Over the years I’ve heard Christians ask really dumb questions to nonbelievers.
For instance, my friend Doug, a terrific musician and deeply sensitive man, was recruited to join a mission organization in England. There he was trained to go into public areas and ask strangers, “Where do you believe you will go after you die?”
He approached one young, hip-looking Brit who responded, “Well, I don’t believe in God. But if I wake after I die, I guess I’ll go to church then.” The Brits around the young man burst out in laughter, as did Doug, who could only muster, “Good response!” and sheepishly walk away. That wasn’t one of the probable responses they had covered in pre-training, and he simply didn’t know what to say.
So Doug walked away deeply embarrassed, and he kept walking … slowly away from the mission … and eventually from church… and then from faith.
He knew the question was a set-up and he hated that he had agreed to do it. There he was, trying to talk with people about God, but he felt like a hypocrite because he was asking a question he felt uncomfortable with. After all, he was a musician, not a philosopher! Why couldn’t he just get out his guitar, play some songs at a street corner, and strike up natural conversations about music? And if people took an interest in his songs, well, then he could tell them about the God of love that he knew—and that God also loved music.
Doug felt that he would have liked those young Brits had he been able to make friends first—instead of leading off with a question they considered to be irrelevant and laughable. In fact, deep in his heart he respected those other youngsters who appeared to be living more authentic lives than he was.
If only the mission had encouraged Doug to be real, to be himself, and to use his talents to build bridges with others with similar interests.
Instead, he was trained to try to be someone he was not. No wonder he failed.
Years ago, a similar thing happened to me when I was a new and naïve Christian. Our para-church youth group gathered one Saturday morning at the local mall for what was billed as “Training in Evangelism.” We were given clipboards, pencils, and “Shopper Surveys,” and then told to approach shoppers with our list of questions. We were also instructed that this was really not a survey: it was a harmless gimmick to get people talking about God.
I hated it. Our first interviewee (or should I say target?) caught on quickly and loudly said, “Hold it! This isn’t a real survey, is it? This is ?!#!. You kids should be ashamed.”
And, truth be told, I was ashamed. Deeply. Our supposed “harmless” survey blew up in my face. So I sat on a bench in the mall and just waited for the 2 hour “Evangelism Training” to end. What a joke it was. And what a fool I was to agree to take part. I decided that day that evangelism was definitely not for me.
It was years later that I finally realized that that was not true evangelism. Paul didn’t conduct false surveys to lure in potential converts, and Jesus certainly never stooped to subterfuge to get his message across. True evangelism is loving people one at a time, listening more than we talk, and building conversations based on mutual respect. And most of all—it’s honest!
So what’s the best question to ask a skeptic?
If Doug had been allowed to play his guitar on the streets of London, the best question to an interested listener might have been, “I can see you like music. Who’s your favorite musician?”Or Doug could have asked, “What’s your name, and do you play an instrument?”
In other words, the best questions will arise from common interests, find patches of common ground, and begin interactions that may give birth to relationships and even friendships. The best questions convey interest in the other, respect, and are unfailingly honest. If we try to be clever or calculating, our questions will come across as manipulative.
Doug’s questions fit me too, since I’m a collector of classic rock LPs. When I’m asked in response if I play an instrument, I reply, “Yes, the turntable.” But I especially like the question, “Who’s your favorite musician?” Almost everyone I’ve asked this has responded enthusiastically with their favorite band or rock star. I’ve been in stuffy boardrooms or business offices where everyone is a bit uncomfortable, and after asking that question the room comes alive. Suddenly, friendships begin to kindle in a most unlikely place.
Thus, one of my favorite questions for skeptics is, “Who was your favorite musician or band when your were a teenager?”
However, since it’s summer and superhero movies are all the rage, my current favorite question for skeptics is, “Have you seen Wonder Woman?” I love talking about comics or fantasy movies with skeptics (and even horror shows), and I love asking why they think that our secular, materialist society is so entertained by stories of supernatural beings.
In fact, discussions like this led me to write my latest book. I found that conversations with skeptics that began with the normal arguments for and against belief in God went nowhere—fast! Plus, such discussions were disasters. Like trench warfare, both sides just hunkered down for an extended and ineffective fight. And no one ever changed sides.
But exchanges with skeptics about values and passions we held in common were both fascinating and fun! I found that agnostics and atheists share many of my interests: from music to art museums, from preventing cruelty to animals to stopping human trafficking, and even from sports to sex. I’ve learned that theists and atheists have tons of common interests, if we would only stop patronizing and pigeonholing one another. And—surprise!—many of these topics eventually led to discussions about God’s existence. And—double-surprise!—many skeptics made the journey from atheism to theism as a result.
So rather than try to convert through argumentation, why not talk to skeptics in ways that build bridges, friendships, and mutual respect? The key is to be authentic, which is why I’m convinced that the best questions for skeptics will be true and respectful to both persons involved.
Could it be that simple? Might a question about a superhero movie be more effective in the lives of skeptics than an off-the-wall query about heaven?
Now that’s a good question!
Dr. Rick Stedman is a collector of classic-rock LPs, bookaholic, author, pastor, and devoted husband and father. He founded and for two decades led Adventure Christian Church in Roseville, California, has graduate degrees in theology, philosophy, and ministry, and occasionally blogs at https://www.rickstedman.com. His most recent book is 31 Surprising Reasons to Believe in God: How Superheroes, Art, Environmentalism, and Science Point to Faith (Harvest House, 2017)]