Help Your Unbelieving Friends Doubt Their Doubts

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Help Your Unbelieving Friends Doubt Their Doubts

A panel with Sam Allberry, Craig Ellis, Bethany Jenkins, and Stephen Um


The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy. 

Bethany Jenkins: So we’re here to talk about helping doubters doubt their doubts, and helping curious Christians figure out how to navigate through those waters, too. I first wanted to ask a really brief question to kind of ask each of you to answer, why are you here in this session? Like, what makes you uniquely suited to talk about this topic? Maybe just a minute or two on why this topic matters to you.

Sam Allberry: I have no idea why I’m in here. But one of the reasons I’m interested in this is because…

Jenkins: It’s the British accent, for sure.

Allberry: I was converted when I turned 18. And that was late enough in life that I can still remember what it feels like to be an unbelieving adult. And I come from a culture that is very skeptical of the Christian faith in the U.K. And there’s an inner skeptic in me, unnaturally skeptical. So I don’t just like someone saying, “I will believe this because I told you to.” I’m always thinking, “No. I’m sorry, you gotta persuade me on this.” So I have a naturally skeptical mindset anyway. And, therefore, I have a natural antennae for when I feel in church, something isn’t really being…I’m not being persuaded. Things are just being asserted. I’m not being persuaded.

And coming from a culture, a family, lots of friends who are not Christians, I really want churches to be places where I’ll be unembarrassed to bring them and where they will feel as though their skepticism is respected, where they were anticipated, and where they will feel as though their questions are taken seriously and given credible answers to.

Craig Ellis: So I have the opposite background growing up. So I grew up in a Christian home. But I think probably the best thing that my parents did for me was actually encouraged me to be skeptical of my own beliefs, like to explain and understand, like, why it is that you think what you think. And so even though I grew up in a Christian home, they had that same kind of thing of always being a little bit skeptical about it. And at first, that worked out really well for my parents. They were glad to see me like going to conferences and trying to learn things and everything, until I started really personally doubting what I’ve been taught and believed.

And then I remember this time where my mom came in, and I guess I don’t even remember this exactly, but she said that she found me. I was actually crying because I was…she’s like, “What’s wrong?” And I was like, “I just don’t know if I believe this anymore.” And she said, “Well, you know, Craig, like, isn’t it…really, even if it’s not true, is it that bad to be a Christian? I mean, isn’t it an okay life?” And I said, “Paul said, if Christ be not raised, then we are to be most pitied. Then so, like, yes, it is that big of a deal to live your life for a lie.” And she was like, “Okay. Yeah, that’s great.” And so always that skepticism and, like, trying to understand these things that I think has been a part of me growing up. And so I naturally feel at home with people who you feel like you’re having…you don’t have to first convince them that they don’t believe the Gospel before you can then talk about the Gospel. They already know they don’t believe the Gospel. And so I like starting in that spot.

Stephen Um: So I grew up in New England, and received most of my formal education in the Boston area. So I’ve always wrestled with a culture of ideas. And now, I’m a pastor in Center City, Boston. And as Sam was saying, I’ve always struggled with trying to find a point of reference, a point of contact with our secular culture, and trying to understand how a Christian Gospel worldview can speak into that. And so I was a skeptic for most of my life. And then in college, I heard the gospel and got converted, and started on a new faith journey. But I’ve always had a burden for that because I think that we need to explain things. We need to be able to speak intelligibly to people who have good meaningful questions. And I’m sure that’s what Bethany is gonna ask now. What are the ways that we will be more open and welcoming to people who have different faith assumptions than we do?

Jenkins: That was a little bit of a spoiler alert, and I’m not getting there yet.

Allberry: Bethany, why are you here? Let’s ask you the first question.

Jenkins:  Yeah. I grew up with a father who was an attorney. I’m an attorney. Many people in my family are attorneys. And so as a daughter of an attorney, you always have to have good arguments for both sides. And so I remember very much going home from church one Sunday and telling my dad, it was a sermon that I thought was very much feeding us what we should think and I didn’t agree with it. I grew up really thinking, just because someone is in a leadership position doesn’t mean necessarily they are the end all be all of truth. And, by the way, he was a deacon of a Southern Baptist Church. He wouldn’t sign the agreement not to drink because even though my dad didn’t drink, he said, “Jesus couldn’t sign this agreement, so I’m not going to,” they still made him a deacon. He was a very well-respected member of the community.

So he taught me how to live in an institution even if you disagreed with part of it, and even serve it. And so for me, that’s how I always have approached my faith is I can strongly believe. But, actually, questioning doesn’t mean you don’t believe. And so that’s kind of how I grew up. So that’s what I would say.

First question I’d love for you guys to talk about, I think that some people have strawman arguments about the Christian faith. And those can be talked about pretty…I don’t wanna say easily, but those are pretty familiar. I would love each of you to take one of the most common true and actually hard objections that you’ve had that people come to you and you’re like, “I’m not actually sure about how to answer this objection to the Christian faith.” And there are lots of them. I would love to know in y’all’s ministries, in your work, one of them that you’ve confronted that’s just been hard.

