If you missed earlier posts in this series, “Truth & Love: Communicating Gospel Truth In Speech & Action,” you can find them here: “Truth & Love Communication Series”.
For today’s post we asked Brad Peppo to write on an intriguing topic: What do you do if you are the only Christian in the room? Brad is an OPC pastor and church planter in Dayton, OH, and has spent quite a bit of time in his life and ministry engaging groups of skeptics–sometimes at campus events, sometimes around a campfire in his backyard. Brad has an interesting take on being in this situation. Here’s Brad:
The Only Christian in the Room
Fezzik : I just figured why you give me so much trouble.
Westley : Why is that…do you think?
Fezzik : Well, I haven’t fought one person for so long. I’ve been specializing in groups, battling gangs for local charities, that kind of thing.
Westley : Why should that make such a…difference?
Fezzik : Well, you see, you use different moves when you’re fighting…half a dozen people, than when you only…have to be worried…about one.
~The Princess Bride
As I reflect upon my apologetic experiences over the past few years, I realize that my preferred approach is similar to that expressed in the movie Princess Bride by Fezzik the Giant in his hand-to hand contest with the man in black. I confess that I find myself much more comfortable to engage in Gospel discussion with a larger group of unbelievers rather than with a single unbeliever, and on my own rather than with other Christians. I’ll also confess that some of my reasons for this preference are not the greatest. Being the only Christian in the room, I find, prevents me from having to defend the faith while simultaneously having to worry about undoing the damage done by the unhelpful arguments or attitudes of well-meaning Christians who are trying to assist me. Ironically, however, going it alone also allows me to operate without the fear that my own efforts are being judged by other Christians as being insufficiently VanTilian or as being deficient in some other way. As I said, not the greatest reasons.
As I’ve taken this approach over the years, however, I’ve also come to see some more legitimate benefits of going solo with a larger group, benefits having less to do with my own judgmental attitudes and fragile pride, and having more to do with the advantages presented by the particular nature of those kinds of encounters. Considering these advantages has led me to conclude that, while certainly not the only or the best approach in every circumstance, single engagement with multiple unbelievers is certainly an approach that can be fruitful. And so, I continue to be on the lookout for opportunities to participate in skeptic gatherings or other venues where folks have gathered for discussion in which I’m likely to be the only one operating from a Christian worldview.
There are a number of benefits I’ve seen in “Fezzik-style” apologetic encounters, but the primary one is the way that a solo appearance tends to encourage the group to give you a hearing. People naturally seem favorably disposed toward an underdog, and to have a Christian willingly offer to engage in discussion while outnumbered by potential hostiles makes them more willing to at least listen to what you have to say. But usually, it goes even further. I’ve almost always found that appearing by myself to engage in such circumstances makes the people much more inquisitive than they would otherwise be. Often such encounters turn entirely into extensive Q&A sessions about the Christian faith. And sometimes, because of the comfortability that comes from being part of the majority, questions are asked even by people who in other circumstances might not be willing to speak up.
There are a few things I’ve learned from these one-on-many encounters that might help others maximize their effectiveness. Some of these principles are also more generally applicable to any kind of apologetic encounter. First, I find it helpful to be very up front about my intention in starting such conversations. I don’t want to engage on false pretenses. Usually I’ll let them know that I’m a Christian minister who enjoys talking about my faith with thinking unbelievers and ask them if they mind whether I join the conversation. Similarly, if I’m joining a group that has gathered for some other purpose or to discuss some other topic, I try not to co-opt or monopolize the discussion. What I usually find, however, is that the mere presence of a self-declared believer in such an environment is enough to get the unbelievers themselves to direct the discussion toward spiritual matters.
Because such conversations, in my experience, tend to turn into unstructured if somewhat extensive question and answer sessions, my general practice is to ask at the beginning if I can start with a brief summary of what I believe, which opportunity I use to give as succinct an explanation of the Gospel as I’m able. This is to ensure that wherever else the conversations go, and they really can go anywhere, the Gospel has been clearly presented at the beginning and doesn’t get lost in all the subsequent rabbit trails. Doing this, of course, requires us to have a strong and concise summary of the Gospel at the ready. This is probably the most important thing to have practiced beforehand.
Once the questions start firing, I also try to give priority to those that are most fundamentally connected with the Gospel. For example, If given the choice between questions about original sin and Evangelical politics, I would try to steer the conversation more to the former. On the other hand, if it’s clear that the questioners are really hung up on something less directly related to the Gospel, say the Bible’s teaching on gender or race, I think it’s better to go with the flow.
The really important thing is not to dodge questions or give evasive answers out of the fear of giving offense. Often, it seems unbelievers already know the answer to a particular question (e.g. Does the Bible teach salvation to be exclusively in Christ?) and are only asking it to see how plainly you’ll answer. I’ve always found groups like this to appreciate directness, even when they’re vehemently opposed to the Bible’s answers. And those who are asking questions in an effort to back you into a corner just to make you uncomfortable can be disarmed by a frank profession of the truth.
Frankness also seems to be the best spirit in which to respond to questions to which you don’t know the answer (e.g. the precise relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will) or questions to which the answers are emotionally difficult (e.g. God’s hardening some for eternal punishment). It is perfectly consistent with Biblical teaching to acknowledge that there are some truths about God that are beyond our understanding (Rom. 11:33), and some truths about God that rightly cause us sorrow and even anguish (Rom. 9:2).
Another thing I’ve found important is not to take personal offense when ridiculed. From time to time a group like this will have one or two members whose chief delight in such conversations is in seeing how upset they can make the believer. On the internet, we call such folks trolls; in person, I suppose we could call them provocateurs, folks that really get a kick out of stirring up angry reactions. I’ve discovered that the best way to interact with such folks is simply not to give them the reaction they’re hoping for. When every jab and barb and insult is met with a polite smile and a reasonable answer, provocateurs get bored and usually drop out of the conversation altogether. I’ve even been in situations where troll-control measures are implemented by other members of the unbelieving group. In any case, your gentle and respectful demeanor, even under intense fire, can go a long way in adorning the Gospel for those who are listening.
One final word on these kinds of encounters: don’t be discouraged if they don’t seem to go well. Perhaps the personal highlight of my apologetic career was an encounter upon which my then twelve- year-old son commented, “I felt like I was like watching Batman beat up a gang of thugs.” Yeah, I’ll confess, that felt pretty good. But some day you’re the hammer, as the saying goes, and some days you’re the nail. And I’ll admit, that more often than not, I leave these discussions feeling like the nail. Maybe I wasn’t able to elicit the interest and the questions I’d hoped for. Maybe I’ve done poorly answering the questions that were asked. Maybe I just left with a general sense of inadequacy. But many times, I’ve found out afterwards, those encounters where I felt where I’d taken the worst beatings were those that made more of an impression on the participants. But of course, this is what the word of Christ would lead us to expect. We serve a Savior who triumphed through suffering, who exerted incomparable strength through what looked like laughable weakness. And he often calls us to triumph through the same path (1 Peter 4:1). And so, again, take courage, even when you’re confronted with your own weakness. It’s then, at our weakest, the Scriptures tell us, that we are truly the strongest (2 Cor. 12:10).