Have you ever tried to strike up a conversation about faith with someone who didn’t care about God?
Perhaps you asked a question like, “What are your thoughts on faith?” And they replied with a deflated “meh.”
It’s not like they were rude or anything. “If you believe in God, then great! That’s your truth,” they said. But, when it comes to their thoughts about Him, they simply don’t care. So, they changed the conversation to something—anything—other than God. Whether He exists or not is just not that important to them.
There’s a word for what you experienced—apatheism, a mashup of “apathy” and “theism.” Apatheism is when a person believes that God is unimportant and feels that way as well. It’s the listless shoulder-shrug that comes after a teenager is asked about her faith. It’s a growing motivation for circling “None” when asked about religious preferences on social surveys. And it’s becoming one of the greatest challenges to evangelism and discipleship, more so than even atheism.
Think about it. Atheists are usually very interested in the topic of God. They’ve researched the topic to shape their thoughts and are more than happy to talk about their disbelief over coffee. So, when you ask the question, “What are your thoughts on faith?” they reply, “How much time do you have?” And the door to gospel conversation swings wide open.
Apatheists, however, find questions about God unbearably boring. Talking about God is like listening to a golf commentator give annual workplace safety training. Unlike the atheist who is interested in dialoguing about God (which affords us opportunities to proclaim Christ), an apatheist isn’t at all interested in the conversation.
So, how do we share the gospel with apatheist friends and neighbours?
A DEFICIT OF INTEREST
First, recognise that we are starting at a deficit of interest.
When the apostle Paul shared the gospel in Athens, he did so by leveraging his shared interest about God with his audience. The Athenians were very interested in an “unknown god”—a being that seemed beyond all other “gods”—whom Paul explained was the true and living God of Scripture (Acts 17:16-34).
“We can no longer rely on a shared, minimally common interest in God with our neighbors.”
And for centuries, especially in Western culture, people have been interested in God. Reformer John Calvin once wrote, “No one will want to be considered as being entirely indifferent to personal religion and the knowledge of God.”
But what if we no longer live in an Athens with the unknown god? What if Calvin’s observation is no longer true for many people?
Unlike countless generations of Christians before us, we can no longer rely on a shared, minimally common interest in God with our neighbours. Evangelistic and apologetic approaches must take into consideration that not everyone is interested in questions related to God’s existence, character, and works. We can’t take for granted that our neighbours are interested in God.
Second, explore biblical ways to foster interest in God.
Just because our neighbours are uninterested in God doesn’t mean they’re uninterested in everything. In our secular, distracted, and comfortable culture, there are innumerable things that keep our attention. From relationships and hobbies to lifestyles and careers, we are very good at finding meaning, purpose, and value in the creation. And we are very interested in the things we enjoy.
One way we can foster interest in God is to question our earthly joy-bringers, especially their ability to sustain our happiness, joy, and meaning through turmoil, sorrow, and grief. Essentially, when it comes to apatheism, instead of presenting Christianity primarily as rational, we ought to present the faith as desirable. And we ought to ground that desirability in Scripture.
For example, perhaps you know someone who is very interested in a relationship or hobby, like music, because the hobby brings so much happiness to their lives. But what happens when the relationship ends? And what comes after the band breaks up?
These moments of sorrow are blessings because they turn our eyes heavenward for a greater, more permanent and powerful source of joy. Who isn’t interested in that?
PRAY FOR YOUR APATHEIST FRIENDS AND NEIGHBOURS.
In the end, the sheep know His voice, and none of the gospel message returns void (Isaiah 55:11; John 10:27). The Holy Spirit, our source of life and joy, is powerful to pierce through apathy, recreate dull hearts, and turn our affections away from creation toward the Creator.
So, we bring our friends and neighbours to the Lord in prayer. The apostle Paul urges believers “that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone,” even those indifferent to the One who hears our prayers (1 Timothy 2:1).
Kyle Beshears is teaching pastor at Mars Hill Church in Mobile, Alabama. He holds a Master of Theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he is currently a PhD candidate.. He’s the author of Apatheism: How We Share When They Don’t Care (B&H Academic). This article was previously published here at Lifeway as is reproduced here with their kind permission.
For more on engaging the apathetic watch this Solas webinar with Michael Ots here.