In “The Apathy Gap – Part One”, Andy Bannister looked at the problem of reluctant evangelists. Now in “The Apathy Gap, Part Two”, we turn to the problem of apathetic listeners, people who are just not interested in the gospel at all.
THE APATHY EPIDEMIC
The author and evangelist Michael Ots recalls the peak of the New Atheist movement when doing university missions was like going into a ‘bear-pit’. Lunchtime talks and Q&A’s were often rowdy, with hecklers who both knew the claims of the Christian faith, had rejected them and were hostile towards them. Two decades later, Michael says, “things have changed”. Student missions are not dominated by confrontations with informed antagonists who want to convert you to atheism; but by relativists who think that your faith is “nice for you”, but is of no interest to them.
Michael’s observations do not apply only to the university context but represent wider patterns in our society. With almost 50% of Britons identifying as having “no-religion”, issues of faith are increasingly pushed to the margins, a process fuelled by the media’s constant secular narrative.[i] In this context, faith is not an urgent question of truth, or of eternal destiny – but more like a privatised consumer choice in which one size certainly does not fit all. This means that when Christians present compelling truth claims, they are met with blank disinterested stares by people who are not gripped by a search for truth. Our culture has been captivated by the idea that ultimate truths are inaccessible and unknowable and that claims to the contrary are controlling and harmful. In that framework, the only “good” is to pursue personal authenticity, and “evil” is defined as anything which inhibits this quest. It is hardly surprising then, that we inhabit an unusually uncommitted culture, where large numbers of people regard things such as lifelong marriage as restrictive to their open-ended choices. Andy Bannister writes, “I suspect there’s also reaction against advertising going on too; people don’t wish to be sold to, and this a good defence is to become cynical, to hold things lightly, to avoid committing.”[ii]
Solas’ associate Kristi Mair has kept records of the questions she is asked by non-Christian folk in response to her talks. She has noted a similar shift. Questions used to revolve around truth, and involve things such as evidence for the existence of God. The perceived clash of worldviews between Christianity and Science was a regular question; and something that would have to be addressed if people were to be moved on to consider Jesus. Now however Q&A’s are dominated by questions of utility. “This Christianity of yours: does it suit me, will it work for me, or will it inhibit my freedom?”
For those of us brought up in a culture which prized truth above all else, and believe that ultimate truths can be revealed by God to us; the idea that truth is uninteresting and irrelevant is incomprehensible. A friend of mine flew back to Scotland from Ireland a few years ago and I asked her what kind of plane she had flown on. When she said she had no idea I was mystified. I have never flown anywhere without looking at what I was flying in. Jokingly I asked, “So was it a jet or a propeller aircraft?” Incomprehensibly to me, she didn’t know that either! What to me was the most interesting thing about the journey wasn’t even on her radar. Assuming that people are like us, is a major obstacle to understanding them and communicating effectively with them…
IS THERE AN ALTERNATIVE?
Many people have been very faithful to their grasp of the gospel, but never managed to show their contemporaries why it matters. Others have so over-contextualised the gospel in search of ‘relevance’ that they have compromised core-elements of it. Given that the gospel is counter-cultural and even offensive, do we really have to choose between being relevant and faithful? Or is there a wiser way?
Steve McAlpine in his recent book, “Being the Bad Guys: how to live for Jesus in a world that says you shouldn’t” makes the following observation. The church hoped that relativism would open up a level-playing-field in which all ideas were given a fair hearing, whereas what has happened is that a new orthodoxy of self-fulfilment is now the imposed morality. Michael Ots concurs when he notes, that most people are not really relativists – they are only so about things they think don’t matter, like religious affiliation, or which sports club you join.
The point is, there are things which people care deeply about today – and the gospel has things to say about them all. In our Solas webinar with Michael Ots, he told us of an incident which occurred after a talk he had given. Michael recalled that he preached his heart out about the resurrection of Jesus and spent some time chatting to the guests at the end. He asked one lady what she thought , to which she replied, “It wasn’t interesting.” Somewhat taken aback, Michael stopped and instead of pushing back asked, “So what are you interested in?” and the answer he got back was, “I’m not interested in religion, I think we just need love, I’m very interested in that.” Gently Michael asked her what she thought love was – and was intrigued to learn that she had very little idea. He was able to talk about the Trinitarian Biblical idea of God as love, and us made in His image, being made to love and be loved. The conversation moved on to why love is so hard to find; and so the topic of the fall and sin was discussed, and then onto Christ’s love for us shown at the cross.
What Michael did in that example was to start with what mattered to the apparently apathetic person, and walk them over a bridge from that to the unchanging gospel. This is what it looks like to be in the world, but not of the world; relevant but distinct, contextual but not compromised.
In order to identify such bridges and connections, Michael identified the following steps:
- Pray for wisdom and sensitivity, and a willingness and a readiness to speak for Jesus.
