Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Promoting Christianity to Unbelievers

"Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary."
~attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

(This post is brought to you by Captain Morgan Tattoo rum, liberally mixed into a cup of nice, hot cinnamon tea; and by the band Covenant, whom I certainly have never met in person.)

Okay, so: you're a Christian, and for some reason you want or need to talk to former believers. Maybe you feel that they're a demographic that commonly gets neglected by evangelists[1], or maybe you're disturbed by their (often extremely poor) opinion of Christianity. Possibly you have a family member that recently deconverted, and you're floundering around trying to figure out what happened and what you can say. Or maybe this is the first time you've run into an atheist, strong agnostic, or ex-Christian, and you're not quite sure how to treat them.

Also, you don't want to leap straight into quoting Bible verses to prove that they're going to Hell if they don't (re-)accept Jesus as their savior. Maybe that's because you're the sort of liberal Christian who's more interested in sharing the Good News of God's Love than the much iffier and more Biblically ambiguous doctrine of Hell. Or maybe you've tried warning former believers about Hell and made no progress whatsoever, so now you're looking for an approach that has some chance of actually working. Or maybe you just figure that if you wouldn't want to be preached at that way, other people probably don't either.

So: How do you evangelize, or even discuss Christianity, without giving offense, starting arguments, or driving people away? I've written a lot more than I originally intended in the way of background material: what I think of Christian evangelism in general, why direct evangelism is wasted on former believers, how believers come to be unbelievers, why unbelievers often talk at length about God and Christianity, and what people mean when they talk about being "good without God". If you haven't read all that, well... on the one hand, I don't really blame you, but on the other hand it's kind of important. Probably the single biggest stumbling block for believers in trying to address unbelievers is that believers very often fail to understand why unbelievers don't believe - in some cases, they can't see how that's even possible.

Direct evangelism is wasted on former believers. The return for your effort is essentially nonexistent. That being the case, how do you go about giving former believers the tools, so that if and when they feel the need to believe again, they know where to start; reminding them of what Christianity at its best really can be; and generally making Christianity look like a halfway sensible lense through which to view humanity and the world?

The quote at the top of this post is not found in St. Francis' writings, nor in any contemporary biography of his life. However, the sentiment is very much in keeping with his beliefs: "In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, 'Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.'" (Source - also, a tip o' the hat to Grace for mentioning the quote)

This is sound advice, but how do you apply that here? I'm not sure I have a really comprehensive answer, but I'll give you the best I can.

Meet unbelievers on their own terms. This is simple respect. What does it mean, in concrete terms? I need some examples... okay: I've already mentioned that most unbelievers see the Bible as part and parcel of Christianity, so unless you're already discussing a particular Bible verse, there's no point in quoting from the Good Book. Do your best not to speak "Christianese", that funny collection of idioms and catch-phrases shared by particular groups of Christians. (There's more than one dialect, just as there's more than one denomination.) For example, former believers are almost certainly going to take issue if you say that we live in a "fallen" world. The phrasing implies things that unbelievers generally don't accept as true, even if they agree that we live in an imperfect world. Don't assume that everyone needs the immanent love of Jesus, even if you believe that's true. The sort of people who become unbelievers don't feel that need, so insisting that it must be there will provoke either anger or amusement - or both. If you don't understand what someone believes, or how they could hold some particular position, ask.

This isn't always easy. It requires listening more than talking. If you're generally used to talking to other Christians, and particularly used to talking about Christianity to other Christians, then it's also going to require cautious, thoughtful consideration of your words and phrases. Doing this means interacting with some views and beliefs that you disagree with, and some that you may find simply inconceivable. A willingness to accept the answers you're given and apologize when it seems appropriate will go a long way to smooth the waters. Insisting that people must turn to Jesus is counterproductive (as is anything that you can formulate as "people must...", really).

Be willing to criticize (some forms of) Christianity and (some) Christian beliefs or behaviors if it seems warranted. To be clear, I am not suggesting that you should say bad things about Christianity just to get in good with the atheists so you can preach to them. Hypocrisy = bad. What I am saying is that where people promote damaging, harmful beliefs in the name (or under the guise) of Christian doctrine, don't be afraid to call them out - or, conversely, don't leap to defend them just because they're Christian.

