Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. –
Matthew 28: 19-20
The Lord answers prayers in the most curious ways as was recently shown me as I found myself having a philosophical debate with a stranger at two in the morning.
After making a small comment about God, this stranger told me that he was agnostic, if not atheist, and I could imagine the Lord laughing at me up in heaven. This was what I had been praying for, so I took full advantage of my new friend’s openness and asked as many questions as I could think.
My intentions with my research and this conversation as a whole were to grasp a deeper understanding of agnostic and atheist beliefs, so that I could be prepared to minister to a non-believer in the future or help somebody else do the same.
As Christians, we are called to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt.28:19-20). It is the epitome of the instructions the Lord gave to us and our primary duty while on earth. However, too often we confine ourselves to make disciples of our own nation, limiting ourselves to the small circle of Christianity with which we are familiar. While this is certainly not the case for all believers, it has become a consistent issue among far too many, including myself.
Growing up in the Bible Belt of the south, attending a Christian school, and visiting church biweekly, I have always been surrounded by like-minded believers. My exposure to those who openly refuse the Gospel, or who are unaware of Christ, has been limited at best and is practically non-existent. While I have always seen this as a blessing, a fortress sheltering me from the corruption of a godless world, the Lord has recently opened my eyes and shown me that my shelter is less of a shade tree and more of a storm cellar, keeping me ignorant of the world around me and leaving me with a heavy question. How can I introduce people to God if I only discuss Him with those who are already familiar with the gospel?
The honest answer to this question is that there is no answer. I cannot speak Truth to non-believers by speaking truth to my small circle of believers because my circle will only continue to dwindle. However, I have recently learned that the more willing to listen, I become the more willing I am to speak about God becomes. He has recently presented me with countless opportunities to examine the philosophies of non-believers to prepare myself to minister in the future.
But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. – 1 Peter 3:15
It is for this reason that I jumped head first into research about atheism, looking to understand all outlets of unbelief.
The most consistent issue with Christian faith that I have come across in my readings is the idea of a Christian superiority complex that is rooted in pride. I discovered several reddit threads saying that Christianity was selfish and looked down on non-believers. There were comments such as the issue with Christianity is “claiming humility while bragging that you’re in telepathic communication with the creator of the universe” or saying that Christians thank God when tragedy strikes someone else because, as a result, they escape it themselves (Reddit).
Being raised in the Christian mindset, I am unable to respond objectively to these comments, so I asked this agnostic stranger for his opinion on my findings. This friend told me that the pride issue goes both ways, and is not necessarily tied to Christianity itself, but rather religion as a whole. He said that Christian pride is less of an “I am better than you” mindset and more along the lines of “I feel bad for you because you do not share my faith”.
This approach not only emphasizes the separation of religious and non-religious individuals, but actually encourages the segregation by belittling the non-believer into a place where they are even less willing to explore faith. On the other end of the spectrum, the non-believers are suffering from a pride issue as well. My agnostic friend presented it to me in this way: when you do not believe in a higher power, you are the highest power in your own life. Therefore, when it is illuminated that there is a greater being, it is like saying that you, the non-believer, are lesser. Since no one enjoys being demoted, this is a hard pill to swallow. Furthermore, the entirety of their belief system would be changed, and the foundation they had paved for themselves would crumble under the weight of faith. This is enough to make a person want to reject the Gospel, especially partnered with the idea that their actions may be in direct opposition to what is right according to the Word.
Due to these factors, effectively communicating among mixed beliefs becomes even more difficult. To confess an unwanted opinion to any individual of any belief, the ideas must be introduced delicately, with gentleness and respect, as 1 Peter says, especially when the belief carries as heavy a significance as eternal salvation. From my research, I have deduced three fatal flaws in the process of sharing our faith.
Pride Corrupts Perception
The first is the idea of pride: being prideful and believing in self-righteousness directly translates to looking down on someone in disagreement. Going into any conversation with preconceived ideas of another person’s character based on their beliefs is a sure-fire way to deteriorate the discussion before it even begins. Instead, what we must do is pray and ask God that we are gentle and considerate in our words, and we must also establish a level of respect as the base layer of the relationship.