Allberry: I think one of the things I find most challenging, and it’s been a more recent objection, and it’s becoming very common now is that people have often thought Christianity was a bit quaint, you know? There, there, you’ve got your little faith kinda thing. Increasingly, what we’re seeing in more secular context is people saying to us, “Actually, your faith is a danger. It’s a danger to society.” And that’s the kind of new space for us to be. And we’re used to kind of being looked down and kind of slightly patronized perhaps. I don’t think we’re used to feeling like we’re the enemy. People used to say, “I don’t like Christianity because it’s too moral.” Now, they’re saying, “I don’t like Christianity because it’s too immoral.” And whether it’s people saying Christianity is responsible for gay teenagers committing suicide or whether it fosters intolerance, those arguments carry far more emotional force than some of the previous objections I would have dealt with 10, 15 years ago.

Um: If I could just piggyback on that. That’s very helpful, Sam. And so it’s a different epistemological framework, the way we kind of figure out what we know. And, of course, we’ve had major cultural shifts. And the cultural shifts in the past would take about 20, 30 years. But now, like, these things are happening in two to three years. And sorry to promote this book, but Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind, is very, very helpful for those of you if you wanna understand what’s going on, especially in institutions, higher education, especially at universities. And so what you find in his research, in his writings will be exactly what Sam said.

So it’s not just that we are the prophetic minority, but we are a potential threat. And so we are not able to enter into conversation and having public discourse in the public arena because we are injecting a view that is harmful. Not perceived…not real harm from our perspective, but it is perceived harm from the person who’s receiving it. So we would have to give trigger warnings before we speak and talking anything about religion because people can interpret that as microaggression to anyone who disagrees with us. And so, therefore, the context is not safe. And so I think that this is just a big framework that we have to, rather than talk about a particular issue, we’re not even allowed to be able to enter into this conversation.

Ellis: This one is not a really explicit objection. It’s actually just more the presence of indifference, how often I’m having a conversation with someone who really doesn’t have, or at least believes that they don’t have any felt need for anything, right? Life is going pretty good. They’re relatively successful. You know, things are moving ahead. And there’s just a real indifference there. And so I remember years ago, listening to a well-known evangelist get asked this question, like, you know, “What do you do when someone is indifferent to the gospel?” And the response was basically, “I don’t know. You just have to wait until something bad happens in their life, and then you can, you know, be there for them.”

And I found that dissatisfying. You know, is that all we really can do in the face of indifference is just wait and hope that something bad happens? And I think that what we need to learn, one of the challenges, is learning how to challenge the way that they’re already answering these kind of questions and deep needs that they have. They have these deep needs for significance, and for meaning, and for validation, and they’re finding them in places. And that’s why they think that they’re really indifferent. They don’t need anything else. And so figuring out where those places are that you can actually push in a little bit further, I think, is for me one of the challenges because you really have to get to know somebody pretty well, you know, to be able to start asking those questions.

So, like a recent conversation I had with someone along these lines was him saying…he had a very interesting background. And so I just kinda asked the question like, “Well, how does that experience shaped your identity, like, kinda who you are?” And he’s like, “Yeah, it’s really interesting.” And he said, “You know, what I’ve done is, you know, I’ve tried to narrow my identity,” that’s what he said. He said, “You know, I know that if my identity is in my work, for example, then if something happens to my job and then, you know, I would be crushed. So what I’ve done is I’ve really focused on my family, right? If I’m a good father and if I’m a good husband, and, like, I know everything is okay.”

And what I did is I said, you know, it’s interesting, I more often hear people say that they need to diversify their identity so that if any one piece of it goes wrong, then they’re still okay. And I said, “So it sounds to me like you’ve actually just chosen to place it in someplace else where all of these things are equally risky. Like, how you deal with that?” So it was trying to go after we have this and we get these things, we think we’re all satisfied and pushing on those a little bit.

Jenkins: Let me push back. This is not an anticipated question that I sent you guys. Let me push back a little bit on what you just said, Craig, to get some thoughts. I feel like there is a felt need right now, especially among younger generations in terms of, for the first time, suicide rates have skyrocketed. I work with universities, one of the top liberal arts universities. An administrator told me that 25% of the students at this school identify as having suicidal ideation. That’s huge. So it feels like there is a felt need. They’re just not finding the gospel or Christianity as a place where they can go to answer that felt need. Do you think that the commonality…do you think that that’s where the break is between what you’re saying and what Sam is saying basically? Like, because it’s a weapon, it’s actually not good news?