- Intentionally develop ever-deepening friendships in which you exchange not just words, but ideas and emotions with people.
- Listen deeply to your friends to understand them, and what they value, and what motivates them.
- Look for gospel links between what matters to them, and what matters to God
- Pray for, and take, opportunities to share something (however small) about this.
In his popular talk, “What if I don’t need God?”, Andy Bannister has developed several examples of bridges between what matters to people and the gospel of Jesus. Here are some examples:
Human Rights and Dignity
Many people today care passionately about human rights. However, while Westerners assume these “inalienable” rights are self-evident, tyrannical governments ignore them as merely Western, not universal notions. Scientific naturalism provides no basis for rights, and makes them arbitrary assertions, while the Christian story of a God who made us uniquely in His image; and who sent His son to die to redeem us; provides a compelling account for the value of humanity which so many people instinctively feel.
Virtually everyone believes in right and wrong, and that helping the poor is right, and that murder, rape and genocide are objective moral evil. That is except for naturalistic Atheists for whom the only reality is physical. The Atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw this when he wrote, “If you abandon the Christian faith, at the same time you are pulling the right to Christian morality out from under your feet.”[iii] We all deeply know that the Holocaust was objective moral evil. The Christian faith has deep explanatory power for why this is the case – and the answer to the sins we find within our own hearts too.
If someone is apathetic to our faith, but loves art, or photography of natural landscapes – the Christian worldview has much to say about why. Again, if we reduce our view of the world to the merely physical, then beauty is but a preference, it has no meaning outside of us. Andy Bannister wrote, “If, when I say ‘that landscape is beautiful’ it tells you nothing about it, just about my personal psychology – beauty and art have collapsed into narcissism”. On the other hand, if we have been made with an appreciation for beauty, by a God who is beautiful, and wants to correct the ugliness of sin – then beauty is a bridge to the gospel.
Meaning and Purpose
Some atheists claim that we can create our own meaning in life. Others relaise that even this is a bit optimistic. Lawrence Krauss for example said, “We are a 1% bit of pollution within the universe. We are completely insignificant.”[iv] Yet – humanity continually asks “why?” questions. From moments of ecstatic joy to crushing bereavements, we hunger to know why we are here, what it means and how we should spend our lives. If someone has no interest in a Bible study course, perhaps asking them “What is the purpose of your life” is a better starting point than ‘would you like to come to church?’
One of the fixed-points in the new moral order is that pollution is bad, and that environmental concern is good. Again, if someone is not ready to engage in a direct exploration of the gospel but is environmentally conscious, then it is legitimate for Christians to ask them why? Why does it matter if the earth heats and dies? Surely it is but one a million universes, which will evolve and die? Why not consume as much as I can in my lifetime, why care about molecules that will outlast me? Atheism provides no real solutions here – let alone agnosticism. But the Biblical worldview gives us ample motivation for creation stewardship. The gospel tells us that this earth has a future too…
These are of course just examples. As you build deeper friendships and prayerfully and intentionally go into more significant conversations about what matters to others you will find that all sorts of things deeply matter both to them, and to God. Things such as family, children, loneliness, work, ageing, death, courage, failure, image, media all concern people very profoundly. All of these can equally be bridges into gospel territory.
Finally, as we consciously do all of this here are two concluding thoughts, one ethical and one practical.
The ethical consideration is that we must always pursue genuine friendship and develop a real interest in our friends’ lives, interests, values hopes and fears. We must never listen to them simply to learn how to smuggle relevant gospel truths into our conversation as if evangelism was all about us.
The practical thing, is that as we seek to build bridges between what matters to our friends and the gospel, we should continually bait our conversation with gospel hooks! That is to say that we should be deliberately throw into conversation, observations or questions which might invite our friends to ask more, or inquire more deeply.
Many of the things which our non-Christian friends care most deeply about are not inherently sinful; but are rooted in their creation in God’s image. Sin is never “original” (in that the powers of darkness have no creative power); they are only able to distort and damage what God made and called good. In building bridges from these things to the gospel we do not allow the gospel to be captured by culture; but show that behind our friends’ longing for love, peace, security, family, love, meaning, truth, beauty or conservation lies a deeper, bigger and more wonderful story at the centre of which is Jesus himself.
The material for this article was drawn extensively from Andy Bannister’s talk, “What if I don’t need God?” and the Solas webinar with Michael Ots entitled, “Evangelism to the Apathetic” which you can watch here: both used with permission.
[ii] From a talk entitled, “What if I don’t need God?” by Andy Bannister.
[iii] Friedrich Neitzche. Twilight of the Idols and The Anti-Christ (Oxford: OUP, 1998) p45.
[iv] Cited in Amanda Lohrey, “The Big Nothing