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. – Colossians 4:6
For example, if you were to meet an agnostic believer and wanted to commit to a conversation about the Lord, it would be appropriate to first acknowledge to yourself that you are not God and cannot change the hearts of men. What you can do, however, is be His voice for a moment and speak His unbiased truth, evading incorporating your own. After all, Christ died for all people, not just those who believe; God loves His children even if they do not love Him in return. Furthermore, it is easy for pride to cloud our judgment and make us question why an individual would be hesitant to accept faith at all. We often assume they are either ignorant of the Truth and will convert by purely hearing the good news, or that they have evil in their hearts and therefore refuse the Gospel. Having these initial thoughts of ignorance or corruption further fuel religious pride and make it that much more difficult to effectively communicate God’s word.
Forced Faith is not True Belief
The second flaw is that of forcing one’s spirituality onto someone else. Real, unfiltered faith is a personal and intimate concept. It cannot be transferred by force, but rather accepted by diligence and thorough teachings. I do confess that sometimes repetition can be effective in bringing an individual into a church, but when presenting the idea of faith to someone who is unfamiliar, hounding only turns them off more. Rather, we ought to lay out the facts and theology of Christ and pray that the individual comes to accept faith in their own time. The key to this process is to find common ground with the non-believer to ignite a spark that can lead to a flame of faith. This is easier said than done and may seem virtually impossible because as Christians we are taught that our identity is in Christ as we die to Him.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatians 2:20
Since we find our identity in God, how are we supposed to find commonalities with the godless? This is where personal preference comes in: yes, we are part of the body of Christ, but God did make us all unique from each other with different gifts and tastes. Despite the fundamental differences in spirit, there are surface level agreements that can be shared. Plus, going a step further, there may be a common agreement in believing in good and evil, even if the non-believer does not state it to be of, or not of, God. Once we find common ground, we can convey our opposing views in a manner that communicates safety and comfort.
There is No Cookie-Cutter Christian
The third issue with miscommunicated disciple-making is the divide between religion and spirituality because they are often confined into a single thought despite being radically different. Speaking to my agnostic friend about church, I discovered that he has learned by example. So what happens when the portrayed examples show the worst part of the church? The idea that you have to verbally confess your sins to a priest or the thought of a checklist of Christian values to mark off, cannot embody the grandiosity to faith itself. This idea of tasks to gain glory is not limited to Christianity, and in fact, is actually excluded by Christianity alone. Christianity is the only religion in which you are born into grace, and do not have to earn your position, as Philippians 3:20 quotes, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ”. However, the Word is often taken out of context, and creates the illusion of moral high ground. Since the Church is made up of people and people are sinners, it is easy for corruption to enter into a place of sanctity and discourage true peace among opposition. Therefore, it would be easy for someone who is unfamiliar with the Bible to view salvation as something that is granted to the “most holy” or most godlike people.
Christian faith is believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died on a cross to save us from paying the price of our sins. Religion is a way to categorize that faith and to make it fit certain preferences. For example, I grew up in the Church of Christ and there was never an instrument played in the church; however, I am now Baptist and love to worship with a guitar. This does not mean that I changed my core beliefs or that one of these denominations is wrong. Religion is important and church is vital, but real belief must be at the center of it all. We must truly commit to God Himself rather than how we think we ought to praise to Him. The idea of religion can be overwhelming and exclusive to non-believers, which is the opposite of how God calls us to be.
While the barriers between faith and disbelief cast a daunting shadow on disciple making, we are not left hopeless and we can still press on to share the good news among all nations. The Great Commission is our greatest mission. We must take action, bearing in mind that true faith takes practice and patience because our relationship with the Lord is a real relationship and will suffer if it is not tended to. Atheists are not in communication with the Lord, so they neglect their relationship and it consequently suffers. As said in James 2:3, “You do not have because you do not ask God”, we must keep this verse on our hearts as we attempt to do the work of God and bring others to Him. Using prayer and Scripture, fervently working on our own faith, we will be successful in our missions to go and make disciples of all nations.
“r/Atheism.” Reddit, www.reddit.com/r/atheism/.
Holy Bible: New International Version. Zondervan, 2005.