I love preaching to students, and I get dozens of opportunities each year on university campuses across the UK. Usually I’m invited as a guest of the university’s Christian Union, their strategy to reach fellow students based on four cornerstones: deep friendships, personal invitations, free lunches, and, when it comes to talk titles, unashamed “trolling.” I absolutely love Christian Unions, and I heartily endorse three of these four foundations.

The trolling part involves talk titles that, in the interests of “engaging the difficult questions” end up delivering the hapless speaker—occasionally me—before an audience of undergraduates to address the issue of why God is such a genocidal maniac/homophobic bigot/hell-loving kill-joy, and so on. As I’m about to address the assembled students, it always occurs to me that 90 percent of the audience would have shown up just for the sandwich. Nonetheless, I step up to the plate and speak to the topic because I’m polite enough to do what the Christian Union tells me and contrarian enough to enjoy the argument.

Guy with the Mic

During one outreach the Christian Union organized a lunch around the topic: “Does God Hate Women?” The students had the wisdom to bench me for this talk and invited a woman who spoke to the subject brilliantly. So there I was in the audience, doing what every evangelist does in such circumstances (mentally stealing every one of her illustrations), and after 20 minutes of winsome gospeling, the floor was thrown open to questions.

At this point the president of the Atheists and Secular Humanists Society stood up, grabbed the microphone, and began an interrogation that lasted the allotted 15 minutes. The speaker did excellently, answering with Scriptures, wisdom, grace, and humor. The subjects veered from women, to slaves, to homosexuality, to hell, to Old Testament war, to transphobia. She kept smiling, kept answering with grace, but all the while the shoulders of everyone in the room rose steadily until no one had any neck left. At last a poor student had to get up, cut off the atheist, and close the meeting, sheepishly inviting inquirers to a meeting that night.

Simply because they’re loud, we imagine they’re representative.

As the music played and we began to let our shoulders descend from around our ears, I turned to my neighbor Mark, a 19-year-old economics student. “What did you make of that?” I asked. He was quiet for a bit. Then he said, “Oh I wasn’t listening to that guy. It’s just . . . my grandfather died last month, and I’ve just been wondering what it’s all about. What do you reckon?” And we were off.

We spoke for a good hour, rooted to those plastic seats, still holding our paper plates, and talking all the while of Jesus. We opened up a copy of John’s Gospel, which the Christian Union was giving away (this is the fifth cornerstone of university outreach in the UK, and it’s brilliant: lots of free Gospels!). As we opened up to John 1, I glanced around the room. Half a dozen similar conversations were happening. Engaged enquirers were talking to Christian students and listening—really listening—to gospel truths. Most took copies of John’s Gospel. Many, including Mark, returned that night. In fact, he heard the gospel and believed.

Ever since my motto has been: The Guy with the Mic Does Not Speak for the Room.

Closed Culture, Open Neighbor

As you may have guessed, this anecdote is also a parable. The guy with the mic is anyone with a platform, culturally speaking. It’s the talk show host, the media commentator, the columnist, the celebrity, the mood we pick up on the airwaves. And simply because they’re loud, we imagine they’re representative. But what does their amplified opinion have to do with your neighbor? The amplified voice might despise Christianity, but your neighbor just lost a loved one. They’re wondering what it’s all about. Maybe they’d even be open to looking at the Bible with you. So why don’t we turn to them and ask?

You’re not called to love ‘the culture’ as a concept. You’re called to love your neighbor.

Here are two broad reasons why we don’t: The brash among us are too busy yelling at the radio, despairing at “the culture,” and fantasizing about how our devastating ripostes would skewer the guy with the mic. The shy among us are too busy cowering away from our neighbors, expecting each to be as difficult as the guy with the mic. In both cases, we give far too much credence to the guy with the mic.

As one small but instructive example, a recent survey in the UK asked non-Christians whether they considered Christians “homophobic.” Among non-Christians who say they know a Christian, only 7 percent said they did. What’s fascinating to me is that whenever I quote that statistic, Christians instantly shoot back, “I don’t believe it. I bet it’s different in my town/workplace/demographic.” Maybe. But statisticians ran the survey, and you’re going with your gut. Is it possible you’re giving too much weight to the atheist with the mic? Perhaps you’re excusing yourself from fruitful outreach simply because you’re afraid of a projected image of what “the culture” believes. But you’re not called to love “the culture” as a concept. You’re called to love your neighbor. So why not turn to your neighbor and start the conversation?

No Plan B

Whenever I read Jesus’s parable of sowing the seed (i.e., preaching the Word) in Matthew 13, I imagine a little dialogue:

Disciples: Lord, what’s our evangelistic strategy for really hardened people (v. 19)?
Jesus: Preach the Word.
Disciples: Right! Yes! Good one, Lord. But now, get this, what if they’re really shallow? They have no depth, no sticking power (vv. 20–21).
Jesus: Preach the Word.
Disciples: Wow! Okay! Really doubling down on that preaching the Word thing. Great. But, here’s a curveball for you, Jesus. What if they’re choked by worries or by consumerism (v. 22)?
Jesus: Preach the Word.
Disciples: Starting to see a pattern here. And I’m guessing if they’re open to the Word we . . .
Jesus: Preach the Word.

Jesus even speaks of weeds growing up (vv. 24–30)—noxious teaching in our midst that destroys people—yet still he doesn’t recommend plan B. There is no plan B. There is only plan A: “Preach the word.”

If this soil won’t hear, we sow on another. And another. And another. If this hearer is hard, we don’t get out the crowbar. We don’t beat them into submission. We sow into the next heart, and the next, and the next.

There is good soil. We have good seed. So ignore the guy with the mic. Turn to your neighbor and speak of Jesus. Preach the Word. The fields are still white for harvest.