One of the former priests at my parents' (Episcopal) church was, apparently, a serial embezzler. I was not to surprised to hear this; the man had the soul of a used car salesman (charismatic but sleazy), and I never understood why everyone seemed to trust him. When he was finally caught at it, the diocese told him not to do it again and transferred him to another church down in Houston. Sound familiar? Church hierarchy shielding its members from the consequences of their crimes (or, if you prefer, their sins)? I looked him up a few months ago, and apparently he's Greek Orthodox, now. I can't help wondering what he did that forced him to make that move, and if his new denomination knows about the criminal parts of his past. I can't help wondering how they'd react if I told them - except I can't tell them, because I was long gone by the time this came out, and all my information is third-hand. I'm pretty sure, however, that this is a big part of the reason why my younger brother - who was there at the time - considers himself Christian but unchurched.

But here's the thing: I mentioned the matter to my parents last Sunday, to see what their impressions were. They said that the woman who brought this to the attention of the vestry[2] was an absolutely conscientious person, with no personal stake in the matter. Oh, and by the way, this was the third time she'd found evidence of this sort of thing and brought it to the vestry. I don't care how strong your faith is or how Christian you are, this is bad behavior. The folks who let this happen, who swept it under the rug, were bad Christians and bad Episcopalians. Now, you could argue that the urge to hide his misdeeds was as much a matter of internal Church politics as simple tribal loyalty, and there's some truth to that - but it's the tribal loyalty element that concerns me here.

If you feel that, as a Christian, you can't criticize Christians (or allow others to criticize your fellow Christians), you have a problem. Christians are still human, and some of them are going to act badly. It might happen deliberately, or it might happen accidentally, but it will happen. There's no shame in admitting that. There is shame in trying to hide it.

Remember who we are. Former believers are parents and children, siblings and cousins, friends and family, co-workers and sparring partners... or if you're on the Internet, maybe just strangers with interesting things to say. That was true before they lost their faith, and it's still true. You don't know how to talk to your brother now that he's no longer a Christian? He's still your brother, isn't he? How did you used to talk to him? Was your friend witty, funny, always willing to lend a sympathetic ear, and able to offer helpful but not intrusive advice, before she left the church? She's probably still all that. Deal with former believers as people, not as ex-Christians. And, for your part, approach them as a {friend-relation-parent-casual acquaintance-whatever}, rather than a Christian.

Recognize that leaving Christianity is (or was) not easy for the former believer, either. Deconversion is much more of a process than a choice - but a lot of believers are too busy being shocked, appalled, or overwhelmed to realize that the process was probably even less comfortable for the former believer than hearing the news is for them. As Grace noted in the comments earlier, "What I am feeling is a deep sense of hurt in how deconverts are treated by family, and former friends." D'Ma responded, "I appreciate the empathy displayed in this comment. De-converts are often ostracized and marginalized and it is hurtful."

So, as best you can, treat former believers as if they were still normal people. Grace asked: "What do you think is the best thing Christian believers can do to show caring, and support to people going through this whole process?" Geds responded:
In my experience -- and this will sound harsh, but bear with me so I can explain -- "Christian believers" can do nothing to show caring, especially for those of us who come from evangelism-driven Christian communities. See, we all know the Christianese. We all know that there are going to be people trying to get us back in to the fold. And we all know that someone who shows up and tells us that they want to show us god's love is probably working an angle.

We left that place for a reason.

If you want to show love and care, don't show caring and support as a "Christian believer." Show care as a fellow human being. Show support as a friend, family member, or whatever. There's a difference and it's pretty obvious.

A friend approaching as a friend asks if you want to hang out because, y'know, it's Wednesday and you always hang out on Wednesday, and then talks about the subject if you want to. A "Christian believer" approaching as a "Christian believer" sends an email out of nowhere after not talking to you for six months, spends four paragraphs explaining to you why you left, and then says that they would love to see you again and will totally accept you if you decide to come back to church (absolutely true story. Stories, actually).

There's a difference.
There's probably more to say on the topic - for example, why I read certain authors who are explicitly, directly Christian, but eschew others - but I think I've rattled on long enough. Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who participated in the comments. As you can see, I've made shameless use of your contributions. As always, feel free to contribute anything I've overlooked, or expand on anything that I've neglected.

"You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." ~Anne Lamott

[1] Actually, the opposite is more likely true. Nothing seems to bring out the urge to evangelize like the realization that you're talking to a nonbeliever or a former believer.

[2] The vestry is basically the council of elders and/or inner circle of any given Episcopal church. The priest may be nominally in charge, but very often the vestry is the real power.


