The Best (and worst) Practices for Sharing Your Faith

Tim Downs

From: Finding Common Ground (Moody Press, 1999). Used by permission. All rights reserved.

I remember visiting a Christian bookstore once – I use the word bookstore loosely because in reality more than half the store was devoted to music, posters, and an astounding variety of what I call “Protestant Paraphernalia.” I was amazed to find an entire section devoted to T-shirts, lapel pins, and bumper stickers. One stylish crew neck featured a drawing of a plump pink human brain with the caption, “This is your brain.” Below it was a drawing of the same brain sitting in a frying pan. The caption: “This is your brain in hell.” A jet-black Beefy-T featured the subtle invitation, “Heaven or Hell, turn or burn.” Still another was emblazoned with the warm reassurance, “Every knee shall bow – count on it.” Every pin, shirt, poster and sticker was a stark, screaming, in your face confrontation with the unbelieving world. “This is how it is,” they all seemed to say. “Like it or lump it, baby.” Above this remarkable display was a banner that read “Witness Center.” Until I saw that banner, it had not occurred to me that these pins, shirts and bumper stickers were much more than some Christian’s concept of art – they represented some Christian’s concept of the best way to witness to an unbeliever.

I have a brother-in-law who is a senior vice president for a large advertising agency in Chicago. I asked him once about how an especially obnoxious television commercial for a local car dealer managed to stay on the air. “What’s the name of the dealer?” he asked. When I told him, he replied, “That’s why it stays on the air. You remember the name.”

In advertising, the assumption is made that people are busy, distracted and essentially immune to the thousands of messages that bombard them each day. If an advertisement can just shout loud enough, just assault the senses long enough, then the message might get through. Christians often work under the same assumption. If we can reach the unbeliever’s eye, if we can make him pay attention for a moment, the message just might get through.

But what message gets through? When a man is slapped in the face, it’s only in commercials that he responds, “Thanks. I needed that.” In the real world, he’s very likely to slap you back. Christians everywhere walk around adorned with slogans and clichés that appear blunt, angry, self-righteous, and confrontational to the average unbeliever. The message gets through – the message that Christians are rude, arrogant and judgmental. So the question is what kind of T-shirt do you wear around someone who’s still deciding whether to follow Christ?

This issue is a critical one, and the problem is not restricted to Christian T-shirts and bumper stickers. It’s also a problem with Christian books, magazines, television shows, movies, and our dialogue with unbelievers generally. It’s a problem with our entire witnessing strategy. What should that strategy entail instead? Here are five guidelines for communicating with unbelievers.


Speak the Unbeliever’s Language

Our planet has hundreds of distinct languages, each incomprehensible to the person who lives just across the border. Nothing is as frustrating as trying to communicate with someone who has no vocabulary in common with us. “Those French people!” Steve Martin once complained, “it’s like they have a different word for everything!” To the ancient Greeks, foreigners sounded like they were just mumbling nonsense – something like “barbarbarbarbar.” That’s the origin of the word barbarian. The modern definition of the word is “an insensitive, uncultured person; a boor.” Originally, it simply meant “someone who doesn’t speak your language.” I imagine it was a small step from the first definition to the second.

One of the unique languages of our planet is Christianese. It’s really a blending of several other dialects, including ancient Greek and Hebrew, King James English, and pop psychobabble. Here is just a brief excerpt from the elementary Christianese lexicon: saved, justified, sanctified, glorified, heathen, witness, gospel, Spirit-filled, raptured.

This is basic vocabulary, of course. The advanced lexicon includes terms like premillennial and dispensationalist. We even have Christianese secret codes to learn, like 666 and WWJD.

This is the Christian’s native tongue. But how does it sound to the unbeliever when we attempt to communicate to him in this mysterious language? We sound like barbarians in the fully modern sense of the word. Because we don’t take the time to speak and write in a way the non-Christian can understand, we appear as insensitive and uncultured boors. Those Christians – it’s like they have a different word for everything.

As Christians we are essentially translators. Our job is to take complex theological principles, first recorded in ancient Near Eastern texts, and express them in terms so simple and clear that the most uneducated modern listener can understand them. Translation takes time, and it requires the knowledge of at least two languages: the language of your original text and the language of your listener. A truly effective translation is faithful to both.


