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How to Reach Hostile Secular People

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Recently The Gospel Coalition asked several evangelical leaders: “What’s the most significant thing you’ve learned in ministry that seminary didn’t teach you?” Timothy Keller answered: “Reaching hostile secular people and preaching the gospel, preaching the Bible to hostile secular people. I do think seminaries ought to be talking to you about that, and I’m not sure at this point they do a very good job at that.”

I think Keller is right. Apologetics was only a blip on the radar in our seminary curriculum, and the training we did receive failed to connect to the way that real, productive conversations actually work.

Since I graduated from seminary in 1990, the prevailing cultural attitude toward Christianity in the West has shifted and morphed, adding new layers of complexity. At present, we have a convergence of skepticism, hostility, and indifference. As a result, many Christians’ faith has become fragile. Believers are prone to doubt, and unbelievers make assumptions that make Christianity seem not only untrue, but also highly implausible and shamefully harmful. Today, many consider biblical perspectives on issues such as marriage and divine judgment not just wrongheaded but even damaging.

A hesitant Christian and a hostile secularist aren’t a good combination for effective evangelism.

Apologetics Crisis

Now the church is in crisis. While the world is becoming more skeptical, hostile, and apathetic toward Christianity, many future pastors are graduating from seminary insufficiently equipped to engage in a secular age. Where does this leave the average church member?

As one of my seminary professors, Howard Hendricks, quipped, “If there is a mist in the pulpit, there will be a fog in the pew.” If the next generation of pastoral leadership isn’t adequately prepared to bear witness, how will Christian lawyers, electricians, entrepreneurs, and teachers get equipped to defend their faith and initiate gospel conversations?

Apologetics can no longer be viewed as a boutique discipline. Effective evangelism, discipleship, preaching, and even nightly conversations with our own kids all now regularly require apologetics.

A hesitant Christian and a hostile secularist aren’t a good combination for effective evangelism.

In new our book, Apologetics at the Cross: An Introduction for Christian Apologetics, Josh Chatraw and I develop an apologetic approach called “inside out” that might be a step forward in learning how to reach secular people. “Inside out” recognizes and takes seriously the idea that people have different frameworks of rationality, or diverse ways of construing the world. We all look at the world through different perceptual lenses. Often, the fact that these differing frameworks are pitted against each other creates relational tension and friction.

As a gospel act of love, “inside out” begins by working inside the other person’s conceptual framework. Thus, this way of relating to secular people is deeply structured around the true framework of rationality: the gospel. As such, it is others-centered. It isn’t a canned methodology; instead, it considers the individual right in front of us and begins by listening first. Like Christ, our first and most basic approach to any and every person—doubting, hostile, or apathetic—is love.

Rather than viewing the following diagnostic questions as a step-by-step method that must be slavishly followed, think of them as mental scaffolding designed to enable us to converse with care and productively with those who might be otherwise turned off by our belief system.

‘Inside’ Questions

A venn diagram showing how different belief systems (secular humanism, nihilism, skeptical postmoderns, Islam, and Eastern Religions) all overlap at some points with the gospel.
What does it look like to begin with the gospel in apologetics? Where does the gospel intersect with other worldviews, and what can we affirm and challenge about those beliefs?

1. What can we affirm, and what do we need to challenge? 

We will almost always share significant values with our secular conversation partner, perhaps ideals like love of family, distaste for any type of abuse, or the importance of human rights. Identify aspects of the person’s worldview or life that are beautiful, good, or true.

However, as we engage others, we’ll also need to uncover assumptions to carefully confront. For example, some will assert, “I believe in science, not God,” but that claim is not founded on science. It’s basically a faith commitment.

2. Where does their worldview lead?

Specifically, how is their worldview unlivable, and where is it inconsistent? If a person is free to make up his or her own meaning and purpose, is this option open to everyone? What if my meaning conflicts with your purpose? Is there no standard to judge the merit of one person’s meaning in life compared to another’s? Is a world in which everyone gets to make up their own meaning actually livable?

Starting from the inside uncovers unworkable rationality structures and creates doubt in skeptics toward their secular framework. It makes space to discuss another option—Christianity. Through sympathetic listening, it also deals with the real issues and thought forms of the person in front of you. It is a way to love the person by taking their actual beliefs and thoughts seriously.

This corresponds with the insight of the philosopher Charles Taylor, whose work has proven incisive in our approach:

Reasoning in moral matters is always reasoning with somebody. You have an interlocutor, you start from where that person is, or with the actual difference between you; you don’t reason from the ground up, as though you were talking to someone who recognized no moral demands whatever. (32)

Grounding Taylor’s insight in Christian charity enables us to calm hostility through genuine care.

Now the groundwork is laid to move out.

‘Out’ Questions

1. Where do competing narratives borrow from Christianity?

Think of this as borrowed capital. For example, we might say to a skeptic who is appalled by the many cases of sexual abuse uncovered since the beginning of the #MeToo movement:

Since you believe that sexual abuse is wrong, would you also consider believing in a God who has given sexual norms for the purpose of human protection and flourishing and who will ultimately put an end to such sexual abuses through eternal judgment?

If not, then how did you come to believe that sexual abuse is wrong?

From where did the cultural consensus that taking sexual advantage of another person is wrong originate?

Why is it good and proper to draw moral conclusions and execute judgment in cases of sexual abuse, even when it infringes on a person’s freedom to act?

2. How does Christianity better address our experiences, observations, and history?

We can urge secular people to consider, “What perspective has the most explanatory power for how life works, why the world is the way it is, and where all human history headed? Which worldview leads to human flourishing and hope?” These questions open up windows for clarifying the hope, content, and meaning of our faith.

For example, we can explain that biblical Christianity includes all races and nationalities, who, while retaining many of the most positive aspects of their individuality and culture, unite together to form one people, one loving community. Not all would agree, but many secular people would see this kind of eschatological racial reconciliation as a beautiful hope for human flourishing to work toward. Also, under this question, given the context of a conversation, we include evidential, philosophical, and experiential arguments that demonstrate that Christianity has the greatest explanatory power.

Working inside a secular person’s worldview creates space for us to persuade them of the workability and truthfulness of the Christian faith. We believe that this others-centered approach, which begins with listening and caring, better equips us to reach a hostile secular world and preach the gospel in a way that connects.

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