Being Prepared for Encounters with Evangelists
At any rate, as Christians are instructed by I Peter 3:5 to be “always ready,” I too like to be ready, and I want my readers to be ready as well. So I’ve taken some time to create a small list of questions to help the conversation along in the off-chance that I bump into a “witness for Christ” out doing “the Lord’s work” of spreading the “good news” and seeking converts.
Before we get to those questions, however, it is important to review a few considerations about the evangelist’s task.
I think it is appropriate to speak of those people who are minding their own business but nonetheless caught in the evangelist’s sights as “intended victims,” for even the biblical language itself suggests the predatory in nature of evangelism given the gospels’ own characterization of evangelists as “fishers of men” and that targets of evangelistic strategies as “fish” being snagged in their nets (cf. Mark 1:16-17 and parallel Mt. 4:18-19). The evangelist is essentially going out on a hunting spree of sorts, thinking “Whom can I ensnare today?” It is sheer irony when the author of I Peter (at 5:8) likens “the devil” (presumably Satan himself!) “as a roaring lion… seeking whom he may devour.” Christians thus imagine themselves as competing with nefarious supernatural forces in a battlefield of sorts, both sides striving to collect the same spoils – namely men’s souls, a sure formula for insatiable parasitism if there ever were one!
Quite often, street evangelists are going to initiate their proselytizing gestures with gambits like “Have you heard the message of Jesus?” or “Do you know where your soul will go when you die?” or “Are you saved?” The starting point of their initial questions will casually rest on a mass of underlying religious assumptions which they want to import into conversations with utter strangers. Even if they begin with the question, “How did the universe come into being?” they are making an assumption (namely that at some point in the past the universe did not exist) which they are not likely prepared to defend very ably.
Luke Cawley of Intervarsity Evagelism presents us with 6 Conversational Evangelism Tips from the Master Himself, a guide that even non-believers can learn from. Cawley encourages the would-be street minister to “see every person you meet as a potential conversation partner” and to pro-actively insert himself into social contexts where contact with non-believers is more probable. Cawley does not advise that evangelists jump right into bible talk; starting a conversation with a stranger with “Pardon me, Sir, but do you love the Lord with all your heart, mind and soul?” might be more of a stopper than a starter. Cawley doesn’t want his evangelists to scare away the fish before they’ve gotten the net out!
Instead, he suggests the following strategy:
Tell them a story about your day. Ask them how their week has been, what they’ve enjoyed eating, reading, or watching lately. Discuss sports scores. Start light and see where the conversation goes. The worst that can happen is you have an interesting chat.
Cawley’s strategy here is designed not only to give the conversation some forward traction, but also to give the evangelist an opportunity to catch potential converts off-guard. He wants the evangelist to perfect his skills at cozying up to strangers, getting not only their attention but also their trust, before deploying their tactics. The intended victims are not to notice any invasion of privacy, but are to think of their captors as perfectly harmless.
Once the conversation is underway, Cawley advises that the evangelist deploy “a razor-sharp question that gets to the heart of who she is as a person.” It’s not clear what specifically Cawley would consider an example of “a razor-sharp question,” but I’m sure even the dimmest of Jesus’ serpents could come up with something. And to be sure, Cawley does have more advice on this point. He states:
Don’t think of yourself as the expert with all the answers. Until you’ve asked your conversation partner some questions, you may not even know quite how to relate the gospel to their lives. You can read more about asking good questions in Why You Should Ask More Questions in Spiritual Conversations.
The man wanted to pin Jesus down on the topic of eternal life, but Jesus threw the issue back at him and asked him to state his own position. We can do the same thing.
The behavior attributed to Jesus here can only be taken as evasive: he was asked a direct question, and – being the infallible, omniscient, all-loving god that Christians claim him to be – should have addressed the question in a loving and instructive manner. Instead, Jesus comes off as though he wanted to make the question of one’s eternal spiritual destiny a guessing game.
So anyone engaging in dialogue with evangelists should not be surprised when they start evading questions and trying to weasel out of presenting clear answers. They want you to think about their questions; they don’t really want to deal with yours.
Getting back to Cawley’s advise for evangelism, if you’re getting the impression that the evangelist’s techniques have certain similarities with those of predatory child molesters, you’re not alone! The shared goal here is to manipulate another person into a desired position of vulnerability.