Show an Understanding of the Unbeliever’s World

I have a friend who is in graduate school at a state university. In his department, the belief that homosexuality is the moral equivalent of heterosexuality is so entrenched that it is absolutely non-negotiable. As he puts it, “In my department, to argue that homosexuality is a sin would be no different than to argue that blacks are really inferior to whites.” Knowledge of this mind-set is very helpful to my friend – and an ignorance of that mind-set would be disastrous for any Christian who assumed otherwise. Fifty years ago a Christian could assume that an unbeliever held many similar attitudes and viewpoints about life, ethics, and morality. In the day in which we live, the unbeliever’s world can be radically different from our own. Instead of attempting to persuade unbelievers about details of biblical morality – which should be the result of salvation, not a prerequisite for it – a wiser Christian takes the time to find out exactly how our worlds are different before charging ahead.

James Davidson Hunter, in his book Culture Wars, wrote that communities that share firmly held beliefs – like Christians – need to try to understand what other communities hold dear. We need to try to recognize “the “˜sacred’ within different moral communities. The “˜sacred’ is that which communities love and revere as nothing else. The “˜sacred’ expresses that which is non-negotiable and defines the limits of what they will tolerate.” In other words, Christians are not the only ones who hold things sacred, and an affront to the deeply held beliefs of others – whether about homosexuality, feminism, or radical environmentalism – is seen by them as not just offensive, but sacrilegious. We do not have to agree with another person’s point of view in order to respect that person and avoid obvious offense. Hunter warns us not to be “idiots,” which comes from the Greek prefix idios, meaning personal, private, or separate. A true idiot, in the original sense of the word, was a person so private and withdrawn that he had no idea how to speak or act.

What is your listener’s religious and cultural background? What community does she consider herself a part of? What stereotypes or caricatures would she find particularly offensive? What agreements have you assumed between you and your listener that may actually be points of difference? You can avoid the particular form of idiocy common to Christians if you will take the time to understand her listener’s world.


Be Intelligent and Credible

In public restrooms I have sometimes found Christian tracts that believers have left – not simple summaries of the gospel like The Roman Road or The Bridge, but tracts that attempt to deal with a complex contemporary issue such as evolution, feminism, homosexuality, or AIDS. In one tract on evolution, Darwin’s basic theory was portrayed in such simplistic terms that no evolutionist on earth would recognize it. The theory was then neatly “refuted,” and the Christians won in the end. This kind of argument is known as a “straw man.” We set up a straw man – a flimsy facsimile of a real argument – and then we knock it down. This is a common in-house exercise for Christians, and it gives us a temporary sense of confidence and superiority; but God help you if you ever run into the real argument.

My son will enter college soon – probably a large, secular university. There, for the first time, he will encounter some of the real arguments. It will be a vulnerable time for him. Many young Christians abandon their faith during their college years, for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that they were never prepared to resist an effective argument made by a knowledgeable, intelligent, persuasive professor. When the genuine item comes along, the young Christian is swept away. He may end up angry and bitter, feeling that he was misinformed, misled, or even deceived by his Christian mentors.

Sometimes we unintentionally cheat younger Christians by exposing them only to imitations of challenges to the Christian faith, versions that are easy to defeat because they bear little resemblance to the real disease. My wife and I are working now to try to “inoculate” our son against those arguments. When a doctor inoculates a patient, he injects a weakened form of a disease into the patient’s body. The patient’s immune system detects the new disease and begins to develop antibodies to resist it. By the time the real disease comes along, the patient has sufficient immunity to resist it. But here’s the key: The inoculation must contain a sample of the real disease.

One of the ways we hope to prepare our son to face the real arguments is by admitting honestly that the other side is not stupid. We simply believe they are mistaken, and sometimes very intelligent people make mistakes. By refusing to ridicule or caricature opposing views, we hope to teach our son to approach opponents with respect. As Peter put it, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15b).

So we should address unbelievers as intelligent, thoughtful adults and we should deal with their positions gently and respectfully. This means that Christian speakers and authors who want to create materials that Christians can recommend had better do their homework. They need to take the time to intimately understand an opposing view from original sources – in other words, they need to have the courage to expose themselves to the real disease in its most virulent form. Then, they need to formulate intelligent and well-thought-out responses. Even if the unbeliever disagrees, as long as he feels that his position was handled fairly and respectfully, he’ll remain open to further input from us.


Use Tools That Raise Good Questions

There is a difference between communication that is suited for sowing and that which is better for harvesting. Harvesting entails giving answers, being up-front, direct, and thorough. Although it may address a topic other than the gospel, it will always come around to the topic of the gospel itself, and it usually attempts to bring the unbeliever to a point of decision. For the harvester, if the book, movie or discussion doesn’t give the whole answer, it’s of no value.

