The Wrong Way to Share Your Faith

If we haven't been doing it right, is there a better way to tell people about God?

We all have friends who aren't Christians. And we've probably all tried to "argue them in" at some point or another. If you've never tried this technique yourself, it's probably because you've seen it done (poorly) in your life. You grew up hearing pastors and teachers dismissing atheists with pithy little statements or platitudes that don't actually work when you meet a real atheist—especially if it's someone you're friends with.

So how do you tell people about your faith? How do you share Christ with people who might have no desire or interest to hear about Him? How do you talk about God to people who might even be opposed to hearing about Him? Do we argue people into the Kingdom? Or is there a better way?

Some people will remember the hype surrounding the conversion of the late Antony Flew, author of Atheistic Humanism. In 2001, an avalanche of emails, sermon asides and magazine blurbs celebrated Flew’s change of thinking. In 2004, an interview by Gary Habermas was reprinted in Christianity Today under the title “Atheist Becomes Theist”—a title Flew, himself, approved of. Apologists—people who use logic to defend faith—were downright giddy; this was a great Christian conquest over doubt.

But Flew’s “conversion” amounted to a minor intellectual shift—from seeing the universe as random to admitting its intelligent design. “I understand why Christians are excited,” Flew said in the CT interview, “but if they think I am going to become a convert to Christ in the near future, they are very much mistaken."

Is it possible many Christian scholars today misunderstand the Great Commission? Perhaps they read it this way: Go and convert all to an intellectual acceptance of My existence. And behold, My philosophical proofs are with you always, even to the end of the age.

Many Christians today seek to break the bonds of the current rationalistic, apologetics-driven approach to evangelism and discipleship. They want to move beyond black-and-white thinking, hyper-literalism and a purely intellectualized faith. These Christians are talking about having conversations instead of debates. They read the Bible as a story rather than a systematic manual for how to live. For them, Christianity is about relationships, not just about theology. Such leanings are often dismissed as touchy-feely and anti-intellectual, but there is a growing body of ideas labeled theopoetics that provides a structure to this holistic approach.

Theopoetics of the Bible

Stanley Hopper and David Leroy Miller coined the term “theopoetics” in the 1960s to describe a new approach to human interaction with God. They suggested that grappling with God is closer to poetry than to logical inquiry. Along with reason and science, they acknowledged beauty and goodness as important aspects of Christian growth. Theopoetics blends theory and application by recognizing the transforming power of true belief, which is more than just mental agreement. The Word of God has intrinsic goodness and beauty, and it is life-giving. It is healthy.

The Bible is also literature. Like any artistic work, it is studied in context. Authorial intent, aesthetic value and the reader’s assumptions all influence the way we understand it. At the 2007 Theological Philosophical Conversation in Philadelphia, contemporary philosopher John Caputo said: “There is no escaping your presuppositions; they shape us, form us and inform us, and that is not bad; that is not a failure or defect in the way we are constituted. That is who we are. So the idea is not to get rid of our presuppositions, but to penetrate them all the more deeply.”

Doing theopoetics means treating the Bible as we do other literary works—as soon as the ink leaves the author’s pen, his words are subject to different interpretations in different contexts.  

Theopoetics of conversations

Theopoetics provides a foundation for conversational apologetics. Merold Westphal, in “Atheism for Lent,” writes: “Not many atheists got to where they are because they became disenchanted with proofs for the existence of God, just as very few believers came to belief by finding these proofs convincing. Psychological, social and moral factors play a large role in both directions.” Realizing this, a Christian will engage with the atheist by acknowledging the confusion and misrepresentations on both sides. The Christian must take a learner’s posture and accept the accusations of atheism as critiques to be worked through, not disproved. Ideally, both sides will open up to mutual respect and reconstruction. Theopoetics is not anti-intellectual—it requires creativity to recognize these complexities, which is an intellectual and intuitive process.

Theopoetics of spirituality

Theopoetics tries to engage whole persons—which includes what they know and what they don’t know. It makes use of both reason and intuition. It embraces subtle shades of meaning, instead of insisting on the black and white. It admits doubt, confusion and paradox as organic aspects of faith. It isn’t afraid of not knowing. Practically, this involves deep humility; there is no room for the televangelist’s smugness. This is nothing new; in a vision, Christ said to Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Where we lack is where Christ thrives.

Christianity and atheistic culture

If Christianity is true, it can contribute to and engage with culture. Visionaries are needed—people who can creatively consider God, faith and culture through art, film, literature, science, sociology and politics. In an article titled “Worshipping a Flying Teapot?” Randal Rauser proposes that “Christians should shift from focusing on logical argumentation to the multidimensional needs and concerns of persons, situating the rightful and strategic use of arguments within the broader context and concern for cultural renewal.”

A distinction must be made between Christianity’s rational truth and its tangible value. Those who stress the former create logical arguments—which make sense to those who already believe—but they can cause unbelievers to view faith as increasingly implausible; belief in God begins to look like belief in Santa Claus or a giant flying teapot. To correct this, the Gospel should not be seen as a simple worldview to sign up for, but as God’s message of hope and of creation’s restoration.

In the end, Flew merely converted from one intellectual camp to another when he admitted God might exist; all the footnotes, research and intellectual hair-splitting could not convince him of the value of faith. Perhaps what he needed was to sit down and share a meal with a friend, talking about life and Jesus.