Cawley’s advise that the evangelist should not think of himself “as the expert with all the questions” is not completely out of the blue. The deep dark secret here is that the believer has already made private judgments about non-believers, presumes to know their spiritual status, and pretends to have a pipeline to an omniscient and infallible source of supernatural knowledge. In his own imagination, the evangelist styles himself as an emissary of the creator of the universe, and he’s not about let this view of himself be corrected by those who are still enslaved in their sins. Thus Cawley is essentially warning evangelists to mask this presumptuousness, to keep it under wraps so that it’s not so off-putting.
Of course, there’s some practical value in this advise as well: since it’s a fact that the believer doesn’t have “all the answers,” he ought not come across as though he does. But this is a very fine trapeze act in itself: Christianity predisposes its adherents to be among “the chosen,” to be the receivers of a secret “mystery” knowledge to which outsiders are not privy (see, for example, the interplay between Jesus and his disciples as opposed to broader audiences in the 4th chapter of Mark). And of course, devotional references of the type that are common in evangelizing conversations – such as “God knows your heart” and “Jesus knows the hardships you endure,” attempts to use empathy to put potential converts at ease – can only invite the impression that the believer thinks he knows more about his intended victims than meets the eye.
Cawley’s counsel is that the evangelist should “listen to questions, then answer the question behind the questions” – i.e., in mind-game fashion use any questions posed by his intended victims as an opportunity to redirect the conversation elsewhere by subjecting their questions to self-serving interpretative devices that allow the evangelist to both evade the questions being posed to him and shift the burden back onto his intended victims. Cawley thus advises that the evangelist “try listening” – that is, to pretend to be listening, but in fact hear something other than what his intended victims might be trying to say. Cawley elaborates:
Try not to get caught up in arguments, but get to the core of their concerns. For example: A question about the biblical teaching on homosexuality is not necessarily an invitation to explain biblical sexual ethics. The underlying question may be something else like “Am I welcome in your Christian community?” or “Do you look down on me?” A good way to discern the underlying question is to say, “Why do you ask?” or “Good question, what do you think?” and then listen to what they say.
Another site giving tips for evangelists lists the following suggested questions:
1. Do you believe in an after life?
2. What do you think happens when you die?
3. If you died right away, do you think you’d go to heaven? Why?
4. Do you feel fulfilled in your life?
5. Do you ever feel like something is missing?
6. Do you ever pray?
But don’t be mislead here: if a stranger comes up to you and starts asking you whether or not “you feel fulfilled in your life,” it’s clearly none of his business. Do you really think he’s interested in whether or not you find your own life fulfilling? Perhaps a good response might be: “My life is so fulfilling that I couldn’t care less if yours is or not.” This will tell the evangelist all he needs to know at this point. But then you could follow this up with: Why do you want to know? For clearly he would have no basis to be genuinely concerned about whether or not your life is fulfilling.
In fact, he’s hoping that your life *isn’t* fulfilling so that he can ply his evangelistic devices! If you reply that your life is wholly fulfilling, he’s either going to give up (sensing rightly that there’s no room for his mysticism to get a foothold in conversation with you), or he’s going to try to find some weakness in order to destabilize your certainty – for your certainty is his chief enemy.
It is because of the insidious nature of religious proselytizing that many non-believers are unwilling to let themselves become involved in such conversations. While I understand and sympathize with this sentiment, in some ways that’s regrettable, especially if there’s a chance to execute a reversal of sorts – namely to de-evangelize the evangelist. I think one way to remedy this reluctance is to make sure one is prepared for those occasions in which he finds himself face to face with missionizing believers. So I’ve come up with a few questions of my own that I think may come in handy, should the opportunity to practice a little ‘reverse evangelism’ present itself. These are for the most part polar questions (yes-no) which I have broken them into general philosophical categories. The words “On your view” can be inserted at the beginning of some questions, but given the context this may be redundant or even undesirable.
