Open-minded Evangelism

Here’s a concept I want to offer for your consideration; what if we stopped thinking of evangelism as me telling you about my beliefs, and starting thinking of evangelism as the two of us exploring truth together? Does that undermine the very essence of evangelism? Will that work? First off, why would we even consider doing evangelism like this?

The view from the other side

I used to think of evangelism as Christians telling others about Jesus. What was our purpose for telling people about Jesus? Obviously because we want them to accept his offer of grace and put their trust in him for life. They have only a glorious future of life fulfillment, freedom from guilt, and a magnificent afterlife to look forward to. Why wouldn’t they?

One reason they wouldn’t (there are many reasons!) is because of the proverbial price of admission. If they are not a Christian then they obviously have some other belief system. They might be Buddhist, Muslim, Atheist or any number of other worldviews. Or, they might not really care about any of this stuff anyway; they don’t think it is important. In order to accept Christ there is a critical first step that Christians rarely consider. They need to first let go of whatever they currently believe, even if their current belief is as simple as “these subjects aren’t really important in the first place.”

We tend to think that this change of belief systems is something that ought to excite them. After all, whatever they currently believe (insofar as it contradicts Christianity) is wrong, or as a bare minimum incomplete. Why wouldn’t they give it up? After all, we are telling them about Truth! We are introducing them to the God of the universe! Who wouldn’t be excited? In our enthusiasm we forget that they are fairly convinced the situation is the other way around; they are right and we are wrong. Christianity, insofar as it contradicts their beliefs, is wrong. This is part of the reason why they would naturally resist accepting Christ. Can you blame them?

Have you ever considered, for instance, that maybe those Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses that come to your door might feel the exact same frustration that you do when you refuse to join their church? Just as you cannot fathom how anybody would turn down Jesus’ offer, they cannot understand how you could possibly choose to turn down Joseph Smith or the Watchtower society. In other words, in the exact same way that you are reluctant to give up your cherished beliefs, so others are reluctant to give up theirs.

The need for an open mind

In order for a person to come to the conclusion that what she currently believes is wrong, she needs to first allow for the mere possibility that her beliefs are wrong. She needs an open mind. When she enters into the conversation she needs to consider that maybe, just maybe, the other person may have the real answers to life’s biggest questions. We are deeply hopeful that whoever we share Jesus with will have just this kind of open mind; a willingness to seriously consider his claims and ask whether those claims might be true and worthy of acceptance.

But what about you? You expect open-mindedness from others; will you return the favor?

This is dangerous ground, some might think. If we enter into evangelism with a mind that is open to the prospect that the other person is right and we are wrong then it is possible that we might reject Jesus and accept their views. Isn’t that kind of the opposite of what evangelism is supposed to be about? Yes, and that is a good thing! Hold that thought.

Here’s my suggestion; both people need to be open-minded. Both people need to consider the possibility that the other person is right and they are wrong. They need to examine the evidence with an objective set of eyes (as best as they can – nobody is perfectly unbiased) and both seek to discover the true nature of reality, whatever that looks like. This may not sound much like evangelism, but let’s consider the possibilities. On the one hand Christianity may be closest to truth. On the other hand, whatever they believe may be closest to truth (Islam, Hinduism, Paganism, etc).

Possible outcomes

Suppose Christianity is true. As you both explore it with an open-minded approach to the evidence, you will explore the person of Jesus, the reliability of the Bible, and so many other related subjects. If Christianity is true, you will (ideally) both come to the conclusion of its truth. At that point they will have to decide how they are going to respond to Christ. Let me ask you; how is the end result any different from evangelism, traditionally understood? In the end you presented Jesus to them with the hopes that they would accept him. The part in the middle was different, but the end was the same.

What about the alternative; Christianity is false? In this case you would both examine the evidence and come to the conclusion that their views are closer to the truth than your own. Scary prospect? It probably is, but they are quite likely scared of the exact same outcome with respect to their views. If you expect them to enter “dangerous territory” why would you refuse to do the same? They should seriously consider Jesus but you will not consider their perspective? Hypocrite!

In the end either Christianity is true or it is not. If it is, then this approach will produce precisely the same end result as evangelism done the old-fashioned way. If it is false, wouldn’t you want to know? I would rather believe what is true than what is false, even if it means abandoning some of what I happen to believe right now (scary as that is).

So I guess this raises two questions. Are you deeply convinced that Christianity is actually true? Then you have nothing to fear from anything I have suggested. Engage in open-minded evangelism rather than simply throwing your views at the other person without any intention of listening to their views. Have a dialogue instead of a monologue. Believe me when I say that most people are far more willing to open their mind if they believe you are doing the same. They will believe it only if you really do it (no faking it!).

Second question, which is more important to you; that other people accept your beliefs or that your beliefs are actually true? Personally, my vote is for the latter. Open-minded evangelism is more likely to lead you both to the truth in the end; a worthwhile goal in my mind, wherever the truth may lie. I happen to believe (fairly strongly in fact) that the Truth lies with Jesus of Nazareth – God incarnate, raised from the dead – but I need to keep my mind open to correction. While I have spent years examining evidence on all sides of the discussion, and done so with as open a mind as I can, I must continually remain open to the possibility that I have missed something important that somebody else might introduce me to.

This is probably one of the more controversial ideas I included in Arguing with Friends and posted here at my blog. Please, drop me a quick note with your thoughts. Agree? Disagree? I want to hear from you. Thanks.