Sowing, on the other hand, entails asking questions. For the sower, any book, tape, film or discussion that raises questions that the sower can make use of in his ongoing contact with the unbeliever is of great value. That’s one of the biggest differences between a harvesting and sowing tool: A harvesting tool does all the work for you. “Here – read this and become a Christian.” But a sowing tool still leaves the sower with most of the work. “Here – read this and tell me what you think.” It raises a good question, creates a deeper interest, or provides an opening for an intimate conversation.

This is the radical claim I am putting forth: Because sowing is a legitimate, God-ordained form of ministry, materials and discussions that help us sow are valuable ministry tools – if only we will learn how to recognize and use them.

And the wonderful thing about sowing tools is that the secular world is making them for us. Chuck Colson once said that he learned more about the true nature of sin by watching Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors than from any doctrinal treatise he ever read. The movie is about an eminent ophthalmologist, a well-respected family man, who has a brief affair with a lonely flight attendant. The flight attendant becomes increasingly jealous and threatens to reveal the affair to the doctor’s wife. In a panic, the doctor turns to his brother, who has Mafia connections. The brother suggests that he can “take care of things,” and he arranges to have her murdered. The rest of the movie is about the doctor’s attempt to rationalize his terrible sin in his own mind. He tells himself that the woman was an enemy, threatening to destroy his marriage, his family, and his reputation. What choice did he have but to defend himself? By the end of the film, he had fully rationalized his sin, and he lies happily ever after.

Imagine that you and your neighbor both see this film. Afterward, some very natural interaction about the movie might include questions like these:

  • Can you believe the way the doctor rationalized what he did?
  • How do you feel about the fact that he got away with it in the end?
  • Do you think he really got away with it?
  • Do you suppose he would ever again think about what he did?
  • What do you think Woody Allen was saying about human nature?

Simple question like these could lead to some very direct conversation about biblical topics like sin, confession, and repentance. As you grow in skill and experience, you’ll realize that you can make use of an incredible variety of books, tapes, music, and films that can be found at any bookstore or video outlet. Instead of trying to figure out how to get the unbeliever to come over to your world and watch your movie, you can learn to make use of the movies from his world that he’s most likely to see.


Have a Reasonable Persuasive Goal

John Warwick Montgomery tells the story of an eager Christian who was witnessing to his scientifically-minded friend. Their conversation was stalled over the issue of evolution; according to the unbeliever, there simply isn’t enough evidence in the geologic record to support the biblical account of creation. Undaunted, the Christian replied, “Now what was that book I heard about that refutes all of geology?”

Some Christians believe that such a book is possible. They fail to understand that modern geology, and virtually every other academic discipline, is supported by a mammoth amount of study, research, and writing. Any attempt to refute in one swoop such a massive amount of scholarship displays ignorance of the field and loses credibility in the eyes of the unbeliever. “You must be kidding – it’s not that simple.”

That’s why it’s important for Christians not to bite off more than they can chew when appealing to unbelievers. I once heard a tape by a Christian with a Ph.D. in chemistry. He was examining the big bang theory of the origin of the universe, questioning whether such an event could have happened without some external guidance. He was an active scientist with a credible degree from a respected university, and his arguments were impressive – his only problem was the extent of his persuasive goal. In a one-hour tape he went from flaws in the big bang theory to the biblical account of creation to the New Testament teaching that “in Him all things hold together.” The farther he went, the more his argument seemed to unravel; it was just too much to cover in an hour.

One exciting application of the principle of “small bites” is the number of respected scientists who are now writing on design theory. To put it simply, design theory is creation science with a more reasonable persuasive goal. Design theorists argue that, when you consider the existence and nature of the universe, it seems as though some kind of intelligent design was necessary to produce it. They are not arguing that it must have been the biblical God, or that the Genesis account of creation must be true. They are arguing one small point – but that small point is enough to upend the theory of evolution.

These scientists have realized that within the scientific community, they would be deadlocked forever debating the larger issue of “creation science” and whether it even exists. There is no way to move their colleagues from the position of scientific naturalism all the way to Christian theism in a single step – so they have decided to sow. Their more limited persuasive goal is much more attainable, and the writings they’re producing are intelligent, credible, and persuasive – exactly what you might be looking for.

From Finding Common Ground: How to communicate with those outside the Christian community”¦while we still can, © Moody Press, 1999. Used by permission.

Tim Downs is the founder of the Communication Center, a communication training and consulting ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.