. How can we use moments like these to communicate the gospel to people?
The first thing to keep in mind is that our relationships provide context for our gospel-conversations. Make friends. Have your neighbors over for dinner. Hang out with your co-workers outside of work. Spend time around people and let them see the love you have for God and the way that defines what you value and do with your life. As you’re doing that, look for opportunities to turn conversations in meaningful directions.
This isn’t as hard as you think, especially once you get over the notion that a conversation has to include a full-on gospel presentation to be a success. That’s great, but not required. Equally valuable is to let a movie about meaning vs. coincidence prompt discussion about your trust in the sovereignty of God. Let a news report about war and injustice a world away become a talk about the sad state of our world, and how our own hearts are the real problem. Let a talk about raising kids become a reflection on grace and forgiveness. Use moments like that to paint a picture of why you are the way you are, showing people not a canned message, but a real, whole person, transformed by that message with a compelling story to tell.
This isn’t an exhaustive “how-to” on talking to your neighbors about your faith. It’s simply designed to give you some starting points, some food-for-thought, to take with you, think about, and apply to the people you know, care about, and want to see come to faith. I want to talk to you a bit about some common assumptions that are prevalent in our culture (and likely, among the people you encounter), talk about how to highlight the gospel against them, and answer the pushbacks against faith that they often generate.
Identifying the “-isms”
There are four basic “-isms”, four worldviews that you’ll commonly encounter as you talk to people in our culture about the Gospel. Some people may cling to one of these views, others may hold some or all of all four. Some people are consciously believing these ideas, while others haven’t really given thought to them and are just regurgitating the assumptions of the culture around them. Identifying and understanding these ideas will be tremendously helpful in understanding our friends, family members, neighbors and co-workers and successfully communicating the gospel to them.
Atheism – There is no God. A belief in the supernatural may have been helpful for our ancestors in their primitive understanding of the world, but modern science and technology has rendered God unnecessary and obsolete. I’ll believe what hard evidence can tell me. When we’re dead, we’re dead, that’s it – so make this life count.
Pluralism – There’s likely a God, divine being or cosmic force out there – whatever you choose to call it. All the world’s religions have the same goal, worship the same God, and lead to the same place. It doesn’t matter what you believe, just believe and follow it wholeheartedly and let others do the same.
“OK-ism” – There might be a God, there might not. But if there is, he/she/it doesn’t really have anything to do with my everyday life. I’m a decent person, and I’m sure that if there is a God, he/she/it is cool with me. Why waste my time with religion when there are so many more important things to worry about?
Moralism – There is a God, but all he’s concerned with is that we love one another and strive to be good people. Follow the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars, the Golden Rule, whatever – what I do is what counts. Doctrine doesn’t matter, what matters is actions, so I’m trying to live the best life I can. I love my kids, give to charity, and volunteer in the community.
Communicating the Gospel – Source, Authority, Crisis and Hope
Most everyone you meet in modern Western culture will be operating on some combination, spoken or unspoken, of those four assumptions. So, in communicating the gospel, we want to focus our attention on framing the gospel message in a way that highlights and casts doubt on these false assumptions about the world.
Seek to communicate these four truths that showcase what makes the gospel different and better than the prominent ‘-isms’ of our day.
1. God exists and is God over all things. (Eliminates atheism) Chances are, a lot of the people you talk to won’t identify as atheists. Surveys show that somewhere around 85% of Americans still profess belief in God. However, the god that most Americans profess faith in doesn’t look a lot like the God of the Bible. So, in talking about God, seek to hit on the greatness and uniqueness of the God of the Scriptures – the Trinity, his eternality, omnipotence (all-powerfulness), omniscience (all-knowingness), and holiness (absolute moral perfection). Speaking about God in this way presents the source of the gospel.
2. God has spoken, and we can know him with confidence. (Eliminates pluralism) When talking about God, one of the logical questions that people will begin to ask is “How can you know that God is this way?” This presents the opportunity to talk about the authority of the gospel, the Bible. God has not brought the world into existence and left us to figure things out on our own. He has spoken to us, revealing with clarity and power who he is, who we are, and what he requires of us.
