From Polarization to Openness: Why Evangelism and Apologetics are Needed More than Ever in Post-Christian America
Posted by Nathan Betts on February 19, 2018
Years ago I had a conversation with a TV host on the topic of faith. He is not a Christian. In fact, he makes a point of emphasizing that he is not religious.
I explained my vocation as a Christian evangelist and apologist and asked this journalist for his advice. He took a few steps back and looked at me. “You have a tough job. You try to convince people who don’t believe to believe,” he said. “Here’s what I would say to you: Don’t try to convince people who do not believe to believe. People who do not believe are not going to believe, and you just have to be fine with that!”
These words seemed to sound the death knell to my entire project, and I couldn’t hide my discouragement as I left the studio that day. My friend’s attitude toward belief describes how many people, both believers and unbelievers, view Christian evangelism.
Even within the church, even among evangelicals, we have begun to diminish the work of evangelism. We emphasize good things like relationships and charity outreach but question the work of traditional apologetics, of speaking the gospel in hopes of convincing another that it is true. (Think of the commonly quoted line: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”)
But when we diminish the work of evangelism and apologetics—as ineffective or as a secondary concern—we cheapen the gospel itself. If we believe the gospel is good news, true for all people, we cannot give up on making the case for our beliefs.
With the rise of secularism, sure, the church faces new challenges. But I’m convinced that what we need is not innovative methods or answers. We need fresh confidence in the gospel.
Preaching to an Individualistic Culture
The philosopher Charles Taylor uses the term “expressive individualism” to describe the cultural milieu of the secular age. As James K. A. Smith writes, the term denotes an understanding that “‘each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity,’ and that we are called to live that out (‘express’ it) rather than conform to models imposed by others (especially institutions).”
The offshoot of this attitude is the desire to seek out what speaks to us personally: How am I going to be happy? How am I going to be fulfilled? Journalist David Brooks writes that we have moved away from a culture of humility “to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”
My family and I moved to the Seattle area two years ago, where I constantly notice this expressive individualism worked out in what many have deemed a post-Christian context. Still, creative ministries and artsy churches aren’t the only vehicles God can use to reach this region; evangelism continues to play a role in engaging secular worldviews and pointing to Christ.
A friend of mine works as a senior leader at a tech company. He likes his job but also admits that he is consumed by work; his job is his life. He told me that he looks forward to retiring in ten years, if all goes to plan, and doing what he really loves: going on long vacations with his partner, spending time with family, and taking up different hobbies. As an evangelist, I hear his story and think of how many people strive for a life they alone control. Their vision of the good life and their pursuit of meaning and purpose point to a day when they get to call the shots.
In her book Religion & Public Life in the Pacific Northwest, Patricia O’Connell Killen writes:
Individual religiousness tends to be private and episodically intense. Many pursue a spiritual quest on their own, drawing from multiple traditions and practices on a journey of religious experimentation.
The philosopher Charles Taylor’s term cross pressure describes the individualistic mood among my neighbors in the Northwest, people who feel caught between a closed world without God and a haunting of the transcendent.
After speaking to a group of students on their university campus, one told me she disagreed with most of what I presented that afternoon but had come with a Christian friend. She was baffled at why Christians make such a big deal about truth, specifically around moral issues. She recently experienced her own sort of freedom, without God or religion.
“Last year, I took control of my life,” she told me. “I cut my hair, which used to be really long. I got a tattoo, I got piercings, and I got my heart broken for the first time.” Then she brought up her struggle with anxiety. When she’s out, she’s worried that she’s annoying at parties, and when she is at home by herself, she has this gnawing feeling that her friends hate her.
Even here, she was keen to express how she has taken control of her dilemma. Still, no felt need for God. She told me, “When I wake up in the morning, I write in my journal, Anxiety is not telling the truth.” I listened along with her friend as this student told me her story, and afterward, I assured her that even if she believes her friends don’t value her, the Christian faith tells her that she is loved.
This is only one example of what individualism looks like when it comes face-to-face with the Christian faith. All the time, people convince themselves that God and the Christian truth claims are unnecessary, leaving Christians to think there is nothing to say. Yet, there is no escaping the longing for the transcendent.
Despite taking control of her life, this student discovered she still needs help. She began the conversation by expressing no need for God, yet in the end, she revealed the desire for love and acceptance we find profoundly met in the Christian faith.
Raising the Right Questions
When Christians think of evangelism, they often think of the issue of credibility, the need to prove that our faith is actually true. But plenty of our friends aren’t asking the credibility questions. They have settled well into their unbelief. They are not interested in whether Christianity is true, if Jesus Christ was who he said he was, or if the resurrection of Christ happened. Credibility is no longer a conversational starting point for much of evangelism in the modern world.
