Even Before Pre-Evangelism: Get People to Think
From time to time, I get into discussions with people–mostly on line these days–that can become so frustrating. I have understood for a long time that people no longer share a common theistic foundation, a set of shared values based on the 10 Commandments, or even a sense of absolute reality or values. People have been encouraged to believe that all values are equivalent and that each may choose what he or she would like to believe. Of course, the reality of such a system of non-belief is that none are valid.
As a result, to bring a person to the point of considering faith in Jesus Christ, a person must first lay a foundation, something often called “pre-evangelism.” Where once it might have been enough simply to point out the Bible’s teaching, now it is necessary to make a case for the Bible’s worth and authority. Not so very long ago, you could discuss what God did or did not want or require on the basis that most people already believed in God; thus, the Apostle James could say, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” No more! The “modern mind” is filled with faith in science, rejects divine creation for evolution, and accepts that everything is relative.
I fear the problem, today, is worse than that. When I was taking a speech class in high school, the teacher urged us to begin to collect articles to which we might refer and cite as support for statements we would make in a speech, not unlike what a debater might do. As I was already set on a path into preaching, I always felt a bit guilty that I never did it. As time has passed, I realize that I’m simply not inclined to quote authorities much. Since I’ve become an active blogger, and with the resources of the Internet, I am now compiling articles and information, most of it related to data, facts that support a position, and a few reliable experts in areas where their knowledge and experience vastly exceed my own. I do often cite the Bible, as from God, the highest authority; I may also refer, on occasion to those who may shed light where my skills in Hebrew or Greek are insufficient. Even here, I am most likely to quote an English text as self-explanatory, or nearly so.
My Greek professor used to get really upset when he thought students were fishing for his opinion, his conclusions, without doing their own study and reflection. We got along well because I had come to the point where I didn’t really care what others thought. To put it another way, my beliefs and convictions were not based on a survey of authorities but my own study and reflection. Experts might illuminate or disagree; if no one took my position, I might be extra careful of my own work; but, in the end, if I was persuaded of a certain view being Biblical, I stuck with it, once even up against that same Greek professor!
Even though many now think that “society” is responsible, I believe I am ultimately responsible for myself–my thinking, my choices, and my influence on other people. Yes, I believe in sin, and so do you, whatever you call it. Very few people lack a conscience or a sense of right and wrong; we deem those who do as sociopaths or psychopaths. Premarital sex may be okay, but rape is wrong. It may be acceptable to kill an unborn infant, but beating a child to death is still considered abhorrent. We might be able to explain how an abused boy becomes a child abuser, but we still generally expect an adult child molester to be punished, harshly! Values without a moral authority make little rational sense, but we still have them. People just don’t think about it!
That is the more basic problem today; people don’t think. In fact, I fear that many no longer know how to think. In schools, which have become little more than propaganda factories, children and young people are told all manner of ideas as fact, unchallenged conclusions, the consensus of experts. Not only are they told what to believe, the system is designed to discourage students from questioning those ideas. By the time they are adults, they have embraced a socially acceptable set of ideas; even worse, they have become not only people who don’t think but people who don’t even know how to think. As a result, we have few intelligent discussions today; instead we have arguments. Indeed, we have nasty name-calling, angry confrontations in which anyone who dares to oppose the established consensus, the faith of the dominant culture, is lacking intelligence, socially backward, and morally inferior (ironic in this day of moral relativism!). The result is literally a clash of faiths, for what else could we call a set of ideas accepted without thought*? The failure to think and to reason is not only on one side; those who go to church, read the Bible, and say they follow its teachings often operate in the same unthinking, irrational manner. So the clash of faiths generates lots of heat but little light…and frequently!
