Leveling the Playing Field

Posted by on Apr 9, 2012

A friend asked me how I would respond to a situation in which he found himself. He felt trapped. As a campus minister through a local church, he was invited to join a group of professors for lunch. As far as he knew, none of them were Christians. When he sat down and introduced himself, one of the professors said, “You’re not going to try to proselytize us, are you?” My friend could tell, based on the other professors’ faces, that this was a comment all of them wanted to make.

“I told them I was just there to listen and ask questions,” my friend told me. “But I’m not sure that was the best response. What would you have said?”

His response wasn’t bad. But I think I know why he felt uneasy about it. He sensed, rightly so, that there was more going on at that lunch table than polite dialogue. Just the selection of their vocabulary term “proselytize” should have sounded an alarm.

I often tell Christians we need to employ a couple of tactics in these situations that go beyond mere answering of questions. Just providing the “right” answer to a specific question isn’t always the best strategy. Consider the many times Jesus didn’t answer people’s questions.

The two tactics I would recommend in scenarios like this are 1) buying some time and 2) leveling the playing field.

First, you must admit (even if those professors wouldn’t acknowledge it) that their question was loaded. It was more of an attack or an accusation than a real question. Most Christians are caught off-guard by these kinds of unfair attacks. So I tell people to buy themselves some time before responding.

Some possible time-buying lines are:

“Hmmmm. That’s quite a question. Let me think about that for a second.”

“Interesting question…I better give that some thought before I answer.”

“Is that a real question?”

“Proselytize! That’s a loaded term, don’t you think?”

“Wow. Talk about a tough way to start a lunch!”

Second, and more important, is the need to level the playing field. This was an unfair attack and, contrary to the way many Christians often respond, we need to push back a bit. I sometimes call this “evangelistic chutzpah,” employing a Yiddish word to express what no English word can do. Yes, there are many times we should “defend” the faith. But sometimes, we should put them on the defensive. When non-Christians feel morally or intellectually superior to us, it might be wise to first put them in their place.

(I know. This is uncomfortable. You may be thinking this is harsh. It depends on how you express yourself and the tone of voice you use. But consider how Jesus responded when he was asked, “By what authority are you doing these things?” (see Matt 21:23 and following). Jesus refused to answer their question and pushed back with his own probe that revealed their arrogance).

Leveling the playing field means showing people their own intolerance. Often it forces people to see their own attempts to “proselytize.” When these professors asked my friend if he was going to try to proselytize them, they themselves were attempting to “convert” him to their way of thinking – a way that believes you should not try to proselytize! That’s a very specific form of religious faith – one that the vast majority of people throughout history have disagreed with. It’s a recent invention, and a particularly Western-American-post-enlightenment form of religion. It’s remarkably intolerant of the views of millions of people.

So, I would have said one of these possible retorts:

“Well…I’ll make you a deal. I won’t proselytize you if you stop trying to proselytize me.”

“Of course I’m going to try to convert you! What kind of an evangelical Christian would I be if I didn’t try to do that!”

“Let’s be honest. We’re both trying to convert each other. You’re trying to change my beliefs to a kind of Christianity that doesn’t try to convert people. And I’m trying to convert you to a kind of Christianity that can’t do otherwise.”

“Aren’t you proselytizing me right now?”

Until people see their own intolerance, claimed in the name of “tolerance,” it will be difficult to have a real two-way conversation. This may take some time…and a healthy dose of chutzpah. But helping people get set free from this kind of bondage (and it is certainly not anything less than that!), may be the most gracious, loving thing we can do for them.

(If this kind of thinking is helpful for you, you may also appreciate D.A. Carson’s new book, The Intolerance of Tolerance).



  1. Hank Zimon
    April 9, 2012

    Your post on tolerance was terrific, Randy. Thank you! I had a related experience at work during the past few years with an individual who was a hard over, avowed atheist along with his wife and he claimed the children too but I was never convinced of that. He was a good friend of mine, and for nearly two years I tried every possible approach to get him to at least consider returning to some discussion of religion and faith and to reconsider his decision. I fell short of your chutzpah level of pressing, but instead chose to use just the opposite and go with a very light touch, humor, sincere friendship and let him set the pace. I didn’t think I was making much progress, until one day last summer when I got an email saying I would be proud of him — that he committed to read the entire Bible front to back and that (along with a major work on atheism) he was looking forward to our further discussions. God does have a plan and answers prayers in His own time! Thanks for your ministry, Randy! Hank

  2. Rick
    April 10, 2012

    Prof: “You’re not going to try to proselytize us, are you?”

    Me: Wow, what a shocking question, sir. You know that I am a campus minister, and I was invited to join your group for lunch today. As soon as I merely introduce myself you immediately lob that grenade at me! Ouch! Certainly not one of the most friendliest greetings that I have ever received on this fine campus. (lighthearted chuckle) May I ask you a question? (pause) Is it customary for a fraternity of open-minded free-thinking paramounts-of-knowledge as yourselves to censure certain topics of discussion when you gather together for lunch with an invited guest? If so, then please tell me your “taboo list” now, so that I won’t accidentally put my foot in my mouth. (sit back and watch them squirm in their seats with embarrasment)
    At this point folks should lighten up or will bristle, and you can then gauge how the rest of your conversation will unfold. I am reminded of Jesus’ teaching of “don’t cast your pearls before swine”.
    My $0.02.

    • RandyNewman
      April 11, 2012


      I think you make some good points. However, I fear that your tone is a bit sarcastic. Of course, email is limited and it’s impossible to really know someone’s tone through email. In fact, to be fair, I think it would be easy to read my blog post and hear a sarcastic tone in what I shared. But that was not my intent and I will assume it’s not your intent either.

      It is a difficult temptation to resist in these situations. But I believe sarcasm has the potential to do more harm than good. While our task is to level the playing field, the ultimate purpose is to point people to the Savior. And love and respect are far better vehicles for that task than sarcasm.

  3. Paul Gould
    April 10, 2012

    Randy–very nice post–I think you are right on!!!

  4. Paul Gould
    April 10, 2012

    Randy–very nice post–I think you are right on!!!


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