Christian Evangelism – Ministry to the Gullible?

Synopsis

In this piece I present some personal experiences and impressions of how Christians have tended to engage with me over the years. I argue that such engagement is usually fairly superficial, with Christians generally not seeming to be very well informed or having put much thought into their positions, nor are they very willing to seriously discuss difficult ideas. I contrast this lack of engagement with the very strong Christian focus on evangelism, and argue that the two observations can be reconciled by notion that Christians are primarily interested in spreading their message to people who don’t think too much or ask too many questions. Thus I argue that most Christians are not in fact very interested in serious intellectual discussion of their beliefs.

A Personal Anecdote

As some of my readers may know, last week I attended the Melbourne University Christian Union (CU) midyear Summit, which is a five-day long camp featuring sermons, bible readings, discussions, and some social activities. I write this post partly as a response to some of my experiences there, but also drawing more broadly on my numerous past interactions with Christians.

One of the major themes of this Summit was evangelism, or Christian mission, as it is also called. One evening there was a particularly forthright sermon on the subject, by which I mean that it was very frank in exhorting Christians to take their faith generally, and evangelism specifically, very seriously. Some illustrative quotes from this sermon: “Christianity cannot be some kind of hobby or interest that you have – it’s all or nothing”, and “your former way of life is dead, and you are dead to the world…you no longer have to fulfill the expectations of the world”.

Following this sermon I commenced a discussion with a few fellow attendees (Christians) about some of the matters raised that I found perplexing or troubling. This included questions like ‘why is Jesus worth following to this extent?’, ‘is it not a profoundly negative outlook to talk of being ‘dead to the world?”, and various other such things. The sermon had troubled me in a definite, though slightly ineffable way, and I was desirous to discuss this issue further, hoping that the Christians may aid in my own understanding and interpretation of what was said.

I say all this by way of setting the scene for what happened next. As it turned out, there was a musical ‘cafe night’ scheduled to be held shortly after the conclusion of the sermon, and so, within a few short minutes of beginning our discussion, all three of my Christian discussants departed to join the party. Looking around me I found the dining room, which previously had been filled with well over one hundred people, completely deserted. Having no particular desire to participate in the festivities (I don’t think there was any heavy metal in the lineup), I retired to my room. As I walked back to my cabin, it struck me how incongruous it was that, immediately following a sermon which strongly extolled the overwhelming importance of evangelism, the Christians with whom I had been speaking all thought it a better use of their time to attend a musical cafe night, than to engage in meaningful religious discussion with a non-believer.

‘Serious Engagement

I narrate this incident not in order to cast particular aspersions on the persons involved, but merely so as to motivate and illustrative the broader point that I wish to make in this piece. That point is this: in my experience, most Christians most of the time are not very interested in engaging in serious intellectual discussion about their faith. Let me clarify a few points. When I say ‘most Christians’, I don’t mean ‘most random people off the street who call themselves Christians’; what I mean is ‘most Christians who attend CU events, bible readings, talks, or other such events that I go along to’. When I say ‘serious intellectual discussion’, I don’t mean ‘exchanging a few pleasantries, attesting to their own person conviction, and affirming the importance of dialogue’, I mean ‘engaging in serious, thoughtful discussion of their own world view, my own world view, and the many difficult questions which stem therefrom’.

What does such engagement look like? I don’t think it looks like any one specific thing. Different people do it in different ways. Some characteristic properties of such serious, genuine engagement might include: sincere attempts to understand the other person’s viewpoint, asking questions about why the other person believes what they believe, thoughtfully considering one’s answers, asking what sorts of reasons or evidences could hypothetically change their mind, some acknowledgement of uncertainty or the complexity of the issues being considered, attempts to identify common ground and also specific points of disagreement, and importantly (when practical), attempts to followup the discussion later and continue the engagement for as long as both parties find the issue to be important and worth discussing.