3. We and the world are hopelessly broken, and it’s our fault. (Eliminates “OK-ism”) Speaking about the Bible, and what God requires of us, inevitably highlights the fact that things aren’t what they should be. Our world is fallen, corrupted by our rebellion against God, what the Scripture calls sin (this word has very little meaning with the culture in general anymore). This is the crisis of the gospel – a crisis from which none of us is immune. This fallenness shows itself through the big-picture brokenness of the world – starving kids in Africa, terror in the middle-east, poverty and racism in our own backyard. This can be a strong bridge, as you’ll likely get broad agreement from people about this kind of brokenness. The big aim must be to move small-scale – to show that those things are due to brokenness in our own hearts. Selfishness, pride, greed, lust, idolatry – these are the very real and basic problems in our world, and they live not only around the globe but in each and every one of us. When we examine what God requires, none of us measures up – and just because we can point to someone else who’s worse doesn’t mean we’re OK. A man who is $100,000 in debt isn’t in good financial shape just because his neighbor’s $500,000 in debt. We all must own our own failure.
4. God, by his mercy, is reconciling us to himself through Jesus. (Eliminates moralism) What hope is there? By his grace, God has entered in the world through the person of his Son, Jesus Christ (which may prompt you back up into the ‘Trinity’ topic of #1), lived a perfect life – perfect in what he did just as much as what he avoided – and bore our guilt through his sacrificial death on the cross, rising from the dead (not just a fairy tale, but an actual, factual, physical resurrection) to demonstrate his victory over sin and death. By faith (not just intellectual assent, but a full trust) we are saved from the fate we deserve and welcomed into God’s family, adopted as his sons and daughters. This impacts the way we live as our entire lives, minds and hearts have been turned upside down. This is the hope of the gospel – what makes it actually ‘good news.’
Every person is different. Don’t think of these things as a script, but rather as four areas in which the gospel stands out most distinctly from the worldview assumptions of our culture at large.
“But…” – Basic Answers for Missional Conversation
But what about pushback? What about when someone doesn’t just shrug off the gospel message, but counters with a real objection? What role should apologetics (the defense of the faith) play in daily missional conversation?
What Answers Can’t Do – Argue People Into the Kingdom
Let’s remind ourselves of something – what separates us from God isn’t a deficiency of knowledge, but of the heart. Therefore, what we want to see in people isn’t a brain-change, but a transformation of the heart that only God can ultimately achieve. You could present the slickest, most airtight case for the faith imaginable and still see someone walk away without believing. As Jesus said, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they would not believe even if someone was raised from the dead.” If the Scriptures and a walking, talking, used-to-be-dead Jesus aren’t enough, your nifty argument doesn’t figure to have the best odds either.
Knowing this, it’s important to argue the right way. Don’t let your conversations be about who can score the most debate points. Don’t let a relationship be reduced to an argument. Don’t let your conversations be reduced to talking-points. This is a particularly dangerous temptation if you’re the kind of person who enjoys debates. In other words, if you like watching First Take on ESPN or cable news talk shows, you probably want to keep a close eye on your heart when engaging with the objections of unbelievers.
What Answers Can Do – Display the Truth and Beauty of the Gospel
Answers are useful, though. We see examples in Scripture of Paul and the apostles giving a rational defense of the message that they were proclaiming, before both common people and influential politicians. Often times, the intellectual pushback that people give to the gospel serves to cover the real problem – their heart’s rejection of the claims of Christ. Exposing the problems with their objections can serve to strip away these pretenses and examine their hearts more closely. Be warned though – that’s just as likely to lead to an angry personal attack against you as it is to a come-to-Jesus moment. Again, make sure you’re conducting yourself in a manner that puts the focus on Christ, and not on yourself.
So how do you handle people’s objections? Overall, for most people this tends to be the scariest part of talking about their faith. Since we don’t know what people are going to say, we don’t know if we’ll have a good response. We may feel like we’re competent actors with a good script at our disposal, but doing improv scares us to death. The biggest way to combat that fear is to make friends with three little words – “I don’t know.” Don’t feel like you have to have all the answers. In our pride-obsessed world, one of the most powerful responses you could give to someone is simply to say, “That’s actually a good question. I’m not sure, but let me think about that, check it out and get back to you.”