One of my Sunday School teachers after college wrote these letters on the board: NETMA. It was an acronym for “Nobody ever tells me anything!” I never liked the phraseology, but I share the sentiment; I refuse to accept something simply because someone tells me to. Another old phrase we seem to hear less is “Question everything.” I’m not suggesting we be contrary, but I am saying we must challenge ideas for their validity. Asking good questions and really listening to the answers is a doubly worthwhile strategy; it show genuine interest in another person, and it encourages him or her to think about what they believe, as long as the questions aren’t “leading questions.”
I was just discussing school with a young college student who is finding community college too much like high school, for good reason. Community colleges have become remedial high schools for high schools that no longer get the job done. Around the country, others are suggesting free college for everyone, paid by the government, despite the fact that college is not necessary for all occupations nor suitable for every person. Personally I enjoy learning, but I would hate high school today and college, too, in most cases. The mind-numbing methodology has one purpose: to serve as a framework for indoctrination and a training environment for unquestioning, mindless acceptance of whatever students are told. In a land where once almost no one trusted the government, now it seems like nearly everyone does.
I could make a lengthy list of positions that people now accept blindly, even as they believe they can see plainly, and I will probably work that up later. For now, I want to suggest to Christians two things: first, to challenge our own lack of thinking and questioning, even of our own faith; second, to begin to think about how we can challenge others and retrain them to look beyond what they’ve been told to believe. You may be able to talk a person into coming to church; after all, each of us may “choose” what we want to believe. We need to do more than choose, so that people become true believers, convinced, and completely confident in their trust in God and in God himself. As Paul writes, “For this reason I also suffer these things; nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day. Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. That good thing which was committed to you, keep by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.” We will not effectively challenge another’s blind faith with blind, unthinking faith of our own; and, if we do not challenge others, then we Christians will surely become a more insular, ingrown group representing just another optional set of beliefs. By the way, that verse is worthy of a new song or an old song update.
Now I suspect, based on a few interactions I’ve had, that people will resist the challenge to think because, in a sad way, it is comfortable to follow the pack mindlessly. As the Bible teaches, people are sheep. We have so many things to keep us from thinking, and many of our interests are themselves conduits for the same set of notions that we are not to question. Breaking free is hard; thinking, questioning, and reasoning not only take effort but involve risk. Just as in Islam or Judaism, one may face the rejections of those left behind in the other faith, for believing nothing is itself a kind of religious faith.
I believe, nevertheless, that we have no choice. While the third world reels under the heavy hand of radical Islam, and pockets of the Communism still do their worst, the West is in danger of succumbing to mindlessness and self-centered apathy. Instead of seeking answers, many seek only pleasure, even as they secretly despair of worth or meaning. Alcohol, drugs, sex, and games provide anesthesia but not answers, especially since so many have been trained not to look for them. The amazing creative abilities designed into humans as bearers of God’s image are stifled and ignored, replaced by sensation of no lasting value. Few discover the satisfaction that comes from finding and solving problems. Fewer still are those who enjoy the delights of mental exercise, of pondering mysteries, and of coming to worthy conclusions to share with other thinkers. We were made for these things, and such mental pursuits offer great rewards, not the least of which is a meaningful sense of self-worth, one anchored in truth and not in often repeated encouragements to ego-building “self-esteem.”
In the end, our task is not just “simple” salvation, which is nothing of the kind. Instead, ours is the challenge of the redemption of the whole person–mind, soul, heart, and body–along with every other aspect of human nature you might name. We risk much if we start and end with the heart, as if nothing but feeling matters. I relish the kind of Christianity that was the life-blood of America’s founders, and I long to see the influence that once changed the world–with hospitals and orphanages, never before seen, with art and music that brought glory to God. I also pray for the day when, once again, mentally armed and disciplined believers step forward to debate the those who think to control our minds, not with mindless sounding aphorism and platitudes, but with well-reasoned arguments following upon questions that cannot be denied or ignored.
Well, what do you say? Or rather, what do you think?
*I have always been interested in apologetics. This is the study of the factual and rational basis of the Christian belief system. In other words, not all faith is unthinking, but far too much is, both inside and outside the Church.