  1. Geds observations pretty well describes how I feel about the matter.Every month or so I get a letter or email from someone in my past who starts out by saying hi and then 3 pages of invectives, bible verses, etc. Such letters are a waste of time, fodder for my blog, and a reminder of the things I left behind.

    Truth is most Christians are incapable of loving a person as they are. They practice a religion that says everyone is a sinner in need of a savior. How can they In good conscience leave us as we are?

    They should remember they are not going to tell us anything we have not heard already. Seriously, what are they going to say that hasn't been said before ? There are no verses to share we haven't read.

    I have 2 friends left who are Christians. (not counting cyber friends) we get along great. Why? We talk about the 90% of life that isn't about religion. I never mention my godlessness and they don't mention their godliness. We have been friends for 43 years. Yes, they fear I am going to hell. They pray for me. I wouldn't want them to do otherwise. I was their pastor. They know I know...


  2. Thanks for that series. I think you really nailed some of the problems with evangelism, especially when it comes to certain evangelistic forms of Christianity.

    I've learned a long time ago that everybody that is living here, on this planet, no matter their job or position are, in fact, human and totally fallible. EVERYONE including the priests, police and other authority figures. They're all human, they all make mistakes and there are some bad players out there.

    I remember when getting ready for our wedding sitting in a private meeting between us and our priest. He was talking about something and used a (mild) swear word, immediately caught himself and corrected himself. We all laughed. It showed me he's a human being just like the rest of us.

    Yes-- it's definitely a sad state of affairs that clergy being human can also do some rather unsavory things (in the case you cited, embezzling the Church's funds) but that's the world we live in. Of course, when a story gets out like this people are understandably disillusioned by the experience. Some will seek other churches, some will seek an escape from hypocrisy. I have stated often enough that people should not inflict their belief system upon someone else. Period. In general attempting to change someone's beliefs is an exercise in futility. People change, true, but people don't change that much.

    It is my hope (and prayer) that this series of essays will be read, understood, and taken to heart by those who wish to evangelize and that they learn from it that they will not change someone's deeply rooted beliefs by simply talking at them about the benefits of their belief system against the disadvantages of their target's belief (or lack of a) system.

    Its quite simple really: Respect others, do to them what you wish to be done to you. A Christian certainly wouldn't want an atheist to accost them with invective on why their faith is completely wrong. So why would a deconvert, agnostic, athiest, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc... want Christians to tell them their beliefs are wrong and theirs (the Christians') are right? They wouldn't, they're already set in their beliefs and don't want to change.

    Anyway, I've said more than enough. :)

  3. This was a well thought-out, well presented series. I thought you were spot on. Thanks for addressing it in a non-hostile, rational, thoughtful manner.

  4. Thanks from me, too, Michael.

    And, I think the quote from Anne Lamont was right on.

    Also, Michael, I would like to come back, and talk with you relating to your post concerning the trinity, and the atonement of Christ when I have more time to talk, if that's ok.

    I can very much relate to what you've shared in this. I was probably about nine or ten when I started to question, and challenge my Sunday school teachers relating to these doctrines of the faith.


  5. Wow. Glad you guys liked it.

    Becky, you're welcome to come back and talk more about that; probably the easiest way is to leave a comment when you're ready, and I'll set up a post for the discussion.

  6. and by the band Covenant, whom I certainly have never met in person

    I went to college with a guy who was in a band with his brother and a couple of his friends. The called the band Covenant. I suggested to my friend that they'd probably want to re-think that at some point if they ever intended to make it.

    True story...

  7. This isn't always easy. It requires listening more than talking. If you're generally used to talking to other Christians, and particularly used to talking about Christianity to other Christians, then it's also going to require cautious, thoughtful consideration of your words and phrases. Doing this means interacting with some views and beliefs that you disagree with, and some that you may find simply inconceivable.

    This, I think, is the hardest thing for the would-be evangelist to wrap their mind around, especially if they knew the former Christian in that previous life.

    One of the issues I'm sure people had in dealing with me is that I was regarded within my peer group as being the wise, thoughtful one. I was that "man of god" to whom many looked up. I actually had some people say to me, "If you couldn't do it, what hope is there for me?" and a few others that went more along the lines of, "Did you think of what this would do to the people you used to teach and lead?"

    I think my would-be evangelists in many cases were scared of actually listening to me. It was literally a case of, "If he could leave he can probably convince me to leave, too, and I don't want that." My interactions with them vs. the few drive-by evangelists I ran in to were wildly different.