Um: Yeah. So psychologists, moral psychologists have observed that, this is through research and data analysis, that this new generation, so those who have been born between 1997 or ’95 to 2007, these are not millennials, right? So the ones who are first and second-year students in college, they’re iGens or some people refer to them as Gen Z. And Jean Twenge’s book iGens is an excellent resource, if you’re interested. But what they have observed is this. They said, “This is the generation that grew up with social media,” right, 2006 or ’07, iPhone, 2006, Facebook, Twitter, 2006 or ’07, and then Instagram, 2010, and Snapchat, 2011. So they know of no other…

Jenkins: TikTok, 2016.

Um: They know of no other reality. And especially for young women, because they are more in danger of being influenced by social aggression online, that they have noticed that this increase from 1997 or from 2007 has skyrocketed in terms of having harmful suicidal ideation and being concerned about their image, right? And so I do believe that if we are able to assess people and to recognize that we all, as a humanity, we all struggle with problem emotions, right, whether it’s boredom, or irritability, or anxiety, or anger, or, what are some of the other ones, insecurity or despair. And so when we struggle with all of these things, we have to follow the problem emotions and they’ll ultimately go down deeper into deeper idols as approval, comfort, power, influence, or control. And I believe that the Gospel narrative is the only non-totalizing mega story that can speak into that because this generation doesn’t want any totalizing narrative.

In other words, they want a coherent story, but they don’t want an oppressive coherent story. So they don’t want people to tell us, any form of authority, telling us to do this or do that. So they want a non-totalizing or non-oppressive, and the only one that’s emancipatory in that sense is the Gospel. So I believe that we can bring the Gospel message to speak into these problem emotions relating to all of the high increase of mental disorder. And as Jonathan Haidt says, “An extremely over fragile, over safety emphasizing generation.”

Jenkins: Oh, go ahead.

Allberry: I’ll just gonna add to that. I mean, Christianity has amazing resources, doesn’t it? You know, we’ve got the most anxious generation in history graduating high school. And from this point, you know, Jesus is the safest person, and his people should be, the one who will not break a bruised reed. So I think, again, the resources of our faith, I think, give us unique opportunities to serve into this kind of generation. It’s not gonna be easy because at some point they have to encounter a call to repentance. But hopefully, they’re doing that having discovered one who knows them better than they know themselves, and who still pursues them and wants them.

Jenkins: I was gonna ask what naturally falls into this, is how do you create a community that actually is…what marks a community that is open and hospitable to both curious people who are not sure yet what they believe, but also identifying Christians who are actually not sure that that’s where they’re gonna land? So what are some things that your churches do or that you’ve heard of other churches do that actually create an environment that fosters curiosity and inquiry?

Allberry: A couple of quick thoughts. I think it’s trying to have a culture, isn’t it? So it’s not that there’s one thing you do and that’s what happens. It’s trying to create that culture where we’re not giving off this constant signal of, “Well, of course, this is what sensible people like us believe,” as if it’s the most obvious thing. We wanna recognize that we get that people don’t believe this and we get why people don’t believe this. Something I’ve sometimes encouraged pastors to do, this is very weird but bear with me, I’ve sometimes said to pastors, “Go and get a pedicure. And what I want you to do is track how you feel walking into that place, having that sense of, ‘I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to do in here. Everyone can tell I don’t belong here. I don’t know how this works,'” because that is how a skeptic is gonna feel walking into your church.

So what is the most you can do to reduce that feeling and give as many signals as possible that, “Hey, if you don’t believe any of this, if you think we’re crazy, you’ve made the right decision by coming here. Actually, that was a good move. We were expecting you all this time, and we’re so glad you’re here,” rather than giving off… You know, the gospel is allowed to cause offense but we mustn’t. So it’s trying to show that we’ve actually…we’ve laid out a red carpet for skeptics, that we’ve always known they were there. We want them to feel visible, understood, anticipated, and that we respect them.

Um: The last time I was in a MiniLuxe salon, I have three adult daughters. And so they were very welcoming. I felt very welcome there.

Allberry: You can show us your feet later on.

Um: But I would say this, here are some practical things that we do at our church. And, of course, Redeemer does a great job at this as well. We catechize. We literally take our staff through this. Anyone who is presiding or even going up there giving announcements, we have to coach them. So they have to always speak intelligibly. That is, don’t use tribal jargon. Make sure you assume that skeptics are present. Don’t ever talk about them in the third person. Speak directly to them. Welcome them. Let them know, define everything that you say. De-christenndomize [SP] your language, right? I didn’t say de-biblicize. People say, “Hey, so you’re not gonna use the word sin?” Of course, we have to use biblical language. If only churches would use more biblical language. We need to use biblical language but we have to get rid of the jargon, okay?

And whenever we do use biblical language, we define everything. And be careful that you don’t use too many heavy theological terms. And if you have to once in a while, then you have to define those terms. So don’t whip out “eschatological” like every other sentence. So those things are very helpful. And so skeptics will come and they’ll be like, “Hey, you know, I didn’t disagree with what you said, but at least you’re trying to litigate for your position and to defend your position. And you’re trying to winsomely, humbly try to persuade somebody who disagrees with you,” because you’re not gonna get militantly opposed atheist, right? You’ll have mildly curious skeptics, if they even show up. So people do appreciate that. And when you’re able to speak to them in this manner, then you’ll [get a hearing].

