If you’ve ever posted any thoughts about faith somewhere online, there’s a decent chance you’ve come across critics of the Church. The Internet is full of blogs poking fun at evangelicalism. Anti-religion books are frequently best-sellers. Colleges, workplaces and neighborhoods are melting pots of people with different worldviews and ideas about faith—some of which do not see Christianity favorably.
Critics of organized religion are not hard to find.
Plenty of people have had experiences with the Church that left them hurt or jaded. Plenty of others have purely intellectual issues with the idea of God or the credibility of the Bible. Many simply see any organized religion as an ultimately destructive force.
It’s easy to get defensive when encountering views that run counter to your own, or to simply avoid engaging with them altogether. But staying in a bubble or being overly confrontational isn’t an effective way to make new friends, much less to share your faith.
Here are a few ways to think differently when engaging with people who don’t like the things you believe.
See Things From Their Perspective.
If someone has been deeply wounded in the name of Christianity, their anti-faith views aren’t simply a vendetta against the Church. Often, they’re trying to prevent others from experiencing the same kind of pain they’ve suffered. If a friend sees large, organized religions as socially destructive entities—whether they are right or wrong in their specific perspective—their motives are most likely not based on hurting religious people, but on keeping others from being hurt.
Taking time to understand why someone believes what they do should be the first step in any sort of productive dialogue. Even if you don’t agree with their views, seeing where they are coming from can teach you a lot about why the Church is perceived the way it is.
Don’t Take Things Personally.
Part of the message of Christianity is that it’s a personal faith. So, obviously, if someone is attacking your faith, it’s easy to take things personally. But when some stranger on the Internet you’ve never met, or even a friend who’ve known for a long time, takes issue with the Church or your faith, they probably don’t have a problem with you as a person. We shouldn’t have a problem with them as people either.
There’s no point in getting offended by someone attacking your values or beliefs. Because even though your faith may be a big part of your identity, for them, they are simply attacking an idea. Not you as an individual.
Listen More Than You Speak.
There are plenty of reasons why you should be more interested in listening than simply being heard, but James says it best: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God … If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
Getting angry, especially when interacting with individuals who may not share your personal values, only makes things more confrontational. Be eager to listen to their issues with faith or the church. Many times, that simple act is more productive than making you own voice heard.
Be Intellectually Prepared.
If you’re going to civilly discuss your faith or the Church with someone who has opinions different than yours, actually take the time to intellectually engage their questions.
When Barna looked at why so many millennials are leaving the Church, the reasons weren’t because of perceived corruption or because they were hurt by religion—it was because big questions weren’t being answered. Many saw the Church as shallow, anti-science and overly simplistic toward major social issues. Many felt the Church was unequipped to address sincere doubt and that they were not allowed “to ask my most pressing life questions in church.”
If you’re going to choose to engage someone struggling with doubt or intellectual issues surrounding faith, you owe it to them to make an effort to address their questions—even if you don’t have all the answers. You don’t have to be an expert in apologetics or have all of the perfect responses, but taking the time to grow intellectually—as well as spiritually—can lead to more productive discussions on both sides.
Don’t See Every Conversation as a Debate to Be Won.
Most of the time, discussions about the validity of your worldview, the role of the Church or even the existence of God don’t resolve into mutual agreement. So why should we expect them to?
If we approach every discussion with someone who disagrees with us looking for a “gotcha” moment instead of seeking genuine conversation, then we’re doing something wrong. The only time we lose a “debate,” is when we see dialogue with someone of an opposing opinion as something we are trying to win.
Sometimes, the point of engaging with someone who thinks differently isn’t to come out as the victor of an informal debate—it’s just to engage, to listen and to earnestly express why we believe what we believe. If the only outcome of a conversation with someone who doesn’t like religion or believe in God is that you spent time with them in civil, friendly conversation, that’s OK. Because even if you can’t change their mind about Christianity, you may be able to challenge their idea of what a Christian can be like.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.