1. Does wishing make it so?
a) If I wish really hard, will that make what I wish for real? Why or why not?
b) If I believe something with all my might, will that make what I believe true?
c) If I pray fervently for something, will my prayers make it so?
d) If I meditate on something with full concentration, will my meditation make it come to pass?
e) If I command a mountain to cast itself into the sea (cf. Mt. 17:20), will that mountain obey me?
f) If I speak a sentence, will my speaking make that sentence true?
g) If I think a thought, will my thinking make that thought true?
h) If I imagine something, will my imagining it make it real?
The purpose of these questions should be clear to anyone familiar with the issue of metaphysical primacy. If the evangelist should hesitate to answer any of these questions without reservations, explain that they are all testable. For example, if he is unwilling to admit that praying fervently for something won’t make whatever is prayed for a reality, tell him that you’re willing to find the answer by means of experiment. If he doesn’t want to give it a try, ask if that’s because he doesn’t want to give prayer another chance to fail.
2. Is nature’s uniformity a result of some prior conscious activity? Or, is nature uniform independently of anyone’s conscious activity?
3. If everything that exists other than your god was created by your god, what was it aware of before it did any creating?
4. When I pick up a little pebble in my backyard, what specifically will I find in that pebble that tells me that it was created by an act of consciousness?
5. Do we discover knowledge of reality by looking outward at the realm of facts, or by looking inward to the contents of our imagination, wishing, feelings, and/or preferences?
6. How can I reliably distinguish between what you call “the supernatural” and what you may merely be imagining?
7. How exactly is faith distinct from believing what is merely imaginary?
8. Do you realize that, even if you present an argument for your god’s existence, I still have no alternative but to use my imagination to contemplate the god you claim to have proven by the time I get to your argument’s conclusion?
9. Specifically what convinces *you* that your religion is true, and how did it convince you?
10. What argument can you give for the existence of your god that does not ultimately reduce to “Duh, I donno, must be God did it!”?
11. Can you demonstrate that you are truly saved?
12. If your god wants me to believe that it is real and repent, why doesn’t it appear before me right here and now, just as it is said in the book of Acts to have done on behalf of Saul the persecutor?
13. Why would I be interested in your religion when it explicitly teaches (in Luke 14:26) that anyone who is to come to Jesus must hate his father, his mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters, even himself, while in fact I love myself and my family members?
14. If you make it to heaven and find that some of your loved ones did not make it, and must therefore be burning for all eternity in hell, how could you be happy and fulfilled knowing this?
15. If I am in fact expected to be truly selfless, why would I care if I’m not saved?
16. Can it ever be morally justified for a parent to turn his back on his child when his child is being beaten and tortured, even murdered? Yes or no?
If the evangelist says that this can in fact be morally justified, ask how he could back this and at the same time be against abortion, child rape, kidnapping, and the like.
If the evangelist says that this can never be morally justified, then explain why you could never worship the Christian god, even if you thought it truly did exist – as, given the gospel story, it’s an immoral monster.
17. Is there anything you would not be willing to sacrifice for Jesus?
18. If Jesus commanded you to kill someone, would you do it?
Perhaps you can discuss the problem of evil with the believer. Consider the following question:
19. In his book Always Ready (p. 172), Christian apologist Greg Bahnsen offers as the solution to the problem of evil the premise that “God has a morally sufficient reason for the evil which exists.” Bahnsen himself does not disclose what specifically this reason is or how we can determine that it is “morally sufficient.” Perhaps you can. Can you tell me what exactly that reason is, and explain why we should suppose that it is “morally sufficient”?
If you want to be more provocative, you can invoke examples like Solomon (cf. I Kings 3:5) and Joseph (cf. Mt. 1:20, 2:12-13, 19, 22) and respond to the evangelist’s answers and assertions with the question: “Was that revealed to you in a dream?” Indeed, if he’s not receiving revelations in the form of dreams, maybe he’s not really saved.
Here’s a suggestion: Jot some of these questions down on a piece of scrap paper and stick it in your wallet, your purse, your coat pocket – something that’s sure to be with you pretty much anywhere you go. If an evangelist approaches you and engages you in a missionizing conversation, tell him that you have a few questions of your own and pull the paper out. This by itself will likely make quite an impression, demonstrating that you’re ready to have the conversation – that you’ve in fact been waiting for just this kind of opportunity.
On the other hand, if you’re an evangelist yourself, feel free to give your answers to the above questions. We’d love to hear from you.
by Dawson Bethrick