How do I answer a Jehovah’s Witness?
What can I say to my scientist friend?
What’s a good resource for understanding Islam?
How do I speak to a complacent agnostic?
What’s the best approach with the new age?
Most weeks someone asks me a question like this and, to be honest, most days I ask myself a similar question: How can I best communicate Jesus to this person? We never evangelise into thin air – there’s always an audience, always a conversation, always a context. Our lives of witness consist of messy circumstances and complicated people.
Those complications can be frustrating for folks like me who love to imagine ideal evangelistic encounters. In my head I’m able to concoct lengthy dialogues in which I trounce my unfortunate ‘opponent’, leaving them convinced of Jesus’ Lordship (not to mention my own unquestioned brilliance). Yet this ‘shadow boxing’ bears no resemblance to the real thing and it is disastrously divorced from the sharing of life which must accompany the sharing of the gospel (1 Thess. 2:8).
Evangelism is not a doctrine download. It certainly involves doctrines but God does not beam down pure theology onto the unsuspecting. He reaches people through people. And people are tricky. This means that evangelism can never be ‘one size fits all’. Each encounter will be different and all those questions which began the article will come into play. In fact, such questions will be greatly intensified, as we’ll see.
I want to make two basic points here. They will seem contradictory but I think we need to acknowledge both if we’re going to witness well. Statement number 1: Everyone is different. Statement number 2: Everyone is the same. I think both of these are true in their own way and it’s vital to hold onto both if we’re going to be faithful and fruitful in evangelism. So then…
Everyone is different
If I’m witnessing to my neighbour, Abdul, it can be very helpful to know what Muslims believe. But to imagine that research into Islam will be the key to unlock Abdul is both insulting and naive. It’s insulting because Abdul deserves to be known for who he is and not assumed to conform to a stereotype. It’s naive because even if I’ve perfectly understood what Abdul is meant to believe (which is a big ‘if’), Abdul himself may believe something quite different!
This holds true for all kinds of people. There’s no such thing as ‘a scientist’ or ‘a new ager’ in the abstract. What exists are infinitely complicated people who are also scientists, new agers, and so on. We’re never dealing with pure ideology if we’re dealing with people.
What this calls for is an unquenchable curiosity. Before being an Answerer, the evangelist is first and foremost a Questioner. This turns on its head my natural assumptions about evangelism. I might have thought that my job was to be interesting. In fact, my calling is to be interested. This is actually a relief because, a) I’m not very interesting, and b) there is little more boring than a person trying to be interesting. On the other hand, there are few things more nourishing than an interested conversation partner. And this is what Jesus calls us to be.
It is often noted that Jesus asked far more questions than he answered in the gospels. The eternal Word of God – heaven’s great Answer! – put 290 different questions to his hearers. When he was asked questions of his own he responded, as often as not, with another question. While many of us have our ‘silver bullet’ answers on a hair–trigger, Jesus does not handle his encounters like this. He delves into a questioner’s background, their desires, their motivations, their assumptions. The One who ‘knew all people’ never stopped inquiring about them. How can we be any less inquisitive when we really don’t know our hearers or where they’re coming from?
When people ask me how to witness to those from other faiths and backgrounds I am heartened. We have 130 episodes of the Evangelists Podcast and a very large number of them are engaging with the many faiths and worldviews out there. All of that training is important. But in amongst the advice I give, my bottom line is usually this: ‘If you want to know about Islam, ask your Muslim friend.’ If you enquire of your friend you will honour them, your understanding of that worldview will be so much richer and, crucially, you can then be sure that you’re interacting with your friend’s actual beliefs. For all these reasons I recommend treating your non-Christian friend as utterly unique and therefore becoming ravenously curious.
At the same time, we should realise…
Everyone is the same
This might seem contradictory but really it’s not. All I’m saying is that there are a million ways for people to pursue the same goals and that both the differences and the similarities need to be honoured. As for the similarities, Dan Ackroyd put it well in The Blues Brothers: ‘There are still some things that make us all the same…’ Then he sings, Everybody needs somebody to love. That’s a good candidate for a universal trait: the need for love. With our Bible-spectacles on we can recognise how true this is. ‘God has set eternity in the human heart’ (Ecc. 3:11). He has ‘marked out [our] appointed times in history… so that [we] would seek him’ (Acts 17:26–27).
This relates to a question I’m always trying to ask in evangelism: What gets you up in the morning? What do you live for? We’ve all got a common need for meaning, purpose and significance. As part of my curiosity I’ll be delving into that area and looking for ways to speak of the surprising God of love – ‘the God of Jesus’ who first subverts and then fulfils our longings.
Secondly, I’ll ask the question: What gets you down? What is the shape of your own struggles with life and struggles with yourself? At this point I’ll share about my own struggles and supremely those with sin and selfishness. (I find that the best way to provoke repentance in others is to begin with confession about myself!)
Thirdly, I ask the question: What gets you through? Given the struggles in life, what are your coping mechanisms? What comforts you? What gives you hope? Here, I’m keen to hear their experiences and to share about ‘the hope that is within’ me (1 Peter 3:15).
This verse – 1 Peter 3:15 – is, of course, a classic text on evangelism. But it is vital to read it in context. Peter’s command to ‘Give an answer’ is not a license to pontificate. It comes in a context – a deeply relational one. It’s part of a conversation and the whole paragraph begins with the admonition: ‘Be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble’ (1 Peter 3:8). This is our posture: sympathy, love, compassion and humility. These are traits that could arrest and engage anyone no matter their beliefs or lack thereof.
So let’s enjoy the differences of our non-Christian friends. Let’s explore them. Let’s get curious, asking them: What gets you up? What gets you down? What gets you through? As we ask our many questions, we will see how the one, universal Answer shines through.