Ellis: Yeah. And I think that applies also within…and, you know, I mention this because you’re the one who’s probably doing it in the sermon itself of just explicitly speaking, you know, assuming that there and explicitly speaking to them as if they are there, you know. Interesting that they are. The other things that we do, in addition to like you were explaining the terms that you use, we explain the liturgy that we’re going through. So if you look in the bulletin, we actually have on the sides of the bulletin explanations for what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. That’s there for a non-Christian to be able to understand what in the world is going on right now.

The other thing is just the valuing of their questions. I think it’s so important. I don’t know how many times I’ve had a non-Christian just say, “Man, I just appreciate that you’re interested in the questions that I have and treat them like as if they weren’t an answer.” And so for one way that we try to…like, our motto at our churches, we value questions and the people who ask them. And after every sermon or after every service, we have a time of Q&R instead of Q&A. And it’s Q&R because we can guarantee you a response but not necessarily an answer.

But I think that distinction is important and it’s really valued in saying like, “Listen, this is not…hey, you come ask the question. We’ll give you all the answers. Be grateful that we gave you the answers and then like, you know, either convert or move on.” So you’re acknowledging that, “Hey, these are hard questions. We’re gonna respond and engage with you, and those things.” And we do that after every service. And then once a month, we hold actually like a panel where instead of the Q&R, we do it as a panel. So we bring in other people from our congregation.

Jenkins:  Like Sam and Bethany.

Ellis: Like Sam and Bethany, or Sam when he’s in town. Or just people who have different perspectives within our congregation. So the types of people that we like to have on the panel, we don’t look for all those that, you know, you don’t have to have a theological degree. You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to be what is needed, or things like, you know, spiritual maturity. You want someone who has lived life of a Christian and you want them to be theologically aware. You want them to know before they say something heretical, right? But you don’t want them necessarily…they don’t need to be the expert for all the answers. But that they can actually share what is it like as, you know, a thoughtful Christian who’s living this life, my personal felt experiences, which those narratives and those stories are really important for non-Christians who are coming and trying to understand what does it look like, you know, on your side.

Allberry: I think one other thought I’d share is that one steps that will help a church towards being a place where skeptics know their questions are respected is if Christians are allowed to ask questions, too. If Christians can’t question, or can’t doubt, or express uncertainty, it’s a guarantee no non-Christian is ever gonna feel able to do that either. My kind of mantra on this is if it can’t be questioned, it’s not worth believing. If it’s true, it will stand up to scrutiny. So, therefore, we’re not insecure about exposing our beliefs to scrutiny. We welcome it. If it’s true, we’ll stand up. If it’s not true, good for us to know that.

So I think…I’ve seen some churches where there’s a culture, “This is what we believe, okay? Everyone’s gonna hold the line.” And if people are being told what to think but they’re not being taught how to think, if they’re believing it because they’ve been told to believe it not because they’ve been led, you know, it’s not the spirit that’s working with them, it’s just this is the party line kinda thing, that is not gonna be an evangelistically strong church. Because, actually, the faith is gonna be very fragile. “I’m believing this because Pastor so-and-so told me to.” And so when he leaves or you move on to another church, then the whole thing can collapse. Does that make sense?

Ellis: Yeah. I think it’s particularly important, the recognizing and majoring in the majors, and recognizing that there are a lot of areas where there are healthy disagreements within the church on things, and modeling that kind of disagreement within the church so that people who are coming in don’t feel like, you know, “Oh, here’s this long list of things that I have to agree with. And I have to get all the way there in order to…before this Christianity thing is a fit for me.” And so we model that in our kind of Q&A afterwards, Q&R afterwards.

Jenkins: Q&R.

Ellis: Yeah, thanks. You know, where we had a question and then, you know, one person answered the question one way and the other person said, “Well, you know, I kind of disagree with that take on it. I have a different take on it.” And so there was a little bit of a dialogue. And afterwards, one of the people who watched it came out and said, “I really appreciate it that you showed that within your church, that you’re allowed to have, like, healthy disagreements on things and have a discussion around it.” You’re modeling it, not just saying, you know, “We wanna do it.”

Jenkins: Yeah, at Veritas, which is the organization I work at, we usually have dialogues. So we have a Christian in conversation, it’s not to be a debate, in conversation with a person from a different worldview. And you can actually track, it’s been around for 25 years, you can track the numbers of the percentage of non-Christians that come when you have two different perspectives in the room skyrockets to about 40%. When you only have a Christian presenting the Christian worldview, it’s about 5% to 10%. It’s much smaller because two things are happening. One, you’re saying, “I can see myself represented on that stage in dialogue with Christianity as a skeptic,” but also, Christianity, implicitly, which now it’s not generally thought, but implicitly, you’re putting it on the same footing as another worldview. It’s actually being taken seriously in the academy or in dialogue.

