You’re likely to have seen a banner such as this flying boldly over certain corners of the Social Media Universe:
“I’ve studied the Bible. And that’s why I’m an atheist.”
And sure enough, my own experience has proven this fascinating little claim over again and again, and from many angles. But just one of those angles surfaced through the evangelism training that I first received as a high school student. Yes, of all things, it was the instruction I received on how to “win people for Jesus” that opened a very wide door through which my own faith would ultimately fail to make it out alive.
But how can this be? you might ask. How can training geared to help you convince others to follow Jesus – the same training that played a significant role in your own decision to become a pastor – become a force to ultimately destabilize your faith years later???
Well, the short answer is this: Because my evangelism training taught me that Christians can only expect others to trust in Jesus if they are actually able to present their case as the truly most rational option. And eventually, I came to realize they couldn’t.
But let me explain further…
Since I was a fairly active teenage Christian, I received a fair amount of evangelism training during those formative high school years: Youth for Christ curriculum in our church’s youth group, staff training at the Bible camp I worked for, more Youth for Christ training at two Washington DC peer-evangelism conferences, and a little more training received from the hands of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. All before I even entered adulthood.
Now, for the sake of clarity, and for those less versed in such arenas: Evangelism is the practice of presenting a case for why a non-believer should believe in Jesus, entrust their lives to him, and begin following his model and teachings. An evangelist, therefore, is one who communicates such presentations professionally. And that which is evangelistic is… well, I think you get the picture…
And like all things concerning evangelical Christianity, evangelism training is deeply rooted in theology, in what evangelicals believe the Bible to teach on the subject. Though I cannot possibly go into all of the Bible verses that play a role here (nor do you want me to), allow me a few key examples.
And yes, these tie in directly to what would allow a subtle deterioration of my faith a decade later…
It was in my evangelism training that I learned the significance of Christianity’s epic passage from the Book of Romans, where the author takes the prophet Joel’s declaration that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” and applies it to salvation from sin’s eternal condemnation. This then leads right into the oft-repeated line of reasoning used to fuel the passions of Christian proselytization around the globe: “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” So, Romans concludes, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
See the one-to-one correlation there? Preachers must be sent so that they can preach. They must preach so that non-believers can hear. They, in turn, must hear so that they can believe. And they must believe so that they can call out to God and be saved.
And so here we have Evangelical Evangelism 101: Already-saved human beings sent out to tell not-yet-saved human beings how to make the conversion. After all, how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?
Thus, the need for preaching and sending. Thus, the Bible’s many commands to spread the word about God and Jesus. Thus, the Great Commission of Matthew 28 where Jesus instructs his followers to go and preach and baptize, to teach and instruct. So that all the world may follow him and find salvation. Evangelical Evangelism 101.
Even though we’ve only just begun our little training session here, notice what the center-point of this whole enterprise is: The Use of Words. Evangelism hinges on the use of words, constructed in just the right way, so as to convince someone else of their need to believe in Jesus and find salvation.
And from the beginning of my training, this was used to highlight to me the role of reason. We were to use logic and reason in order to articulate the most rational presentation of the gospel of Jesus.
You see, from the very beginning it was made clear that our faith was truly designed to be a rational one. And in so doing, it was settled in my mind that this faith of ours was only worthy of our attention if it was indeed the most rational option available.
And so, because our evangelism was to be reasonable and logical, we were trained to anticipate the needs of our listeners, to mentally place ourselves in their positions, to discern the obstacles and excuses that may stand in the way of their conversion to faith in Jesus, and to construct just the right kind of presentation that could then sway them.
And the methods available to do so seemed virtually unlimited. We might use a personal story called a “testimony,” or we might get intellectual and wax philosophically. It could be helpful to get their emotions all stirred up, or if they already recognize biblical authority, we could simply read the right Bible verses.
The key was to be flexible and do whatever it took to present the best case possible, customized to the person we were seeking to win for Truth. We did NOT take the more fundamentalist approach of simply shouting out Bible verses and walking away. Rather, we truly sought a more reasonable and conversational approach. And we looked toward the examples of the Apostle Paul from the Book of Acts for biblical support.
You see, in the evangelism of the Apostle Paul, our training noted his own method of customizing his proselytism to the perspective of his audience. Throughout the middle chapters of Acts, Paul quotes the prophecy of Old Testament Bible verses only when speaking in synagogues and with Jewish crowds. Acts 17 says that in such contexts it was his custom to “reason with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and rise from the dead…”
But in other contexts, Paul and his companions quickly and easily abandoned the Bible quotes in exchange for other forms of persuasion. For instance, when on trial in Acts 26, Paul tries to convert King Agrippa right there in the courtroom. But he quotes no scripture and instead relies on the mere telling of his own personal story, sharing the transformation that he had himself found by his own faith in Jesus. At one point interrupted by a third party, Paul clarifies, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.”
Now, did you catch that last part there? I sure had: True and Rational Words.
