When I confessed my belief in God to my best friend, she would have been about as shocked to learn that Richard Dawkins had become a Baptist minister. For years, I’d been the kind of atheist who smugly responded to any and all mention of Christianity with a) a Friedrich Nietzsche quote, b) a Karl Marx quote, c) a Flying Spaghetti Monster reference or d) all of the above. To say I was hostile to religion would be an understatement.
I belonged to a demographic that has been steadily growing both in numbers and in cultural visibility over the past decade. The rise of the “nones” as they are popularly called—those atheists, agnostics and others who profess no belief in any organized creed—has been a recurrent source of concern for Christians, with “nones” presenting a very different sort of challenge to Christians than do Muslims, Jews or people of other faiths.
Some have interpreted this trend to mean that Christians should take more of their cues about what to believe and how to practice from secular culture. But having migrated from one side of the secular/religious divide to the other, I can say for certain that trends can be reversed; even the orneriest, least receptive nones can be reached—and all without sacrificing a rigorous, orthodox view of Scripture.
Having been on both sides, I can also confirm that, in their zeal to win over the unaffiliated, many Christians don’t just fail to persuade their audience, but actively alienate them. In the process, they also end up forgetting some of the most fundamental Christian wisdoms—precisely the ones that ought to be most convincing to outsiders.
Here are some suggestions for how to reach out to these “nones.”
Speak From Reason, Not Just Emotion
There is a not-uncommon understanding among the nonreligious that religiosity is motivated purely by irrational faith. Too often, when Christians make appeals to atheists or agnostics, they fall back on emotional, faith-based language: “When I trust in the Lord…,” “God has been so good to me…,” etc.
It isn’t wrong to do this—we are called to proclaim our faith in Christ. But atheists and agnostics have often not been familiarized with this language of faith, or may at least find it awkward and discomfiting. Sort of like if you spent a whole conversation listening to someone talk about a friend of theirs whom you’ve never met before.
Also, relying only on emotional appeals ignores a deep, rich history of Christian intellectualism and scholarship, going all the way back to the apostle Paul, through Augustine and Aquinas, Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher, Niebuhr and Tillich, up to those like N. T. Wright, Alvin Plantinga, and Denys Turner working today.
Jesus’ own teachings show Him to be a brilliant logician, and if we are to follow His example, we must push ourselves to be both faithful and rational.
Remember that the truth, when it is the Truth, may not need to be proven by rational means, but will stand up to rational scrutiny. Being versed in Christian history and thought—as well as, for that matter, in atheist history and thought—can both strengthen our own faith and bring us and our unbelieving neighbors closer together.
Seek Common Ground in the Transcendent
One of the most surprising insights from recent Pew surveys is that most religiously unaffiliated Americans (68 percent) still believe in God, with many also professing strong spiritual inclinations. Even hardliner atheists have expressed awareness of and desire for transcendent, spiritual experiences—that is, experiences beyond the merely material or sensual.
In other words, no matter how vehemently culture may insist that there is nothing more to life than what can be measured, tracked or scanned, there still remains the inkling that, as Denys Turner put it, “on the other side of our language is something which sustains it which can’t be contained within it … and that’s what we call God.”
And while it probably never works to overconfidently inform atheist friends that the serenity they feel in nature or the rapture they experience listening to music is the specific product of a specific God, we can at least embrace such experiences as points of connection. We can remind ourselves of how generously God has blessed us with the ability to know Him in everything that exists, and we can share with others what we have learned through our own personal relationship with Him.
Don’t Shy Away from Tough Questions
“If God is wholly good, why do bad things happen?” “If the only path to salvation is through Christ, what will happen to those who were raised as non-Christians?” “How can we know that God exists without empirical evidence?”
Questions like these often end up being deal-breakers for many outside the faith (and frankly, for many within). It’s not that Christianity hasn’t, in two thousand years, been able to offer answers to these questions. It’s that hard questions typically do not have tidy and comforting answers.
So, as often as we find ourselves leafing through Psalms for words of solace, it’s also worth remembering that the medicine Scripture provides is often bitter (just look at the crucifixion). Our duty as Christians, especially if we are to bear credible witness to the unbelieving, is not to shy away from the truth, but to seek it out, confront it, and proclaim it, even where that might be difficult.
Let Your Life Be a Witness
Of course, second only to Scripture, there is no better argument for Christianity than a life lived with joy, grace, humility, discipline and love, even despite hardship and failure. If examining rational arguments, perceiving God in transcendent experience, and delving deeply into difficult questions are what drew me closer to Christ, seeing Christ work in the lives of actual Christians is what opened my heart to Him in the first place, allowing me to see how He had been working in my own life all along, even when I had refused to seek Him.
When we do reach out to the “nones” in our lives, it can be easy to grow discouraged with our efforts. For every one person who hears the message of Christ, it seems there are so many more who do not. And besides, we all have our own spiritual gardens to tend to without worrying about others’. But the rising number of people who have distanced themselves from God gives Christians a special imperative to engage. I’m some proof at least that such efforts can be well worth it.