Which leads me to my second question. So when we think about Veritas, how do we….we can create a culture. So some of the things we do is we don’t ever host events at a church. We always host curious events at a university room, or within a university or something like that because just having it at a church, in general, is going to turn people off for a curious. But we now think a lot about how do you get people in the room? So you all just answered how do you create a culture once they’re in the room. I’m wondering…I’m gonna ask this directed to Craig. Craig led a program through Redeemer called “The West Side Café” where west…it was, you can tell them about it. But also I’m wondering how did you get people to come? So it was basically a café for people who were curious. You couldn’t attend if you were just a Christian by yourself. You could bring a friend, so some people came, I’m assuming, with friends. Some people just heard about…it was written up in “The New York Times.” He hates me for saying that, but you can read about it.

Ellis:I told you I was gonna leave actually if you brought that up.

Jenkins: You can read about it, though, if you want to, the program. But how did you get people to come in the first place? Like, which is an important part. You can create something great, but if they’re not coming, who cares?

Ellis: Yeah. Okay. So, boy. One is, honestly, part of the reason that I stopped the café and moved on to something else was because there weren’t enough people coming. So I feel like you’re asking me a question that actually if I were to say, what was my biggest disappointment about it, was actually the number of people who…you know, 20 people a week or something like that. You know, that’s okay. I mean, it’s not about the numbers, right? But at some point, you’re trying to say, like, are we offering something that people actually want, you know? So if nobody comes up, then it is about the numbers, like you said.

So there were things…so let me split your question in two different things. One is was what was being offered a good offering? Was it something that was desired by those who came? That, the things that we did around that, were we did keep Christians from showing up there just for their own kind of personal edification, right? And so I would have conversations with people who would show up and be, you know, to the group and I could tell that they were really just there as a Christian to kinda develop their own skills. These weren’t felt questions for them. I had some Christians, we did keep…let stay because these were real issues. They were deeply struggling themselves or wrestling themselves, and it’s great.

But if a non-Christian comes into your event and they sense, and they will quickly, that they’re one of just the only, you know, two, three who are there, and everybody else all believes the same thing, this is not…no longer a safe space for them to engage with. And so that was something that we did. The other things that is…the conversations, even though I didn’t bring in other people from different faiths, I made it a point of myself in each week to present, “Here’s a topic that we’re discussing and here are lots of different perspectives on it,” right, and put those on equal footing and have a discussion. And then I was clear about my job is to kinda bring the Christian perspective on it.

So it was creating actually that equal footing space, like what you were talking about. It was keeping in a space where they felt like they were in the majority, and so it was a safe space for them to dialogue. And so the people who came, I felt like those were the wins. I was disappointed actually with the number of people who came. And because actually, what I found, even though I was doing it through the church, is that a lot of the people found it on their own, just online. They would search. They would find…because they’re…and then those people would show up. But the Christians in the church actually weren’t having conversations with their non-Christians about faith at all. And so that actually has become the area of my kinda, like, current real focus in New York is how do we make that happen? And that’s a whole other topic. You know, so I’ll stop there. If you’re interested in that, I’d love to talk to you afterwards. But there you go.

Jenkins: When people consider coming to faith, or even consider leaving faith, there are several genuine costs that they have to count before they decided to come to faith. I mean, the research at a Fuller Youth Institute says a lot of people’s objections are…the reason why they don’t really confront their doubts, whether you’re coming from a skeptical belief to consider Christianity or a Christian, is the relational fallout. It’s not as much about the intellectual fallout as you think because you have to think, if I’m a skeptical person and I’m considering Christianity, all my friends are going to make fun of me if I even hint that I’m thinking about it. So they end up burying those.

And then Christians, the same thing. It’s like, “Oh, I’m having doubts. I’d rather just keep them. If I say them out loud, I might lose all my friends,” and then they end up completely walking away at the end of the day because they never have an opportunity to, like, talk about those. When you guys talk with people who are thinking about those genuine…like, what are some genuine costs? And how do you reconcile and help people think those through? In particular, I’m thinking of you, Sam, with your work with same-sex-attracted individuals who are maybe thinking about Christianity, the cost of becoming a Christian is so high. I imagine several people say, “It’s really not worth it.” And so, I mean, all of you guys I would love to hear you just talk about that in general. Like, how do you help somebody consider those and be authentic about those, but also walk through it?

Allberry: I mean, it must send some encouragement when someone is wrestling with that because I’m thinking they’ve understood the message of Jesus. If it’s beginning to feel costly, it’s a good chance it’s the real gospel that they’re wrestling with. If they’re not thinking of any cost at all, it probably isn’t the message of Jesus. One principle I found helps on, particularly issues of sexuality but any issue where it can feel very highly charged is don’t say to someone what you can’t say to everyone. So when someone is saying, “It feels like this is too big of an ask,” you know, “I’m happy to come to church, I’m happy to believe in God, I’m happy to be religious,” whatever they mean by that, “I’m not prepared to give up my sexuality,” there’s a couple of things I want them to know at that point.

