Monday, October 14, 2013

The Most Common Mistake when Talking with Skeptics

Conversational evangelism and apologetics can be very frustrating. Christians often to get to the end of a discussion with an unbeliever and think, “Well, that was a waste of time! We weren’t connecting on anything. Did we even speak the same language?  All my great points fell completely flat.”

What causes these conversations to go wrong? The most common reason is that believers launch into a defense of the faith before finding out anything at all about the skeptic.

Instead of jumping right in to address some objection or present an argument, Christians would be much better served by asking a few important questions and then listening carefully to the answers.

For example, these queries work wonderfully at the beginning of a conversation:

“Tell me a bit about yourself. Do you have a background in Christianity or some other church or religion? Have you always been a skeptic? If not, how did you arrive at your position?”

“I understand you don’t believe that Christianity is true, but what worldview do you hold, then? In other words, I realize you think that Christianity offers false answer to life’s biggest questions, but what do you think are the right answers?”

“Speaking of the answers that Christianity offers, could you tell me the Christian message from your perspective? What is the story of the Bible as you understand it?”

There are several reasons this method leads to more fruitful evangelistic and apologetic conversations.

First, it builds relationship and defuses animosity. As Hugh Hewitt writes: “When you ask a question, you are displaying interest in the person asked. Most people are not queried on many, if any, subjects. Their opinions are not solicited. To ask them is to be remembered fondly as a very interesting and gracious person in your own right.” (In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition, p. 172).  Greg Koukl adds “[Questions] invite genial interaction on something the other person cares a lot about: her own ideas.” (Tactics, A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions p. 48)

Second, it keeps the two sides from addressing people and positions that don’t actually exist. As I write in my new book,

Too many religious conversations involve people talking past each other because they haven’t taken the time to find out what the other person actually believes. The result is that each side tries to knock down a straw-man version of the other’s position. The skeptic argues against a version of Christianity that the believer does not hold and the Christian attacks an atheistic worldview that the unbeliever does not hold. Then they wonder why the conversation never gets anywhere. (p. 49)

Third, it offers the opportunity to present the gospel without being preachy. When you ask the skeptic about what he or she believes the Christian message to be, you will inevitably find that they have some poor theology. You can then step in and gently say, “Well, that’s not exactly what Christianity teaches. In order that we can understand each other clearly, let me share with you how I understand the Bible’s message. “

Fourth, it helps bring to light some of the underlying non-intellectual reasons that people reject Christianity. Many skeptics do not base their unbelief on a hard examination of the facts or a deep analysis of the various philosophical arguments. Rather, a variety of other factors are at play, including painful experiences with Christians, anger at God over a heartbreaking loss, and the desire to rationalize immoral behavior. By asking a few questions, the Christian can become more aware of what is going on under the surface.

A conversation with skeptics that doesn’t start with some good questions will almost always lead nowhere. Avoiding that mistake will help us be much more effective at reaching the world for Jesus.

Apologetics 315 Guest Writer Donald Johnson has served in vocational ministry since 1993, including extensive experience as an inner city youth worker and young adult pastor. He has a B.A. in Theology, Missions and Intercultural Studies from San Jose Christian College, an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola University, and an M.A. in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He has also done graduate work in the evangelism program at Multnomah Seminary and the philosophy of Religion program at Talbot School of Theology. His newest book is How to Talk to a Skeptic: An Easy-to-Follow Guide for Natural Conversations and Effective Apologetics. Hear his interview with Apologetics 315 here.


  1. william francis brown October 15, 2013

    Yes and no. Sometimes a wise, thoughtful comment or reply (like apples of gold) can really get someone thinking. That requires prudence and wisdom, insight, and experience. When I was a young boy my secular humanist pretensions were knocked down by an older and wiser Christian who, in a few words, really got me thinking about the whole basis of my world-view. That initial jolt started a process of reevaluating everything I thought I knew.

  2. Anonymous October 15, 2013

    As a skeptic I gotta say this all sounds very cynical to me. I have a hard enough time telling if someone's being genuine or not, and now I have to wonder if someone's just testing out a formula on me? Great.

  3. MaryLou October 17, 2013

    Women are rare birds in the apologetics field, but, as Mary Jo Sharp points out in her book, Defending the Faith, women are particularly good at relationship-building and listening. These things come naturally to most of them and these things provide a foundation on which to lead people to Christ.