My Experiences with Christians

Sometimes my interactions with Christians have looked a lot like this. More often, however, the following (stylised) outcomes are more common:

  • Even immediately following a sermon or bible reading , Christians I speak to will not say anything at all about what was discussed. The conversation will proceed as if we just bumped into each other on the street
  • The Christian will ask why as an atheist I am attending the event, I will tend them I like to discuss matters of faith and understand alternative viewpoints better, and then they express some general approval of that endeavor, but without any apparent interest in actually engaging in such a discussion
  • The Christian will engage in discussion with me for a time, often asking a number of questions, but then before long, either they seem to become uncomfortable or lose interest or something, but for whatever reason they break off the discussion
  • An engaging discussion will commence and continue for some time, but the Christian will not actually thoughtfully consider my views, objections, or doubts. In many such instances it seems that eventually each line of inquiry or discussion is ended by some platitude about faith, or the power of the bible, or God being relational, or an account of their own personal conviction
  • The Christian will engage seriously, but then seem uninterested in continuing the discussion on later occasions after further considering the matter

Let me make a few further points. Again, bear in mind that when I say ‘Christian’ I mean ‘people I meet at these events’, not ‘random professed believer off the street’. In my experience:

  • It is rare to find a Christian who knows (or at least seems to know – I don’t usually ask explicitly) what the word ‘epistemology’ means. That might seem petty, but given what protestations to knowledge they have and their mandate to spread it throughout the world, one would think it at least somewhat important that Christians (at Melbourne University no less) have some idea of what knowledge is and how it can be justified
  • It is rare to find a Christian who has any familiarity with even the most basic issues of New Testament historicity, such as the short ending of Mark, the debate about authorship of the gospels, the discrepancies between (for instance) the birth narratives, etc
  • It is very rare indeed to find any Christian who seems to have even considered the problem of many faiths – that is the question of how they can be so confident of their own religious experiences or revealed texts given the existence of so many conflicting experiences and revelations in other religions
  • Very few Christians seem to know anything more than the most superficial facts about religions like Islam, Mormonism, or Buddhism – other than the fact, of course, that said religions are not true
  • Though many Christians seem to have some notion that morality requires a ‘grounding’ of some sort in God, few seem to have even a basic familiarity even with terms such as ‘metaethics’, ‘moral realism’, ‘divine command theory’, and the euthyphro dilemma

My point here is not to show how much cleverer I am than all those silly Christians. I’m really not very clever at all – just annoyingly curious. My point is exactly as I stated it before: that most Christians most of the time are not very interested in engaging in serious intellectual discussion about their faith. If they were, they would, it seems to me, at least be minimally informed about some of the basic issues I outlined above, and be far more receptive and willing to critically engage than my experiences above seem to indicate.

Ministry to the Gullible?

Some readers may wonder what business I have complaining about Christians not seriously engaging about their faith. Isn’t that their own business? Of course it is, but I find it puzzling given the seemingly high degree of lip service that is paid to the importance of discussing one’s faith with others, with evangelising – as my recent experience at Summit clearly illustrated. I have a theory about this. It is a very cynical theory. I don’t really have much specific evidence for it, other than that it seems to fit the facts as I related them above.

Here is my theory: Christians are interested in talking about their faith, and they are enthusiastic about evangelism, but generally speaking most Christians are only interested in doing so when it does not require them to think very much or very hard. Inviting people to read the bible, praying for them, bearing testimony about Jesus, sharing some of the key teachings of the gospel – these things may be scary at times, but none of them requires much real thought or intellectual effort. I know – I’ve done it. After a few times practice, its really pretty easy to go through the same basic points and invitations and deal with the same common but fairly simple objections or questions. When someone starts really engaging and asking tough, innovative, thoughtful questions you hadn’t considered before – that takes real effort to deal with. Probably better to find someone else who will just believe what we tell them without asking too many questions.

Conclusion

Am I being too cynical? Too harsh? I have listened to numerous Christian conversion stories. Often they are five or ten minutes long. In my experience,very few of them make any reference at all to any sort of reason or evidence or intellectual examination, or anything of the sort. Some people literally say things like ‘I was invited to read the Bible, and as I learned more about Jesus I was just amazed at how much he loved us, and I knew that I wanted to follow him’. Because, they don’t let you print books that aren’t 100% true, right? Because, everything I ‘feel’ about God must be 100% veridical, right?

My thesis here is that these are the sorts of people that Christians want to evangelise to. For the most part, they don’t care to evangelise those who actually think through the matter carefully and desire to engage in continued substantive dialogue. Christians may even acknowledge this – perhaps they will describe such people as ‘prepared’ or ‘receptive’, or say that the ‘spirit was working in them’. Personally I would use words like ‘credulous’, ‘unthinking’, and ‘gullible’. Whatever words one chooses to use, my point is this: most Christians seem to want to evangelise to people who will accept what they say without much challenge. They are not very interested in evangelising those who are really interested in seeking the truth, difficult and complex though such an undertaking can be.