The first thing I want them to know is Jesus wants way more than your sexuality. I mean, if you thought that was bad enough, you haven’t heard the half of it yet. He wants your heart. He wants your life. And that’s what he wants from everyone. So I want to universalize it and show you’re not being singled out for some kind of special…you get the really…you know. Everyone else gets Diet Coke, you get real Coke, or which way around that should be, whichever one is worse in your mind. I want people to know that, actually, the cost of discipleship is the same for everyone. The call of Jesus is, “If anyone would come after me, anyone, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me.” Deny yourself is antithetical to secular culture that says you have to fulfill and express yourself.

So I want them to know that, actually, they’re not unique in feeling that. That is, in fact, what lands on every single human being when they encounter the message of Jesus. And, yet, Jesus is worth it. So I want to be able to show them in my life, in the life of any other Christian, that they know the same cost, although mapped out in different ways, and why that cost is still worth it, why people…you know, Jesus says that but people still follow him because as we deny ourself, take up our cross and follow Jesus, we actually find we’re not losing life. We’re gaining life. We’re becoming the people he always had in mind for us to be. So I’m always glad when people are realistic about the cost. I think we’ve been far too consumerist in our evangelism and we’ve tried to kind of minimize the cost. And we simply said, “Whatever your issue is in life, Jesus is the solution.” Whereas Jesus puts the cost upfront and says, “If you’re gonna come after me, you need to know this ahead of time. This is what it’s gonna be like.” But I think there’s something compelling about that. And there’s something honest about that that people can respect.

Um: And, oftentimes, when people think about a sin in the Bible, when they try to come up with theological categories for sin, they think that sin is merely defined along their moral axis. It certainly is, right, right versus wrong. But in the Hebrew, there are at least three unique words for sin. That is why if you go to Psalm 51, they are translated with a different English word like transgression, iniquity, trespass, sin, because these are different Hebrew words. And they’re all nuanced. And, again, I’m not minimizing the moral category, but the primary focus of sin in the Old Testament is actually on the bondage, slavery, freedom, liberation, access.

And so I believe that when you speak to a generation that is overly individualistic, you want to speak into that by saying, why would you want to be enslaved to anything? Why would you wanna be enslaved to your tendency of wanting to find a story that’s just going to be all-consuming and all about you? And you don’t wanna be enslaved to that. Therefore, you need to find another story that can free you from that. And I think one of the dangers of a progressive Christianity is that it’s always trying to find a point of contact with a culture to make Christianity as easy and as comfortable and nonthreatening and costly as possible.

So if they say, “Oh, here’s a point of reference,” and certainly we need to find elements of contact, “but here’s a point of reference and the baseline cultural narrative is all about justice, therefore, I’m going to focus just on justice as if biblical justice is the same thing as social justice.” And they fail to realize that the culture has, as Keller will say, has coopted or adopted some Christian ideas. And it’s feeding into a particular radical individualism, whether on the left or to the right. So if you’re on the left and you say, “Oh, okay, the Bible speaks into issues of justice and being concerned about the marginalized, but don’t tell me what to do with my body.”

And if you have an individualism that’s on the right, and they have co-opted Christian ideas about being a good person and focusing on the priority of the inner life, then that would simply say, “Well, but don’t tell me what to do with my money.” And so Christianity will always, if you’re not assimilating to whatever coopted version of it, will always be challenging in that sense. It will be costly. You can’t just simply assimilate and say, “Well, this is the easy version that I’m going to take.” And, again, the point of contact would be, why would you want to be enslaved to any sort of narrative that’s going to feed your individualism? Wouldn’t you want to be a real independent thinker? And I believe that the Gospel story allows you to do that.

Jenkins: Let me push back a little. Maybe you can… Costly doesn’t always mean clinging on to sin. Costly can sometimes mean my family disowns me, or my friends walk away, or I have to actually change my neutral lifestyle even if it’s not sinful, right? So, you know, I can give you examples. I’m thinking in particular now where I imagine Stephen, you have some people at your church who…they start coming to City Life, and they’re at one of the elite universities in Boston. And they’re thinking, “If I believe in this, it’s putting these other things at risk.” How do you walk through the relational fallout, through no fault or intention of the person? They would love to be friends with all types of people. But that reality, that because we live in this polarized world we live in and people are putting a box once they start believing a certain thing, that’s a cost. That’s not necessarily sinful. Does that make sense?