The next step is to familiarize yourself with some common responses you’ll get from people. Just as we talked about the gospel in a way that highlights it against the four prominent “-isms” of our culture, we’re going to look at four common pushbacks against the gospel that come from each of those “-isms.” These can be useful places to start when people ask questions about your faith.
1. Science has disproven and removed the need for God. (Atheism’s pushback) This can be the most intimidating pushback for many of us who don’t have a degree in quantum physics and didn’t pay really good attention in biology class. “I don’t really know anything about science,” we think. That’s OK. Odds are, the person you’re talking to doesn’t know a whole lot either. One of the best first responses to this pushback is to simply say, “How? How has science disproven and removed the need for God?” So many people are basing their worldviews on assumptions. Expose that. When they respond by simply saying “evolution,” ask them how evolution disproves God and why they find it compelling. Some people may have decent answers. In those cases, talk about the things they bring up – do some reading, find some resources. However, don’t be afraid to ask questions that expose the fact that many atheists are relying just as much on faith as you are – they just trust a different authority.
2. We can’t trust what the Bible says. (Pluralism’s pushback) This pushback can come in many forms:
“The Bible is full of errors.” Like before, ask “What errors? What contradictions?” Make people present you with real concerns rather than just parroting what they’ve heard other people say. Once they do, then you’ve got something to work with, even if your initial answer is that useful “I don’t know.”
“The Bible was written by superstitious people a long time ago.” If the problem is a disbelief in miracles (but the person professes belief in God), ask why they can accept a god creating the whole world from nothing but can’t believe he could turn water into wine. Often times, this exposes a deeper attitude of ‘can’t-believe-it-if-I-don’t-see-it,’ which opens up another conversation. If the problem is simply distrust of an old document as unreliable, highlight the fact that the Bible is unparalleled in terms of the marks historians look for in ancient texts (for a handy guide, check out http://www.carm.org/manuscript-evidence). If you’re going to throw out Jesus, you’re going to have to toss Plato and Alexander the Great, too.
“The Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads – they’re all just saying the same thing.” They don’t, plain and simple. Is God three-in-one, absolutely one, or thousands? Did Jesus die on the cross or didn’t he? Does God require faith in Jesus or rigorous obedience for salvation? Is our hope a physical, personal heaven or mystical absorption into cosmic oneness? This pushback betrays a person who really doesn’t have any idea what these religions actually teach.
3. A loving God would never send good people like me to hell. (OK-ism’s pushback) Who would he send to hell? Hitler? If no, then he is an unjust monster, no better than the world’s despots and dictators. If so, then move up the line – a serial killer? A rapist? A petty thief? Someone who cheats on their taxes? Someone who lies? Where is the line? If God’s standard is not his own perfection, then what is it? On what do you base that belief? Push the person toward the nonsense (and self-centeredness!) of their own moral reasoning.
4. We should just love each other – isn’t that what Jesus wanted us to do? (Moralism’s pushback) Jesus did want us to love each other – and he said that if we didn’t do so perfectly, then we would never enter his kingdom. How’s that going for you? What’s your plan for getting him to wink at all the times you didn’t obey his standards? The times you hated your brother (and thus murdered) and lusted after the opposite sex (and thus committed adultery)? Most of the time, this pushback comes from people that have a sanitized, Sunday-School concept of Jesus hugging children and singing kum-buy-ah. Show them that the real Jesus demanded far more then they realize – and offers far more than they could imagine.
Don’t Be Afraid!
Talking about faith can be intimidating, largely because the unknown is intimidating. By thinking about a basic framework like the one we’ve just examined, you can help take people from scary, vague objections to concrete, specific ones. As you get to this point, you still may not know all the answers, but you’ll have a much easier time figuring them out. Whatever you do, don’t let a perceived lack of knowledge keep you from engaging the people you love about Jesus. It’s not rocket science, and remember – it’s not ultimately up to you to win someone over. Be obedient to have the conversation, pray, and trust the Holy Spirit to do what he’s been doing for thousands of years, and what he did for you once before. Trust him to change hearts.