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4 thoughts on “Christian Evangelism – Ministry to the Gullible?

  1. Dear James,

    Yet again your careful and considered observations have clearly identified valid inconsistencies between the stated beliefs and visible actions of people who call themselves Christians. It must appear quite fraudulent to see ever more loudly proclaimed a message of complete submission to Jesus, whilst having encounters with those same people that are almost imperceptibly different to encounters with ‘ordinary’ (random on the street or ROTS) people.

    To paraphrase my interpretation of your question; what should such engagement look like if genuine and true? You then start to suggest various possibilities, many of which sound quite desirable to have in a discussion, incorporating;
    • an understanding and knowledge of faith
    • acute reasoning and logical capacity, and
    • empathy and interest in broadening one’s understanding of the other person and their beliefs.

    I would suggest that these three areas must indeed be well-integrated in the discussion in order to sustain such conversations, and make them worthwhile. Without one of these, the discussion will be either inaccurate (lacking in knowledge), ineffective (lacking in reasoning skills) or impossible (lacking in interest to have the conversation).

    In my opinion, if evaluated as I have just proposed, these prerequisites would make most people (ROTS) unqualified to have such a conversation. From my personal experience, many Christians will have identified deficits in one of these areas within themselves, and thus decided that they are unqualified for such discussions. Internally, some ways this could be manifested are:
    • “I don’t know the bible well enough to talk about it” in combination with “the bible is too hard to understand”.
    • “My faith is too complex and hard to discuss” in combination with “learning how to explain it better will be too hard”
    • “Understanding what others think is too hard” in combination with “I believe my way is right”.

    Each of these scenarios result in someone who will not pursue, or be able to sustain such a discussion of faith. Each one of these scenarios contains a proposition that includes the word “too hard”, which could readily be substituted for “too boring” or “I’m too busy to do XYZ”, or “I am afraid of being wrong”. It is here that I find myself a hypocrite, as these are all reasons I have personally struggled with in deepening my understanding of faith, and has prohibited my discussion of faith with others.

    I would propose that in some cases your suggestion that some Christians are not serious about their faiths, would be a shrewd observation, and true in some cases. However in other cases, Christians may be stuck or hindered by fears, such as fears of things being too hard, fears of misrepresenting their faith, fears of being ridiculed, or even logically ridiculous fears of being wrong or disproven.

    I do not know Greek or Latin, but I have done a few HPS and logic and reasoning subjects at uni that would seem to put my qualifications for sustaining a logical discussion far above the ROTS. Even so, I still experience some of these fears or difficulties to having such conversations. Quite ridiculous! But here is where I must concede to being imperfect.

    So then, if this is an area that so many Christians struggle with, then it only makes sense for other Christians to encourage each other to improve. This is exactly why the focus on evangelism is so heavy at CU. Many of us do have sufficient reasoning skills, and acceptably sufficient working definitions of faith, and even an interest in sharing our faith, but in some area are being held back, perhaps by fears, laziness, boredom, or for other reasons.

    So, in summary, your findings appear correct, but whether you are too cynical or too harsh, remains a matter of opinion. My personal perspective is that you are neither cynical or harsh. In Australia it is at present easy to say you are a Christian and not be shunned by society, quite in contrast to the early years of the Church. However, modern society appears to be gradually becoming more and more hostile to religion in a way that is forcing Christians to either give up, or go deeper with their faiths. When it is no longer the case that faith is socially acceptable (or is dangerous as it is some other countries today) it takes genuine conviction and serious engagement to maintain and share such a faith.

    I have spent far too long to just say ‘you’re right’, but there is one more point I would wish to clarify. Quite often Christians’ faiths are based on apparently unscientific premises. While I personally believe that my faith cannot be satisfactorily confirmed by using scientific rigour, I also believe that scientific rigour cannot disprove or invalidate it. If this belief is true, how can it be that belief in the unscientific is credulous, if in the same way it would not be right to maintain a disbelief in something that has not been scientifically disproven. A gullible or credulous person could readily believe or disbelieve in either direction something which is unable to be proven or disproven.

