By Bob Hiller –
The madness has arrived! As you read this, sixty-four of the nation’s best college basketball teams are playing in the most exciting tournament the American sports calendar has to offer. One of the best parts of the NCAA College basketball tournament is filling out a bracket with friends and co-workers and betting on who will pick the most winners. Though we are not gambling on it, a bunch of folks from my congregation have a pool going. Upon writing this blog, I am in the midst of filling out my bracket to win bragging rights for the year. There is just one problem: I haven’t got a single clue about any of these teams!
See, March Madness is the most exciting tournament in sports, but unless you have a real rooting interest during the regular season, college basketball is not that thrilling. There are too many teams, and unless the game is between major rivals, my interest isn’t really captured. This year, like every year, I am coming into my bracket blindly. Like most people who are filling this thing out, I have no idea which teams have the best chance to pull an upset, win a few rounds, or take the tournament.
Nonetheless, I am going to fill this thing out like a boss! I’m going to look at a few articles and examine some expert advice so I can sound like I know what I’m talking about around the office. I am going to do a great job faking it. I am going to get frustrated when my teams lose. And in the end, I’m going to get killed! I simply haven’t paid enough attention to the actual games this year to know what I am talking about.
It struck me this week that we Christians act in a similar way when it comes to talking about our faith to people who don’t believe. Or worse, I fear, this is how we pastors equip the saints to do the work of evangelism. Let me explain. In a conversation with a few pastors some time back, one of the brothers wished we had some resources that could give our folks quick answers to difficult questions. “It would be great if we had someone who could give a five-minute video on how to answer tough questions on things like why there is suffering in the world of a good God.”
Now, I don’t decry this request in the least. I think it would be wonderful if we could have some resource out there that equipped congregations to confidently engage in the hard questions people are asking. I’m sure there are some great resources out there (feel free to share them in the comments below!). But what strikes me about the comment is that this pastor (and I along with him) are coming at hard questions like I come at my March Madness bracket. That is, we think if we can just read a few articles and listen to a few experts, we are going to have all we need to answer the difficult questions only to get mad when people don’t convert on the spot. The problem is (to overuse my metaphor) that there is a whole season behind the question we are getting. The person with whom we are engaging, the person with the hard question, has that question for a reason. And, a short and easy answer that you learned from some expert is not going to cut it with a person who has been agonizing over a tough question due to tough circumstances. These conversations require a lot more work than a five-minute easy answer video.
I have a couple thoughts on this. First, Dr. Robert Kolb always told us in seminary that when difficult questions (or even the questions that we think are the easy ones) arise, we must reply with to their question with another question: Why do you want to know? “Why would a good God allow for evil?” “Why do you want to know?” Asking this question is going to give you much more insight and a clearer path forward when engaging anyone in a conversation about God, unbelief, doubt, etc.
Second, in paging through Tim Keller’s book Preaching, I was struck (like, punched-in-the-gut struck) by this paragraph:
Christian communicators must show that they remember (or at least understand) very well what it is like not to believe, all the while maintaining that it is possible to come to real assurance of God’s reality and love. They must do this by expressing these doubts and objections with appreciation and respect, in a coherent form, showing that they listened long and hard to them. You cannot fake this; it can come only from spending lots of face time with people who don’t believe, as well as from reading the best sources critiquing Christianity. We must be willing to listen so long and well to their questions, concerns, and hopes that when we do speak, we are so well attuned to their views that they feel the force of our appeals and arguments. (Tim Keller, Preaching, pg. 110)
In other words, thirty minutes on an ESPN blog isn’t going to equip you to win your office pool. Figuring out why people object to Christianity before giving them answers to questions they aren’t even asking, listening long and hard to their positions, becoming an expert on the best or most popular criticisms, and frankly, becoming an expert on your neighbor who objects are all far more important that having a few stock answers to the faith-shattering struggles in people’s lives. This isn’t to say that you won’t have the quick airplane chat from time to time, but it is to say that the apologetic task requires work.
I don’t want to make this sound more intimidating than it is, but people have legitimate difficult questions. This is hard, wonderful work. We aren’t talking about something as superfluous as the NCAA tournament here. We’re talking about spreading the Gospel. And if you truly love the people you are talking to, you will take their questions and objections seriously because you take them seriously. More to the point, you take the Lord Jesus seriously. It is time to pay attention so we know what we are talking about!
(If you want a great place to start engaging this sort of stuff, let me recommend the podcast our homies Scott and Caleb Keith put together called the Thinking Fellows. Those guys just finished a great series on apologetics that will teach you, among other things, how to thoughtfully engage real questions. Check it out.)