I was talking with a missionary who spends his days having conversations about Jesus with college students. “I keep running into a roadblock,” he told me. “Students bring up Critical Theory to debunk Christianity, and I don’t know how to respond. What can I say?”
If you don’t already know, Critical Theory is a social theory that aims to critique, challenge, and change the norms of a society. It is heavily influenced by Marxist thought, blends sociology with philosophy, and attempts to deconstruct systems of (so-called) domination that contribute to the status quo (Source: thoughtco.com).
I’m sharing about this topic here because many of your students will be on college campuses in the next few years and the odds are good that they’ll encounter (and maybe even adopt) these views.
Like the missionary I was talking with, you might find that it’s difficult to have a conversation about religion with people who are entrenched in Critical Theory. The reason it’s so hard is that everything you say can be deconstructed, pulled apart and scrutinized until there’s nothing of substance left. That’s why the conversation stalls out and we’re left with only trivial pursuits to talk about.
Deconstrucing and Dismissing Ideas
Based on the work of Jacques Derrida, a French philosopher who was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche, deconstruction became fashionable on college campuses in the late 20th century. Now, everything you say and every claim you make can be deconstructed and dismissed because of your supposed vested interests. In case you’re wondering, these vested interests are typically said to revolve around money, power, and sex.
When ideas and ideals are so thoroughly deconstructed and there aren’t any resources available to reconstruct anything of value in their place, we shouldn’t be surprised when nihilism runs rampant. Nihilism is the view that knowledge is impossible, morals are baseless, and life is (inherently) meaningless. Perhaps you’ve noticed how prevalent this view is today.
A junior at the University of Illinois calls attention to his generation’s nearly wholesale adoption of nihilism and says that it’s a “healthy, … honest and often funny analysis of modern life. Ironic nihilism embraces hopelessness with humor instead of trying to cover it up” (Source: “Ironic Nihilism: Our Generation’s Best Creation“). In other words, we try to laugh about our situation to keep from crying about our situation.
Back to the college campus missionary…
So, let’s go back to the missionary, trying to talk about Jesus with non-Christian college students who have adopted Critical Theory as the lens through which they view the world. He’s getting nowhere in those conversations because his conversation partners have deconstructed his message and his motives.
If he’s actually going to be able to share his message, the first thing he has to do is disarm their desire to deconstruct his motives. How does that happen? I think it can happen in two primary ways.
First, we tend to trust people’s motives when their message has caused them to endure suffering. When people suffer for something, we notice. This is especially true when they have nothing to gain on the other side of the suffering. Suffering in that way increases a person’s credibility.
This is the situation that sets up the book of Job. Satan accuses Job of only worshipping God because God has blessed Job’s life. How would Job respond when those blessings were taken away? Would he disavow his faith?
In the story, Job loses everything but keeps his faith. At one point, Job’s wife even said, “Curse God and die.” But Job didn’t do that. He endured suffering and became an example of faith. Job’s motivation for maintaining his faith went beyond what he might gain because of it.
If you’re forced to endure suffering for what you believe, you will be more believable because of it. Few of us will have to endure suffering like Job, so the next way is more likely the path we will take.
The second way to get people to trust your motives is to build relationships. In their book, I Once Was Lost, Don Everts and Doug Schapp outline a concept they call the Five Thresholds of Faith. These are mile markers that a person typically passes on the way to becoming a Christian.
The first threshold that they identify is “Trusting a Christian.” That only happens when Christian people take the time to build relationships with non-Christian people. The reason that’s important for the missionary on the college campus is that it opens the way for people to give him the benefit of the doubt. Without trust, the conversation won’t go far.
Instead of his conversation partners immediately dismissing what he’s sharing and suspecting the worst about his motives, they will be more open about his ideas and trusting toward his motives.
When you have a relationship with someone, you are more inclined to trust them. You see their life and know what they’re about. You can tell if their motives are genuine or not. That doesn’t mean they’ll agree with everything you say; it just means they won’t immediately dismiss what you say as being laced with self-interest because they know you better than that.
When your motives are seen as genuine (which I’m assuming that they are, in fact, genuine), you’ll have an easier time sharing your message. What can you say? I think there are three things to focus on.
3 Tips for Sharing the Gospel with People Who See the World Differently Than You
1. Ask Questions
In Questioning Evangelism, Randy Newman suggests that there are many times when we should respond to people’s questions with questions rather than answers. This is a helpful idea, especially when the person you’re talking with doesn’t believe that Christian claims are even plausible. Asking questions of the people we’re talking with gives them a chance to share what they think. That can keep the tone of the conversation lighter and less combative.
Also, their answers will reveal the assumptions that are underneath their beliefs (i.e., their presuppositions). It’s important to highlight the fact that many of a person’s objections to Christianity actually require an act of faith on their part that they don’t typically think of as an act of faith. For example, as Tim Keller has pointed out, if someone says they don’t believe there’s only one true religion, they are making a claim based on a belief that can’t be proven scientifically.
2. Make Connections
In Acts 17:16-34, Paul has a conversation with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers. The approach he uses in the Jewish synagogues and with God-fearing Gentiles won’t work with these people because they have different presuppositions. So, Paul takes a different approach. He makes a connection to something that was accepted and valued in their culture and then pivots from there to introduce Christ.
We can do something similar when we talk with people about their desires for justice, joy, peace, and love. Most people in our culture think those are good things to strive for and aspire to. They elude us, however, because we are broken, not just on the outside but on the inside too. Half of the time, we don’t even live up to our ethical standards. The Bible offers a compelling, realistic account of our broken condition, as well as its remedy in Christ.
3. Offer Reasons
Questions and connections will only take the conversation so far. Eventually, you will have to offer reasons for why someone should actually believe your message. That’s what Paul does in Acts 17. He introduces his claims about God, points to Jesus’ resurrection as part of the rationale for his claim, and challenges people to respond with repentance.
The text reports, “When they heard Paul speak about the resurrection of the dead, some laughed in contempt, but others said, ‘We want to hear more about this later’” (Acts 17:32). Eventually, some of those people who wanted to keep the conversation going found that they believed Paul’s message about Jesus.
The same thing will happen when you keep engaging in these kinds of conversations. There are people who will be interested in hearing your reasons for believing what you believe. When that time comes, it will help to know what you’re talking about.
If you want to have spiritually productive conversations with people who are predisposed to question your motives, your best bet is to invest in building relationships with them and earning their trust. Express genuine interest in them. Ask non-judgmental questions about what they believe and why they believe what they do. Make connections between the things they value and the goodness of God. Offer reasons for the hope that you’ve found in Jesus.
It helps to give people the benefit of the doubt. If you were in their shoes, you might also believe the way they do today. Keep that in mind. Pray for them and keep asking God to give you opportunities to share the hope of the gospel with a hopeless generation. They might doubt your message, but don’t give them any reason to doubt your motives.
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