Robert Kirkendall is a writer living in California.

28 Comments

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Anonymous commented…

I think this is a fantastic conversation being had, and I applaud you all for being open and respectful about your personal viewpoints...

As for mine, I like the idea of theopoetics. I think the "whole-being" approach to conversing with friends who may not believe exactly as we do can be healthy. I love the old statement "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care..." Yes, it's trite, yes, it's cheesy. But I think in many instances it is exactly the truth. I think we forget sometimes that just because we receive what we feel is some divine understanding about the gift of grace and about the sacrifice and triumph of Christ over death, that others need to know exactly what we know, how we came to know it, and exactly why they are wrong for ever believing otherwise. It's all too easy for us to assume that everyone will come to Christ in the same way that we did. And while the theopoetics approach might be just the key for some, others may need to hear empirical proof and scientific knowledge. Jesus was the perfect example of this truth. Sometimes he taught in riddles, sometimes he preached simply and straightforwardly, and other times he simply touched and healed people, or spoke to a gravesite and raised people from the dead...and sometimes he just gathered people together and had a meal and a conversation with them.

For me, the key to sharing our faith is to be well rounded in our faith. We must be constant students learning as much as we can from scripture, pulling from as many resources as possible, and always asking the Holy Spirit for guidance and direction. The more we know about what we believe and WHY we believe it, the more honestly and authentically we can share it with those who are brought along our path. At that point, it is no longer an issue of exactly proportioned theology, or perfectly postured apologetics, but about sharing a human perspective of a divine relationship from a human heart to another human heart. It is only by admitting that we may not always have the right words to say that opens us up to being able to use HIS words. And I think it takes us admitting to people that we don't always have all the answers that allows us to share with them those answers that we DO have. It's ok to not know everything, because we serve a God that does.

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Anonymous commented…

Doreen, Alex already replied with what I would have said about who the Bible was written by and to but I'll add that we need to remember that Jesus often spoke to one group of people and another group stood up and cheered (or experienced some kind of inward vindication), while the one group got offended (turning over the tables in the Temple made some people really really mad, but for the marginalized and poor, it was a reckoning!; the teaching of casting the first stone...i'd like to think the woman who was spared felt pretty good at the end of that day while her accusers left having been just put in their place by Jesus). There IS an original context to the stories of the Bible; there are places; people; history; culture; context - all this comes into play.

BUT, the real reason I wanted to comment was this: say what you need to say! Before I even read the rest of your post I knew where you were probably headed by the very first words "I think you're kinda wrong. kinda super duper wrong. no offense. i don't want to offend you or anything... ...we may just have to agree to disagree on it." Can we cut the "I'm okay, you're okay" out of life in 2010. Look, I want to validate everything that is true in the world (because all truth is God's truth) regardless of, well, anything, BUT... we need to be free to speak our mind without a 3 line preface before we can even get started. You disagreed with the poster "Well..."; fine, just say that. Maybe we need to get a little more offensive and offended in 2010 and stop all the PC-ness. The Message of Jesus is inviting yet also polarizing; it creates tension. It's not I'm okay, you're okay. Jesus told a man that if he really wanted to be a follower he couldn't even go and bury his dead! That's a line in the sand; it's polarizing.

Yes, our job is to love and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work, but men WILL hate God and they will hate YOU for serving him. That's polarization; that's offense. So, thanks, but no thanks for your preface about not wanting to offend.

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Www Myfaithworks commented…

awesome stuff.. i would love to repost on my website www.myfaithworks.me if that is ok

Braelyn

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Braelyn commented…

I think there must be a balance of understanding and admitting it's ok not to understand. I want to understand as much as I possibly can about God and the world around me. I want to be able to give an [correct]answer when I can. I am learning how to appreciate the things about God that I will never be able to grasp. That doesn't mean I won't keep searching for more answers, just that I want to be ok with it when I am left without them. As for reaching people with the Gospel, my views change every day (or every 5 minutes). I know that the truth is unchanged, but that the ways to deliver constantly change. I'm praying for help in this constantly.

Jonah Jones

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Jonah Jones commented…

I find it hard to talk about my faith- in the past, others would argue & even yell at me. I also feel really awkward.

I spend more time praying for God to open their eyes & hearts to receive Him.

We've given the lost every reason to come to Jesus, & there are so many good books, churches, websites, & truly practicing Christians out there to give the world more than enough information & examples to help them choose Him. I'm starting to realize that it's not just us or our words & actions, but that it may be more of a spiritual battle than we think. I'm starting to see that we actually may not be up against Atheism, technology, Hollywood, etc, but the principalities, powers, & rulers of the dark- the enemy himself. (Eph 6:12)

The decreasing number of the body of Christ (not just Millennials) is a sad thing indeed. But I also wonder if this is also something that God wants us to give over to Him & let Him do His work with it. We've done everything we can, but all of our work does not fulfill what the move of the Holy Spirit does.

Pray for God to fertilize this harvest field, to send rain upon the seeds planted. Pray for Him to open our friends' eyes & hearts. Pray for Jesus to come against the enemy. Pray for His Spirit to move, for Him to reveal Himself to our loved ones, & for them to welcome Him in.

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