Signs of spring are all around us. I love looking at the lush green hills and blooming trees and bulbs. One unfortunate side effect of all this new growth is the abundance of weeds that sprout up with everything else. Pulling weeds is not my favorite part of working in the yard, but I do like the results when I’m done. One thing I’ve learned is that to eliminate a weed it is necessary not just to pull out the green shoots above the dirt; I need to dig down until I get to the roots.
Asking people good questions in faith conversations is much the same. If we just deal with the surface issues they have, we may not understand the roots of their problems or questions about God. Just like with weeding the yard, it takes a bit more time and effort to uncover the roots, but it is worth the effort.
I don’t encounter many atheists ready to engage in lively debates in my daily life, but Mary Jo Sharp’s lesson on asking good questions helped me to recognize how I can engage people differently. For me, the most common challenge I have is trying to overcome people’s preconceived notions about Christians. I’ll look at a few of the most common root issues I’ve discovered below.
People Who Have Absorbed Our Culture’s Views:
I find many people who are hesitant to explore faith because they’re afraid they’ll have to change their political views or stances on “hot topics.” They’ve heard sound bites about Christians that have caused a negative impression. Most people are unaware of how much they’ve been influenced by popular culture and have subtly been swayed to reject what is moral, right, true and good. I see people being influenced by outspoken celebrities with strong opinions, talk show hosts, news media and even fictional characters in movies and on TV that evoke sympathy in viewers.
Some of my best conversations with people have been when I’ve asked them to tell me how they’ve adopted their views that differ from Christians on certain hard issues. I’ve encountered very few people who have reasoned through their stances. Most realize they’ve come from being influenced by commonly held views that are espoused all around them. I know women who are craving spiritual fulfillment but who won’t set foot in a church or Bible study because they assume the people there have views differing from theirs. Sometimes they are afraid that exploring the Christian faith will mean they have to adopt a specific “agenda.” They make assumptions about God without looking at His word. Many people embrace the buzzwords of popular culture without really understanding what they mean or if they are really good.
“Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for people is gently shake up their presuppositions and invite them to think.” (Sue Bolin, “Four Killer Questions”, quoted from Why Do You Believe That? p. 76)
A few good questions to ask (without getting emotional or defensive):
-What causes you to accept that viewpoint? What is its foundation?
-Are you willing to look at what God has to say about that issue in the Bible?
-Are you willing to explore who God is aside from that issue?
-Are you afraid you’ll be forced to change or become someone you don’t want to be if you explore your questions about faith?
-Do you understand that not all Christians have the same view on every issue?
People feel great relief when they learn that becoming a Christian does not mean they must automatically think and act a certain way. Our focus should be on helping people learn how to engage the Bible and discover truth rather than on telling them what to think about specific issues. Our first priority should be helping people understand Jesus’ love for them rather than debating side issues. We can trust the Holy Spirit to open their eyes in His perfect timing to help them recognize areas He’s calling them to change.
People With Negative Views of God
It’s helpful to ask people how they got their opinions about God, church, and the Bible. When we can learn the root issue that is impacting them, we can figure out what to address. Some people have skewed views of God based on their upbringing. For others, popular culture, TV shows, movies, books and music have given them certain impressions of God that are not biblical. For others, a negative experience has caused them to assign blame to God. Some people have had no exposure to faith and are afraid to engage in conversations about it because they feel embarrassed, awkward or intimidated. It is foreign territory and a long way outside of their comfort zones. What all of these people need is gentleness, patience and encouragement.
A few good questions to ask:
-How do you think you came to that conclusion about God/the Bible/ Church?
-Are you willing to put aside your preconceived notions to explore faith in a different way?
-Have you have looked at what the Bible teaches about God? Are you willing to look at it with me?
-What do you know about Jesus? Can I share a little bit more about Him with you?
Jesus’ encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well gives us a great example of engaging someone effectively in a faith conversation. In John 4, we find Him traveling through Samaria and stopping for a drink and a rest at a well. He asks a woman drawing water: “Will you give me a drink?” and the question begins a conversation that changes her life. Two things stand out to me that relate to our topic. First, Jesus knows the woman is not living a lifestyle that honors God, yet He doesn’t address this right away. First, He focuses on her deepest issue: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10, NIV) He doesn’t start by telling her to clean up her act; He starts by showing her what He has to offer. We can do the same thing when engaging people who have been strongly influenced by our culture.
Second, when the woman offers what she does know about religion, Jesus builds on what she says to give her a clearer understanding. She says, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” Jesus responds, “I who speak to you am he.” (John 4:25-26, NIV) Similarly, we can use the limited knowledge a person shares as a jumping off place to helping them understand more in our faith conversations.
Once the woman realizes who Jesus is, she can’t keep it to herself. She runs back to town to tell others and to bring them back to hear His teaching. It’s an inspiring example of what can happen when we engage in faith conversations. We don’t have to tell people what to think or how to change. We just expose them to God, ask them good questions, pray for them and let Him work in their hearts.
Click on the link to hear “What I Know” by Tricia Brock (a song from the soundtrack of last year’s movie about apologetics called “God’s Not Dead”)
Sharp, Mary Jo; Why Do You Believe That? A Faith Conversation; Lifeway Press; 2012, 2014.