    Even so, I think that's always an existential fear in Christianity. If you're not doubting on some level it means you're not paying attention or thinking too hard about it. If you're not thinking too hard about it you're probably not trying to evangelize (in my experience...). So the very existence of the former believer who is happy and well adjusted is a frightening thing to contemplate. It's much easier to not actually understand who they are or why they're thinking that way.

  8. This is exrelayman. I like what I have seen here so far. It was necessary for me to switch over from Firefox to IE in order to be able to comment (I use multiple virus, tracker, ad, and maleware defenses with Firefox and one of them may be the problem). You and others commenting at Bruce's blog has been the means of my finding you.

    I am a de-convert from Christianity. It captured me in my youth, and I escaped from it pretty young also - way before there was an internet. But remnants of the mental conditioning apparently persist to the extent that I am fascinated by the reasonings of others who find belief untenable.

    I am anticipating many good visits here.

  9. Ah, excellent. Glad to have you here.

    Just as a test, I'm responding via (pretty vanilla) Firefox, but offhand it looks like it'll go through. I'm betting you're right: probably some bit of security is securing you out of the comment form.

  10. Geds said:
    I think my would-be evangelists in many cases were scared of actually listening to me. It was literally a case of, "If he could leave he can probably convince me to leave, too, and I don't want that."

    I think you're right. Many would-be evangelists want to believe so badly that they're afraid to entertain the questions. I can say that from first-hand experience. I thought if I entertained my doubts that was tantamount to treason. Other Christians are afraid to entertain the doubts and questions because it threatens their faith as well.

  11. Hi, Michael,

    I've tried to find the post where you had mentioned your struggles with the concept of God as trinity, and the atonement of Christ. But, unfortunately I couldn't locate it, sooo, I thought I would leave some brief comments here.

    I began to question and struggle with my faith when I was about nine or ten years old. And, for a time as a young person was agnostic.

    It seems to me that it is healthier for kids to be reared in church environments where it's ok to do this, and even encouraged, rather than to be made to feel guilty for being naturally inquisitive.

    Any faith that emerges in the long run is bound to be more grounded. I think it's when doubts and questions are continually pushed down that the bottom is most likely to drop out spiritually.

    I'm thinking that any analogy we try to paint to describe the work of the cross of Christ is bound to fall short of the thing itself.

    How can our finite human minds fully comprehend all the precise mechanics of how God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself? Do we even have to know exactly?

    What I believe as a Christian is that by the dying and rising again of Jesus Christ we are ultimately put right with God, and with each other.

    God loved us so much that He fully entered into human life and suffering so that we could share in His life forever.

    I suppose I would be more partial to the Greek Orthodox view of the atonement which is different than the view of Anslem which tends to predominate more in Western theology.


  12. Excellent! Rather than tying up the comments here, I've created a whole new post where we can talk about this: the Basis of Faith.

  13. Hi Michael,

    You and I talked briefly over at Year Without God (I was lamenting not knowing what would be helpful in convo with a friend who deconverted), but I recently read more of your posts here and thought I'd take up the conversation again, if I may.

    Have you found places, virtual or in RL, where the conversation between believers and everyone else is facilitated well? Some sort of "training camp," as it were, so respectful dialogue can be modeled and practiced? I've been seeking to facilitate dialogue locally and want to learn from others who have been at this longer than I have.

  14. Oh, hey! Welcome! No, I really don't have a spot to recommend. I picked up a certain amount while posting on the message boards over at www.snopes.com a few years back, and some more over in the comments at Slacktivist (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/slacktivist), but it mainly seems to be a matter of having a well-moderated forum where the moderators are primarily focused on helping people understand each other (but still willing to lower the hammer on overt hostility or insult), and commenters who are committed to explaining and considering, rather than Setting People Straight.

    Note that most of those exchanges, and most of those environments, feature dialogue between believers and unbelievers as a side-topic, something to be addressed in the context of The Topic at Hand (be it social justice, researching a false claim, or whatever). John Scalzi, over at Whatever (http://whatever.scalzi.com/) provides a similar environment, where Science Fiction is the main focus.


Feel free to leave comments; it lets me know that people are actually reading my blog. Interesting tangents and topic drift just add flavor. Linking to your own stuff is fine, as long as it's at least loosely relevant. Be civil, and have fun!