    Having said that, I honestly don't meet people and immediately start thinking about how I am going to lead them to Christ. I spend time with people because I care about them and if I get to talk to them about Jesus in the future, that's great. If I don't, I figure God will find some way apart from me to connect with them.

    I am sure there are many men who are also good at relationship-building and approach people the same way that I do — not as subjects to be witnessed to, but people to get to know and care about.

    I think the article above is for all those people — male or female — who tend to look at the end result, that is, bringing a person to Christ, with blinders on. In doing so, leave the human element right out of it as they concentrate on evidence and arguments and conversion.

    I also like what the Janitor said — that we meet people at various stages in their spiritual journeys and where they are at dictates how we respond to them. But someone who honestly cares about a person is going to be sensitive to that. Again, it's the aggressive evangelists who need to learn to care first, convert second.

  4. Anonymous October 18, 2013

    I'm a 45 year old former Christian that has shifted to an atheistic worldview over the past several years. I agree with that the author's first two points, that when Christians and skeptics discuss issues it is important to ask questions and define terms to avoid talking past each other.

    Points 3 and 4 are where the author starts to lose me and I presume others that think as I do. My lack of belief is not based on "poor theology" or the non-intellectual reasons that my Christian friends are so quick to project onto me.

    My lack of belief in a god comes from my rejection of the claims of theism given the evidence presented. Fruitful conversations can better occur if each side in the debate focuses on the positive evidence for their own claims.

  5. Anonymous October 24, 2013

    I have read all this. Now Plant the seed and if it doesn't work God will water it. And
    who knows what can happen years later. I am living proof.

  6. The Janitor October 24, 2013

    Along the lines of what Anonymous said:

    I had an atheist friend I brought to church with me once. The pastor talked about building relationships to share the gospel. She was offended by that. She thought it was treating relationships with people like a means to an end. In a sense it is, and there isn't necessarily something wrong with that if the end you're aiming at is actually to the other person's benefit. But it's no easier to convince someone of that by first building a relationship than just flat out telling them.

    However, I agree with a lot of what Mr. Johnson says and think he's basically right. Anonymous's worries don't seem warranted at this point. There is nothing disingenuous about asking good questions and listening for answers. It's a persuasion dialogue and since persuasion is person variable, of course we're going to try and see what works.

    But I'd like to add my own caveat: Conversion isn't primarily about us having the right method. People are on different points in the life-journey. Sometimes just sharing the gospel, flat out, will be effective with someone because of some prior work that is being done in that person's life that you don't know about (and that prior work may have nothing to do with friendship evangelism). Sometimes years can be spent building a relationship that will end nowhere and move the person nowhere closer to the gospel.

    Conversations are a two way street and often "failure" or getting nowhere in a conversation may have nothing to do with your tactics. After all, are people not Christian because Christians aren't being persuasive enough or friendly enough? If so, then we can indeed make most conversations "successful" just by being more persuasive and/or more friendly. But I doubt that will bring in the millennium (and I'm reminded of something Greg Koukle often says "You can't out-nice the Mormons").

  7. John Moore October 24, 2013

    This is great. The only problem is that this kind of approach takes a long time! You can't just have a quick chat over coffee and expect to convert an atheist. Instead, you need to build a personal relationship and really understand your atheist counterpart. Unfortunately that might be too big a commitment. Most evangelists give up on me once our coffee cups are empty.

  8. Phil Ensor November 24, 2013

    I bought this e-book. I'm an atheist. I find it an embarrassing read. I was curious to understand how a proselytizing Christian would approach someone like me. I was disappointed in the first instance with the author's handling of a dig at certain types of Christians who followed some of the big tele-evangelists or famous pastors (named). A direct quote aimed at a certain demographic was then used out of context about all Christians, or at least Christians like the author. Not a good start at all. It lacked integrity. And he is also smarmy. Seriously smarmy. It's hard work. I'm still reading through it, but have found my reading tailing off. I'm going to have to dive back in to pick more out of it. Need to refresh my mind. I was shaking my head a fair bit and I'll be going back over it to remember why.

    I'm an ex-Christian.

  9. Phil Ensor November 24, 2013

    Apparently atheists had bad relationships with their fathers. That's one of his trump cards. He talks about 'filters' that are applied to weaken views of Jesus from the original, divine nature, yet pops on his own filters when handling standpoints that oppose his own. Very poor.