No matter how irrational non-believers may think Christians sound, we must realize that at least some of them do nonetheless hold an appreciation for rational thinking and are honestly attempting to engage it. The media doesn’t always convey this impression, but even within the evangelical framework, reason is a virtue.
And it’s in Acts 17 where we see the Bible’s greatest example of evangelistic liberty. And so this passage was repeatedly held before us as a prime model of a flexible evangelism, as the kind that successfully gets inside the mind of its audience to get the job done. Here while preaching in Athens, not only does the Apostle Paul recognize that his listeners share no familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures and therefore abandon the Bible quotes, he also sees no benefit to discussing Jesus at all and declines to even mention his name! He instead uses his sermon to simply proclaim that their alter dedicated “To the Unknown God” is in fact the God that Paul has personally experienced and travelled to tell them about. No prophets and no Jesus. Instead he quotes source material from the likes of Epimenides and Aratus, philosophers and poets a bit closer to the Athenian context.
Evangelism 101: Know your context and know what needs to be said to win them over.
Oh, we could go on and on with biblical passages and examples, but I think we’re beginning to get the picture here. It really all comes down to words. As our evangelism training pointed out, Acts 14 says as much when it tells us that Paul and his companions “entered into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.”
And that is how “a great number of Jews and Greeks believed.” By entering the synagogue and “speaking in such a way.” Oh yes, there’s the very real need for prayer and the power of God, and we would have never denied those crucial roles. But alongside all the more supernatural elements, there was the much more practical side of simply speaking well.
Paul “spoke in such a way.” And it was up to us to do the same. It was up to us to craft that message in such a way that our friends and neighbors would be won over and convinced of the undeniable truth of the reality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. The power of God was indeed at work behind the scenes. That much was never denied. And yet our Bibles taught us another truth: That like the Apostle Paul, we too were to enter and speak in such a way that a great number would be convinced and believe.
This, my friends, is Evangelical Evangelism 101.
And so I realized from an early age, the need to construct only the most compelling and convincing arguments for faith in Jesus. Throughout my evangelistic training years as a high school student, I practiced my message over and over and over again. As I sat in thought, I would imagine the most intimidating critiques against my faith. And while in the shower each morning, I would rehearse my response to those critiques, hammering out each phrase over and over and over again until I believed it to sound as convincing as possible. While driving in my car, I would role play conversations, trying to stump myself as I flipped back and forth like one attempting to game himself in chess. I mechanically taught myself to think like a nonbeliever and envision the atheistic framework, so as to look for the weak links that I could then craft another set of answers to combat.
I realized that my role as an ambassador of Jesus was to present the best, most solidly rational case for Jesus possible.
And I realized that the reason for this mission, the underlying point to being clear and well spoken and expertly prepared, was because only then can we justly expect someone to believe it. It was because people have an obligation to use the mind God had apparently given them to follow where the evidence would lead. Because why else would people de-convert from their native religion? And how else could God expect them to? Why else would a Muslim stop being a Muslim to become a Christian? Why else would a Buddhist stop being a Buddhist? Or a Jew or a Hindu? Clearly, God expected us to shape the most rational arguments for Christian faith because he held people responsible for following the most rational arguments available.
And it was somewhere in here that I realized if there should ever come a day when I saw a better case for another religion that I would be obligated to follow it? Does one growing up in a Muslim environment not automatically assume that Islam has to be correct? So of course I had likewise assumed this of my Christian environment.
Now at the same time, I really was honestly and thoroughly convinced that Christianity was the one and only truth. So convinced was I, that I dedicated the rest of my life to its work and ran off to Bible college and seminary. But even before then I knew that as committed as I was to the truth of Christianity, I must also be as committed to the use of reason in discerning that truth. And as truly as God was real, he would guide and direct my understanding of truth along this pursuit.
I’ve always considered myself a freethinker. I had just freely thought Christianity to be the best available option for the first 30 years of my life.
But then eventually, you guessed it, I began amassing more and more questions that I couldn’t answer. I began to envision an increasing number of possible critiques for which I found myself unable to craft satisfactory responses.
And I would read the responses of the Christian apologists and say to myself, Really, does anyone actually believe what this guy is saying???
And I began to wonder, If I hadn’t grown up with the Christian worldview, if I had grown up a Buddhist or atheist or whatever, is there anything that could now be said to convince me to become a Christian? Is there anything here that would lead me to become a Christian aside from the fact that I already am one?
And over the course of those years, it became harder and harder to deny that there wasn’t.
And it’s around that time that I began to realize my sense of reason and rationale was conflicting with my faith.
And that I had an obligation to follow evidential truth over wishful thinking.
Obviously anyone who’s familiar with my story knows there’s a whole lot more to my journey than just this. But this one thing I cannot deny, that it was my evangelism training that taught me that if Christianity is true, it will have the strongest argument. Especially if God gave us minds to think. And if he is indeed and actually present to guide and direct us toward truth.
But if after all this, Christianity’s defense still falls and fails, then it is for one reason and one reason alone: Because it must be false.
The evidence has spoken in such a way.