    In conclusion, I do not think it is logically correct to dismiss the unproven. I realise I could then go on to say that the moon is made of cheese, and if we had limited science and knowledge, this could not be disproven. However, it would be foolish to then believe or put faith such a thing if that was the only evidence, and such a person would be rightfully called gullible.

    I am confident however that my faith in a personal Saviour is based on more than just wishful thinking, and while may not be able to provide the scientific evidence required to convince, I do not feel I have been intellectually ignorant, as the Bible, in all of its complexity, efficacy and gravitas, has been robust enough to remain disproven. While the Bible continues to provoke me to further investigation of the polarising claims of Jesus Christ, (to whom I have committed my life) it has not yielded to my questioning or been found lacking in its ability to provide me a solid foundation, from with which I engage with the world. Please do not see this as my ending with a platitude, but rather a practical testimony of my reading and interpretation.

    Does my thinking seem reasonable to you? It would not surprise me if I have gaping holes in my reasoning, but I can only progress if I make a start.

    I really would enjoy a conversation with you sometime, as I am curious as to what the foundation for your schema is built upon. While I am really not used to serious intellectual discussion, and am not as widely read as you are, I would like to hear about the way your beliefs have changed over time. While I cannot promise perfectly demarcated reasoning, it will be genuinely intentioned, and hopefully palatably seasoned!

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  2. Hello james. I saw your blog post through a friends facebook status update and wanted to read it.

    I am or have been a christian for last 22 years. I think your experience is fair comment. I am probably one of the few you havent met who seriously engages with those around me. However in the past year or two I have begun having my own questions about the faith which seemingly have no answers. Although I’m not in your boat exactly I find unfortunately there are very few christian s who are either able or want to answer difficult questions.

    I think it is true of people in general who dont like to think deeply or shall I say at all!

    A piece of food for thought from what I can see you visited summit and cu and spend your time with very conservative evangelical christians. The problem with this group is they are quite inflexible about their ideas out of a sense of having to conform to orthodoxy.

    Anyway ive got to have breakfast but I enjoyed your blog.
    Matt.

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  3. haha great piece man. really enjoyed and saddened me all at the same time. I don’t know you, but your writing reminded me of a Marxist-Christian’s quote regarding conservative reformed/evangelical student christian movements (SCM). This quote was on their conferences in particular.

    “It is my opinion that these student conferences are deliberately devised to confuse as many young people as the SCM can reach. They are culturally perfectly poisonous, with all their horrid sentimentality, their singing on beaches in the dark, their telling of mild and “religious” jokes, their anaemic sexuality (always in the background) their blithering, mawkish hymns and prayers. There is no reforming this sort of thing, there is no working with it. It is part of the whole apparatus of middle class Fascist reaction, and it has simply got to be destroyed.” -Frederic Hasting-Smyth

    I think that your writing here is probably really useful and enlightening to heaps of people. Keep it up. Nice to see that you’re nutting ideas of truth out. Good luck with it. Peace.

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  4. Hey James!

    I was made aware of your blog via a link someone posted over Facebook. It was a challenging article to read, but I greatly respect your honest reflection and measured response.

    I am sorry you had such a negative experience at this conference. And I have never been to a Christian Union conference before, so I really can not judge one way or another. To be fair though, one must realise that philosophical inquiry is but one of a plethora of possible paths one could take to engage/critique the Christian faith. And as Christianity is so large, predominate in a culture so diverse, so rich and so seeped in various academic and personal pursuits, it is odd to expect all Christians to be able to address ones own particular brand of intellectual inquiry.

    Now, I personally am not involved in CU, but I have been involved in groups very much like it. I am personally not very smart myself, but I have been curious enough to look into a little philosophy myself, even as a Christian. I would be interested in further discussion if you wish to see what a philosophically minded Christian has to say about certain matters. However, I must admit. This is an offer I do not give many people.

    I am a lover of wisdom, but not a lover of sophistry. And that is what I am afraid philosophy has become. Poor words. Never-the-less, if one man’s answers are what you are seeking, and not just arguments, not just more fodder to expand your critique on Christianity, I am happy to be of service. If answers in general are what you seek, I can also direct you to smarter men than I. No one man is a repository of information, even if it is just for a single discipline or sub discipline.

    Christians have a salient belief that to become a Christian is to begin on a path. A path of faith, of service, of self denial and of worship. We each walk the path a different way, but each path is started by the same thing: some acknowledgement of a great and wondrous news – the news of Jesus Christ.

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