Because so few people directly ask for proof of our faith, many have lost confidence in sharing it with others or fail to see the need for evangelism altogether. Christians assume that apologetics is something practiced by the really keen or earnest believers and no longer relevant in the conversations of our day-to-day lives.
It’s as though the culturally insensitive or simply out-of-touch Christians are the ones willing to share their faith—those who have yet to be enlightened by the myriad cultural barriers to the gospel. I wonder if this view could change if we could find another starting point in evangelism other than stating Christianity’s credibility.
Perhaps the most meaningful point of entry may be awakening a spirit of enquiry. For my journalist friend, any conversation which insists on certainty would likely lead to alienation and polarization. The question for evangelism then becomes, how do we bridge conversations from seemingly closed-off areas to an openness which genuinely desires to engage with truth.
The credibility questions do not go away—the answers are fundamental to the Christian faith—but instead of waiting for others to ask, we can prompt them to consider new possibilities. This shift in approaches bridges personal curiosity and helps bring out the foundational truth claims of Christianity.
Another way in which Christians can respond to the fierce individualism of our time is by inviting spiritual seekers into our community. Many who are reading this already embody this. But if we are not already doing so, we need to convey to our friends that they can belong in our community without believing.
Evangelism is still alive and as important as ever. The best way to gain confidence in the work of evangelism, of speaking the gospel to convince others of its truth, is to engage in it yourself. Here are my top four simple tips for practicing evangelism in conversation:
I was in a coffee shop in Oregon recently, waiting for my drink to be made, when a person came in, slapped two books on a table, and then stood in line to order. I noticed he was reading new spirituality titles, so I asked what the books were all about. Without hesitating, he looked at me and said, “This book is about the untethered soul. I have found it really helpful.” We continued talking, and even with a stranger in a coffee shop, I learned something about what he finds meaningful in life.
In evangelism, questions are always better than statements. Questions invite a conversation, whereas statements have great potential for closing a conversation down. As an evangelist, asking questions helps me get a person to bring up “signals of transcendence” in their life that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.
Eugene Peterson said, “Many people talk about urgency for action, but what we really need is urgency for listening.” The tendency in conversational evangelism is to make sure we get our word in. Good evangelism begins with good listening. I am keen to listen to what excites people and how they spend their spare time. I listen for statements that tend to be veiled questions. With the college student I mentioned earlier, who struggles with anxiety and wonders whether some of her friends hate her, the question emerged of whether she was loved and accepted. By listening, I was able to express something of the truth within Christianity—that she is loved by God.
Patience is key.
Leading a person to Christ is exhilarating. But it’s a process. Just by observing conversations Christ had with his friends, we get a glimpse of how patient Christ was. Even when his close friends did not understand him, he remained patient with them. This ought to be instructive for Christians who desire to see friends commit their lives to Christ. Christ’s disciples had heard Christ’s teaching firsthand, they had witnessed Jesus cleansing a leper, and they had observed the authority with which he spoke. Now, in Matthew 8:23–27, in a boat caught in a violent storm, they see his power dynamically and unimaginably demonstrated. Yet, after all of this, they look at each other and say, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?” Surely, they saw something of the living God in these acts, yet they seemingly bumbled their way alongside Christ not really understanding the fullness of who he was. Remarkably so, Christ never gave up on them. He stuck with them every step of the way, despite their lack of understanding.
Give focused attention.
In our smartphone, 24/7, always-on culture, we have become too comfortable with interruptions and distractions. Still one of our greatest desires in friendships and conversations is attention. Listening well, cultivating a disposition of patience, and giving focused attention might be the most subtle, yet the brightest way in which we shine the light of Christ. I believe these actions can provide powerful ways in which the beauty and attractiveness of Christ’s love can be seen and heard. The French mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote, “Make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.”
The challenges to the gospel in our culture are real and daunting. But I have hope because the gospel is real and strong as it has always been. It is good news.
Being an evangelist in a post-Christian world starts with recovering confidence in the gospel. This is a gospel that tells of a God who is wonderfully involved in our world and in our lives. In Acts 17, Paul speaks to a group of people who felt as though their search for God was like reaching for someone in a dark room. Paul tells them that the God who made them is the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (v. 28). Far from an impersonal force, to be sought after in a dark room, the Christian God is one who has pursued us, knows us, and who gives us the very reason for our existence. This same God invites us out of our extreme individualism and into a life that is far richer than something we could ever create or imagine.
A version of this article appeared in Christianity Today on December 20, 2017. Click here to view it>>