I remember around the time of the Iraq War that BBC Radio 4 ran a feature on the US Secretary of Defense entitled “The Donald Rumsfeld Sound Bite Of The Week”. One week he made this statement that has lived on in infamy: “There are known knowns – there are things we know, we know. There are known unknowns – there are things we know, we don’t know. And there are unknown unknowns – the things we don’t know, we don’t know”. Although it’s clunky, it actually makes a lot of sense in life – and in evangelism too!
In evangelism there are things we know that we know. We know the essential truths of the gospel: “I am a great sinner but Jesus is a great Saviour”. We know who Jesus is, why He came and how to follow Him. We know and can testify to our experiences of the comforting and transforming power of Christ in our lives. In many ways that’s all we need to know to be faithful ambassadors for Jesus, who show and tell the world that Jesus is good news. These are the known knowns.
In evangelism there are things we don’t know that we don’t know. You never quite know at the start of a conversation where it’s going to go – it’s a bit like the opening title sequence of the TV programme Stingray: “Anything can happen in the next half hour!” You don’t know how God has been silently and secretly at work preparing the heart and mind of the other person through the circumstances of life to be open to consider the gospel. You also may not know if there are painful experiences lurking in their past which have made them hostile and bitter against the things of God. These are the unknown unknowns – and all we can do about them is pray for God’s help and be sensitive to the prompts of His Spirit.
Also in evangelism there are things we know that we don’t know. These are the known unknowns. There are questions that we are scared of, there are topics we hope that no one will ask us about, there are doubts that we’ve never bottomed out for ourselves so we can’t help someone else make sense of them either. I know many people who are reluctant to get into conversations about their faith because they are afraid of being asked a question that they don’t know how to answer – they are afraid of letting down the Lord or looking foolish in front of others. However, the good news is that there is something we can do about the known unknowns, so that they don’t hold us back from sharing what we do already know.
So how do you turn a “known unknown” into a “known known”?
Well it begins with celebrating the fact that there are many things that you don’t know. That qualifies you to belong to a very special category of people: learners! If there’s one thing this world needs more of it’s learners – after all, none of us like a know-it-all, do we? In fact, the biblical word disciple literally means “learner” – by definition Christians are called to be learners of Christ.
You can graduate from school, college or university but you should never graduate from learning. The old adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a lie – provided that the dog wants to learn then there’s no end of the things it can learn across its lifetime. Just as you can develop and strengthen your muscles by routinely doing some basic exercises, so through building in time for learning you can develop your mental muscles and skills. It could be as simple as redeeming the time on your commute by listening to a good apologetics podcast or downloading an eBook onto your phone that you can read in the 5 minutes waiting in the car for everyone else to be ready to leave the house.
Committing to be a life-long learner also gives you life-long permission to say: “I don’t know”. Admitting you don’t know something doesn’t shut down the conversation, in fact it probably opens up more opportunities to carry on the conversation later. So practice saying (without any sense of guilt or shame): “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer – but let me go away, find out and come back to you” (and here at Solas we exist to help you find answers and resources to continue those sorts of conversations).
After you’ve embraced your identity as a learner, then you need to decide what gaps in your knowledge you’re going to tackle. It might seem daunting at first – where do you start? There seem to be so many possible topics that might come up, which can feel suffocating and debilitating. However, here are a few ways to reflect on where to start:
- What doubts do I struggle with in my own heart and mind?
- What questions have people raised with me in the past that I wasn’t sure about?
- What are the objections that come up in our sceptical society today?
Only you can answer the first two prompts, but let’s think together about the last one. In the early years of university ministry I spent a lot of time studying the five “defeater beliefs”. These are the things that people commonly use to complete this sentence: “I can’t take seriously Christianity because of…”:
- Sex (eg Why is God so restrictive of our sexual freedom?)
- Supernatural (eg How can you believe a dead man rose again?)
- Science (eg Hasn’t science disproved the God hypothesis?)
- Scripture (eg Isn’t the Bible unreliable or irrelevant?)
- Suffering: (eg How could a good God allow evil things to happen?)
You can find helpful answers to these and many other common questions in “What Kind of God?” by Michael Ots, or “The Reason For God” by Tim Keller, or “Rebecca McLaughlin’s recent book “Confronting Christianity”. If blogs (rather than books) or listening (rather than reading) are your thing, then check out the resources freely available on www.bethinking.org or our very own Andy Bannister’s “Short Answers” series of videos on the Solas website.
By investing time to study through these resources you will fill your knowledge gaps. You will build up a store of answers, arguments, evidence you can draw upon in conversation – or if you aren’t confident thinking on your feet or struggle to remember things, then you can at least say: “That’s a great question. Actually I have read a great book… I have heard a great talk on that – can I share it with you and then we can chat about it afterwards?”
However, please don’t forget that God is God and you are not. He knows all things, and you do not. He is the educator and you are the learner. He is the one who alone can open blind eyes, deaf ears and change peoples’ hearts by His Spirit. Since our job is to point to Jesus, you don’t need to have read everything or thought about every possible question to be able to share what you do know!
P.S. If you want to take a deeper dive into studying any of the specific “defeater beliefs” mentioned above then I would suggest starting with…
“Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With?” by Sam Alberry
“A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing” by Glynn Harrison
“The Case For Christ” by Lee Strobel
“Is Jesus History?” by John Dickson
“Can Science Explain Everything” by John Lennox
“God’s Undertaker” by John Lennox
“Can We Trust the Gospels” by Peter Williams
“Why Trust the Bible?” By Amy Orr Ewing
“Walking with God through Pain and Suffering” by Tim Keller
“Where is God In a Coronavirus World?” by John Lennox