Ellis: I think that gets to why I think that getting to that…you have to get to the cost of discipleship, the cost of following Christ, right? Before…you don’t get somebody like, “Oh, I accept Jesus,” and then afterwards like, “Oh, by the way, here’s the cost that’s gonna be in your life,” right? You gotta get there first before that point. But I don’t think you start with it. And here’s the reason. I think because we inherently tend towards self-salvation. We inherently look for what is the way that I can justify myself. And if you start out with, “Here’s the costs, here’s the things,” right, before you’ve gotten to the gospel of grace, then what they hear, what they’re gonna interpret that as is, “Okay, here’s the things, if I do these things, then, therefore, God will accept me. Okay, I’m gonna need to change my life. Okay. I’m willing to do that.”

So the point of getting to that grace, when you have that point in the conversation where you can say, like, you know…we come to God. And we don’t come with him like, “Oh, here, like, I finally recognized my…I’m humble enough. I finally recognized my need. I finally have been, you know, open enough. Here’s what I’m offering you, God. Is that enough?” When you finally get to the point where like, “I got nothing. I got nothing to offer,” and then you see what you get back, okay, now that cost, the magnitude of that gift and the fact that you’ve given absolutely nothing for it, it means then there is nothing that God owes you and there is nothing that God can’t ask for you that’s completely okay.

Now, once you’ve gotten to that point, then you say, “Now, what does that mean?” What would that mean for you in your life then? So now, it means the costliness is now you see it in the light of the gospel, in the light of the grace, in the light of like, “Okay. I should be actually ready. If this is what it is, and I’ll lose some friends, okay, that’s gonna suck. But, man, it’s worth it. And it’s not too much for him to ask.”

Jenkins: Well, part of the thing I also wanted, it’s not just a conversation that needs to happen. The cost of discipleship for Sam, choosing to live a celibate life, I’m single at 42, the cost…and I’m not having sex outside of marriage, that’s a cost of discipleship that the church needs to be a family. The church actually needs to take in all these kinds of people that friends are walking away. They’re having to live a hard life. If the church is not behaving as a family in a community, like, that’s a very difficult walk for somebody to say, “Well, you just need to be obedient and obey the cost of discipleship. And good luck with that.” You need to stay, “And come over for dinner and have, you know, be family with us.” And I think that’s kinda the…

Ellis: Yeah, that’s great.

Jenkins: That’s the beautiful thing I think about.

Allberry: I heard somebody say once they were very well-experienced in reaching Muslim people, and they said…they were giving training for churches. And they said, “Don’t start evangelizing a Muslim unless you’ve got a spare room that you’ve prepared for them to move into.” In other words, don’t start someone down this process if you’re not gonna then be there for them when some of that cost comes. And, again, this isn’t just an individual exercise, this is something we do as team church. And we kinda pull together on this. So I think you’re right, that relational cost should be more than offset by the relational gain that comes by being part of the people of God.

Jenkins:  I’ll do a last question and then we’re not gonna do audience Q&R, but we’re gonna end a little early so that y’all do have time to come up and ask questions. The last question I’ll ask, because this is actually a really difficult question, is we find in our work with students and with different people that we work with, having a theoretical conversation about what Christians believe or about the Christian faith is people are generally willing to at least patronize you to talk about it. But to transition from that may be true for you to now that’s true for me, an actual conversion moment if you would, is a really big transition. How do you guys move beyond the discussion to actually having, like, that moment where they actually embrace Jesus for themselves?

Um: A colleague of mine at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, he’s a New Testament German scholar by the name of Eckhard Schnabel, he’s written a really helpful book on Paul the Missionary. And in that book, he uses language like point of agreement and point of disagreement, or element of contact and the element of contradiction, as he gives examples of Apostle Paul in Lystra in Acts 14, and, of course, Athens in Acts 17. And he says, “The brilliance of what Paul does is he obviously finds a point of contact and element of contact, a place of identification, and he enters into the story.” So he’ll quote a poet or something like that. But the brilliance of what Paul does is that he also provides the point of contradiction or the element of contradiction.

But the beauty of what he does is, he says, “The point of contact actually becomes the point of contradiction.” It’s kind of apologetic Judo. And so not that we wanna get involved in a discourse where we’re saying, “Hey, okay. Gotcha.” That’s not the point. But what we’re trying to do is, as we engage in a dialogue humbly and charitably and civilly, that as we do that, that we want to show them that you believe all the assumptions of this particular point of identification, your contact, your place of agreement, your faith assumption. But I wanna show you that there are flaws. There are flaws to this and it’s not really what you think it is.

And so if you can find that place, agree with them in saying, “Yup, yup, the Bible has some overlapping themes here. But to be able to find that…” and then humbly enter into that, and that becomes a point of contradiction. Then now you’ve got an opportunity to be able to shine the Gospel in the midst of that because they realize that some of the foundations that they have been assuming up to that point might not be as solid as they had anticipated.

