21 Evangelism Lessons for the 21st Century – Lesson 7
My research about how college students become Christians included some investigation of their questions. What intellectual obstacles did they have to overcome before embracing the gospel? Were there frequently asked questions that Christian apologists should move to the top of their lists of roadblocks to belief?
This touches upon numerous debates about the role of apologetics in evangelism. Do “answers” really help people move from darkness to light? Aren’t we assuming a level of intellectual strength which conflicts with a belief in total depravity? Isn’t apologetics for believers, not for outsiders?
If I’ve gotten your hopes up for a resolution for these debates, I’m about to dash them. “My research is inconclusive for a satisfactory answer to those questions.” (That’s a line that many researchers hide behind and I’m inclined to join them there. Sorry).
Here’s what I did find: Quite a few people did have questions they felt they needed to have answered and, when they heard a substantial answer, they moved quickly to a point of conversion. Almost as many people voiced a question they thought prevented them from believing but, somehow, they came to faith without getting a satisfactory answer. In other words, they converted before getting answers or without getting answers.
It is this second group that intrigues me. In fact, as I reflect upon my own conversion, I believe the problem of evil (“Why did the guy down the hall from me fall to his death in a horrific accident?”) was the biggest obstacle to receiving the offer of salvation in the Messiah. But I came to faith without getting a satisfying answer. In fact, to this day, I still struggle with that issue – but as an insider of the family of God, not as an outsider.
Lesson 7 – There’s far more to evangelism than just providing answers to questions.
I don’t think the questions people voiced were mere smokescreens. They were sincere in their request for answers. So I don’t want to dismiss all questions in that way. Nor do I want to see the task of answering questions as absolutely crucial for conversion to occur. The process is more elaborate and people are more complex.
A recurring theme I heard was that people sometimes just need to know that there are answers that others have found convincing. Or, looking from another angle, some people needed to see that Christians had considered these questions before and were not morons. Sometimes the shocking realization that Christians have tackled the very same question that seemed insurmountable to the inquirer was all they needed to cross from doubt to belief. For some, the realization that answers existed served like the breaking of a dam that allowed a flood of faith to wash over them.
What are some lessons we can apply to our evangelistic efforts?
- We must equip ourselves with answers. We’re told that we need to “know how [we] should respond to each person” (Col 4:6). There’s no substitute for “being ready to make a defense” (1 Peter 3:15).
- We should dialogue with people to find out their motive for asking. And we should try to discern the level and type of emotion behind their words. Some questions are attacks. Some are sincere. Some are merely curiosities. Some are packed with pain. I tried to address these dynamics in my books Questioning Evangelism and Bringing the Gospel Home.
- We should not be afraid to urge people to embrace belief even without answers to all their questions. This requires balance and discernment on our part. On the one hand, we should not be dismissive of their questions, assuming they are all smokescreens. On the other hand, we need to remember that conversion is more than a cognitive experience.
So, keep reading your apologetics books and prepare yourself to answer questions. But remember that those evangelistic conversations take place under the sovereign hand of a saving God who works in powerful ways that transcend the question-and-answer exchange.