Our Recipe: Respect + Conviction
by Tom Goodman
June 7, 2013
"Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life, and you would want to change the lives of others."
And then the atheist added, "I haven't seen too much of that."
You read that correctly. A nonbelieving student at Dartmouth expressed disappointment that his Christian acquaintances were not engaging him with the gospel.
There's a lesson here for us. Our recipe for impacting our neighbors involves generous measures of conviction and respect. It's a falsehood to think that showing respect for those who disagree with you means you have to play down your convictions.
The nonbeliever's story was highlighted in an article for the Atlantic by Larry Alex Taunton, executive director
of the Fixed Point Foundation. The article was about what he had learned from simply asking university students about their journey to unbelief.
Here are his discoveries. I'll add a "takeaway" that we as church leaders need to apply from each point.
They had attended church. For the most part, atheists were not raised by atheistic parents. Rather, they had spent some time in a Christian church.
Takeaway: Since our neighbors have likely spent some time in a church in the past, they think they already know the message of our church. Don't assume they actually do. Sometimes when discussing faith with a nonbeliever its helpful to ask what
they rejected or didn't find persuasive in their previous church experiences. Often the gospel differs from what they heard (or thought they heard). Explain those differences.
The mission and message of their churches was vague. Here's a good warning for those who say the key to cultural relevance isn't found in Bible study groups and Sunday worship but rather in social justice and community involvement. Taunton
remembered Stephanie, a student at Northwestern who said of her disappointment with church: "The connection between Jesus and a person's life was not clear." Taunton added: "This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that
the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay."
Takeaway: We should participate in practical activities for community improvement, but we should always show how these activities develop out of the impact Christ has made on our lives. There is no conflict between biblical proclamation and
They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life's difficult questions. They were hoping to find a church that didn't shy away from the tough stuff. Taunton, again:
When our participants were asked what they found unconvincing about the Christian faith, they spoke of evolution vs. creation, sexuality, the reliability of the biblical text, Jesus as the only way, etc. Some had gone to church hoping to find answers
to these questions. Others hoped to find answers to questions of personal significance, purpose, and ethics. Serious-minded, they often concluded that church services were largely shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant. As Ben, an engineering
major at the University of Texas, so bluntly put it: "I really started to get bored with church."
Takeaway: Take the time to show how Christian belief stands up to tough questions. Our Explore God campaign this fall will be a perfect opportunity to have conversations with seeking people about
some of the faith questions they struggle with the most. Over 280 Austin-area churches of many denominations are participating in this campaign. Deacons and Bible study leaders are encouraged to come to breakfast at 8:30am on either June 23 or June 30 to learn more about this upcoming campaign.
They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously. The Dartmouth student whose comment opened today's post surprised Taunton with his disappointment over Christians unwilling or uninterested in engaging others with
their faith: "I really can't consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn't trying to convert me." It reminds me of what the atheist and illuionist Penn Jillette
said years ago: "I don't respect people who don't proselytize. I don't respect that at all.... How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?"
Takeaway: Respecting the views of others doesn't mean staying silent about your own views. It's wrong to express your views in a way that marks you as defensive or easily-offended. But the alternative isn't to shut up. In the long run, people are
impressed with people of respectful convictions.
Ages 14-17 were decisive. For the majority of atheists, the high school years were the time when they embraced unbelief.
Takeaway: Pray for our youth ministry!
The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one. Taunton wrote, "With few exceptions, students would begin by telling us that they had become atheists for exclusively rational reasons. But as we listened it became clear that, for
most, this was a deeply emotional transition as well."
Takeaway: Just because someone gives rational reasons for their nonbelief, be prepared to help them explore the emotional reasons, too. Grief, disillusionment, and anger are often the driving motivations to rejection of faith. C.S. Lewis,
recalling his own time as an atheist, famously defined an atheist as "someone who does not believe in God and is mad at God for not existing."
The internet factored heavily into their conversion to atheism. When Taunton asked the nonbelievers to cite key influences in their conversion to atheism, he assumed he would hear how they were impacted by lectures and books from the militant
atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Sam Harris. He wrote, "We did not. Not once. Instead, we heard vague references to videos they had watched on YouTube or website forums."
Takeaway: Make use of social media in your efforts to influence. Go to ExploreGod.com to get a preview of resources we'll be encouraging you to use during our citywide "Explore God" campaign in late summer and
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