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7 thoughts on “Open-minded Evangelism

  1. Some great thoughts! I was dragged into apologetics because of an atheist that challenged my worldview and the statements I made about it. He questioned my beliefs and I found that I didn’t have a good basis for believing many of the things I argued. His questions led me to better understand my own faith and more precisely define it. I feel that the beliefs that have emerged from that search are defensible and reasonable. Have I lost some of the beliefs I previously held? Yes, surely. But I believe that the vine benefits from the pruning and the branches left are better able to support new growth! If our faith can withstand our own scrutiny, then why would someone else accept it?

    • Thanks so much for your feedback. Like you, I lost some of my unBiblical beliefs about the afterlife from my discussions with Mormons. Now, I certainly do not accept Mormonism, just as you do not accept Atheism, but the process of having others challenge your beliefs, and then openly examining those beliefs yourself, surely is a growing experience. I think you worded it so well, “the vine benefits from the pruning and the branches left are better able to support new growth.”

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

  2. Interesting article, but it seems strange not to have included any biblical references whatsoever in a post about evangelistic methodology. Do you think there’s good biblical warrant for this position? Do you think it’s unjustified and/or morally suspect to tell someone the Gospel without trying to assess it from a ‘neutral’ perspective in considering other (world)views?

    • Great question! It seems the warrant for this is more basic than the Bible (though consistent with it). It seems to me that every thinking human should feel two distinct forces in their thought life; on the one hand they should be on a search for truth and on the other hand they probably already believe they have found it, or at least part of it. Newsboys have a great line in one of their songs, “To have found you and still be looking for you is the soul’s paradox of love.” Same concept here. On the one hand we want to share the truth we have discovered (the Gospel) but on the other hand we need to allow that sharing to be within the context of a mutually respectful conversation that allows for the possibility that the “truth” we are sharing is false. We are pulled in two directions, but I think that’s how it needs to be. I’m not sure about the moral dimension you mention; I’ll have to consider that further.

      In terms of Biblical precedent it seems to me God has always been quite open to allowing his claim to supremecy to be put to the test. 1 King 18 describes how Elijah put forth a perfectly even-handed “test” to see which deity was truly supreme. If the prophets of Baal had been able to deliver then that entire test would have backfired. In the New Testament I’ve always been impressed with Paul presentation to the Athenians in Acts 17 (starting in verse 22) where he gives them an overview of the Gospel message starting from within their own philosophical traditions. In fact, the name of Jesus doesn’t even come up! In this case he is sharing the message of Christ while implicitly giving their own perspective a fair hearing; they would have had ample opportunity to respond and challenge him. Lastly, in 1 Cor 15 Paul reminds us, more than once, that if the facts of history are not on our side (Jesus’ resurrection didn’t happen) then our entire faith is futile. He is opening the door for the consideration of competing worldviews while proclaiming is confidence in Christ.

      I think there is adequate Biblical warrant for this view, and I feel it is also fundamentally human. I hope this answers your question. Please feel free to push back if you disagree.

      Thanks for coming by and commenting!

  3. An interesting post! This part stood out to me. “They need to first let go of whatever they currently believe, …”

    I think this is a key point. For many of us, our beliefs aren’t just external, arbitrary things. They are formed through years of experience and cultural influences. Even for those who hold their beliefs by default, because that’s how they are raised, these beliefs can often define who they are – and these do not have to be religious beliefs, either.

    With this in mind, there is great resistance to having someone come out and tell you, “your beliefs are wrong,” because what is really being said is “you and everything that makes you YOU are wrong.” Even when the evidence becomes undeniable that a belief we hold *is* wrong, it can be a very psychologically painful shift, not only within our hearts and minds, but externally, in our social world. Typically, everyone around us knows our position, and we usually surround ourselves with people who hold positions that are at least similar to our own. If we admit we are wrong, we have to not only face ourselves, but those around us, and that can often be harder than admiting it to ourselves. There are issues of pride and shame, while having to stand up to our former peers who are unlikely to understand what we’re going through, nor are they likely to be supportive. When it comes to religious beliefs, those peers are more likely to attack us for that change.

    When that shift finally happens and our beliefs change, we are forced to let go of something that is a very tangible part of ourselves; something that may have defined us for most of our lives. We have to face those around us who do not understand that shift as well. There is a significant loss that is experienced. Yes, there is something to gain when we discover the truth, but it can be harder to release a comfortable lie than embrace the truth. It’s like dying to our former selves, and that is something that can require a grieving process. We also have to face the onslaught of our former peers, and the loss of relationships that have been important to us. That is a lot to give up.

    • Those are some good thoughts, Kunoichi. Part of the inspiration behind this article stemmed from the idea that we ought to take the first step down that “dangerous” path. We ought to seriously consider the possibility that our beliefs – our cherished, defining, sometimes even the life-long beliefs – may be wrong. If we are unwilling to even entertain that possibility then I see no reason why anybody else would either. Then we are not talking with each other, but at each other.

      How much easier would these kind of worldview conversations go between people if everybody learned to loosen the grip, even just a little bit, on their most foundational beliefs? May we role-model this attitude!

      (P.S. I know I don’t always role-model this, but I try! Nobody is perfect…)

  4. Sorry I’m late in this conversation. I only came across this post today, and felt it was still worthwhile to comment on.

    If one must actively proselyte, I think this is a very good approach. Some cautions though. The idea of being open-minded for the sake of evangelism smacks of an ulterior motive. People aren’t stupid; if you come off as giving the appearance of being open-minded when you really aren’t, the other person will shut you down. Granted, you argue that one should be really open-minded and accept the dangers thereof. You deserve a lot of praise for that. However, most people will need to examine themselves very carefully first before attempting this method.

    You haven’t said much in this post about what being truly open-minded means in the practice of having one’s discussion. Have you already done a post on that topic?

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