Ellis: He’s pointing out the cognitive dissonance piece. And then I’d say there’s also a point of personal pressure. So 90% of the objections to Christian faith that I hear, kind of intellectual objections. But I’d say that more like 80%, 90% of the real objections that are underneath that is some kind of like pastoral personal pain point, some kind of issue there. And so it’s very easy to have a conversation with someone at an intellectual, philosophical level, just taking their question at face… “Oh, you have this kind of questions. Oh, great. Well, like, I’ve actually just read about that. And here, let me give you some points on that. And here’s a book to read.” And instead of asking, like, “Oh, that’s interesting,” like, what is that question for you? Like, have you had an experience with that personally, or you’ve had…so that you find out, like, actually, what’s going on within the heart.

I mean, you know, coming to faith is not just an intellectual assent, right? It is a personal encounter with Christ. And that means that there are these personal things that are underneath any kind of question, intellectual objection a person has. And so asking the questions to get beneath that, to what is going on in the life in the heart of this person, and saying, like…and loving them there, and recognizing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the truth of who he is and what…it is the secret to all of those things, right? You know, the very thing that they think is not…that’s what they need. And so if you wanna love that person well, then that means not just, you know, saying at that superficial, you know, surface intellectual level, but getting personal with them lovingly over time so that you can really actually have that personal connection, interaction.

Allberry: Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water. But a man of understanding will draw it out.” And Ravi Zacharias often says, “Don’t answer the question. Answer the questioner.” And the question is often, just like you said, a surface thing. There’s often deeper things underneath. So relationship is gonna be key for that. I found that there’s often been two things that have moved someone from looking at Christianity at an arm’s length, abstract-y kind of way to it’s becoming now existentially relevant to them. One is that they see enough of the Christian living their real life as a Christian, and particularly seeing a Christian suffer. So, again, this depends on there being a strong relational component to this, but they see their Christian friend going through trials with faith in Jesus. And Peter anticipates that, doesn’t he? He says, “Always be prepared to give an answer.” I don’t remember how this is worded.

Jenkins: “For the reason for the hope you have.”

Allberry: “For the reason for the hope that you have.” There’s something about Christian hope that is gonna provoke questions and curiosity because it suddenly gets very ground level and very real at that point. I often wonder whether in Ruth Chapter 1 where, you know, Naomi is kind of…she doesn’t look like she’s gonna be a great Christian witness. She’s angry with God, “Don’t call me this. Call me bitter because God’s made me bitter, and He’s ruined everything.” And then somehow Ruth has come to know God. And I wonder if it’s because as Naomi was going through all of that. Even if she was, you know, being so [inaudible], there was no doubt that God was real to Naomi. The fact that she was kicking against God show that God was real to her. And I wonder if that was part of what rubbed off on Ruth. That’s one thing is seeing Christians actually dealing with the real tough stuff of life, which means that we do need to have a measure of openness and vulnerability ourselves. Let people in on what’s going on.

The second thing is I found if people start reading a gospel, what starts as a, “Yeah, I’m willing to have a quick look at this just to find out a bit about what you believe,” people often find, at some point, the gospel starts reading them. And I know so many people who started off, “I’m gonna read this gospel at arm’s length by respect to you. I don’t understand what you believe so I’ll read this. Me up here and the gospel down there somewhere.” And at some point, it’s just hard to do that. You know, the Bible is a two-edged sword, it cuts back on us. And we start to realize that Jesus is…he’s scrutinizing us.

So go and get from the bookstore some of those little beautifully produced little Gospels that you can give out. I always say to friends, “If you’ve not read a gospel as an adult, I just don’t think you’re informed enough to reject Christianity or to accept it.” And, you know, a little gospel isn’t going to intimidate anyone. You don’t have to get them the kind of whopping great big study Bible. But a little Gospel, you know, that’s gonna take them 20 minutes to read or something. But I find that can often be what takes us from being a theoretical discussion to a, “Hang on, this is getting real,” which is wonderful.

Jenkins: Yeah. There’s a scene in A Severe Mercy, if any of you guys have read it, where he becomes a Christian as an adult. And before, in his conversion moment, he’s…exploring Christianity is thinking about it. A lot of his friends are Christians, and he’s being introduced to it. And at some point, he realizes, yes, there’s a gap before me that I have to jump to believe. But I’ve realized now there’s a gap behind me. Now, I have to actually reject what I’ve learned and I don’t think I can do it, so why not leap? And I think that’s such a beautiful thing because, yeah, you actually have to have faith to go back at that point.

Allberry: There’s a leap of doubt now in remaining a non-Christian.

Jenkins: Yeah. So, anyway, thanks for coming you guys.

“Christianity has amazing resources, doesn’t it? You know, we’ve got the most anxious generation in history graduating high school. And from this point, you know, Jesus is the safest person—and his people should be—the one who will not break a bruised reed. The resources of our faith give us unique opportunities to serve into this kind of generation. It’s not going to be easy because at some point they have to encounter a call to repentance. But hopefully, they’re doing that having discovered one who knows them better than they know themselves, and who still pursues them and wants them.” — Sam Allberry

Date: April 2, 2019

Event: TGC 2019 National Conference, Indianapolis, Indiana

Listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast.


Find more audio and video from the 2019 National Conference on the conference media page.