Every once in a while, it’s good to ask yourself, “When was the last time I had a real conversation with someone who doesn’t believe in God? Do I even know anyone like that?”
The reality is that people of no religious belief are one of the fastest-growing segments of the population. They’re also just the sort of people Jesus engaged.
With this in mind, our church began to contemplate how we could connect with people who would never set foot in a church on Sunday morning. We decided we had to go where people were already hanging out. So a year and a half ago, on an October Thursday evening, we started a conversation group called “Pub Theology.”
We had cleared the plan with the owner of a local brewery and put up a few posters, but we weren’t really sure what to expect. More than 15 people showed up that first night, and we’ve rarely missed a Thursday since.
In many ways we’ve connected with the crowd we set out to meet: people who have left the church but consider themselves “spiritual” individuals who believe in an undefined higher power, atheists, Buddhists, and others. It’s an open environment: there are no presentations or lectures, just good talk over a good brew.
Fertile Ground and a Safe Place
One of Pub Theology’s regular attenders, Steve, is an atheist. He loves coming because it’s the first time he’s met Christians who are willing to admit they don’t know it all. “If more Christians were like this, I would be much more open toward people of faith,” he said to me. Many of the Christians who attended Pub Theology have said the same thing about people of unbelief. That is a healthy development. It opens the door to meaningful relationships that can become fertile ground where the gospel can be seen, experienced, and shared.
Rebecca, a former Christian who openly declares her lack of belief in God, noted that Pub Theology feels like a “safe place” to talk about matters of faith. She also says she never senses a tone of condescension. “So often you try to talk to people about this stuff and it’s clear they feel superior to you and are less than subtle about their underlying agenda to convert you to their position,” she said.
Hanging out at the pub this past year has taught me that I have a lot to learn from people who think differently than I do. One of the unfortunate tendencies of Christians, myself included, is to surround ourselves only with people who think like us. This limits our own ability to think, to learn, to ask questions, to grow. It’s hard to be objective about something when you’ve never heard another perspective. It’s also easy to start thinking that you’ve got all the answers. Or that your answers are the best answers. Or that you need to talk with non-Christians only so you can “tell them how it is.”
Certainly we should be enthusiastic about what we believe and desire to share those beliefs with others, but we are shortsighted and ignorant if we think we’ve got the whole world figured out. Not to mention that few people enjoy talking with someone who thinks he or she has all the answers; the conversation tends to be a bit one-sided.
Persuading by Love
Often in encounters with people of different beliefs, Christians end up using oversimplified arguments in an aggressive way. In other words, we attempt to persuade someone by the cold facts, rather than by love and by reliance on the Holy Spirit.
In opposition to this, consider the apostle Paul: “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. . . . My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:1-5).
Consider also the approach Jesus took. Rarely do we see him engaging in arguments about God’s existence or even attempting to prove who he was through his miracles. In fact, many times Jesus’ miracles were for a different purpose: to bring healing. And often when someone wanted to tell everyone else about it, Jesus told that person to keep quiet.
Peter Rollins, in his book How (Not) to Speak of God, elaborates: “Instead of offering a scientific explanation that would convince, or publicizing the miracles so as to compel his listeners, Jesus engaged in a poetic discourse that spoke to the heart of those who would listen. In a world where people believe they are not hungry, we must not offer food but rather an aroma that helps them desire the food that we cannot provide.”
In our gatherings at the pub, we’ve had evenings where some well-intentioned Christians have shown up armed with Bibles, tracts, and pamphlets. Their agendas are written on their sleeves, and the conversations in these instances rarely go well. (Mis)treating people as the objects of evangelism has negative effects on them and on us: others can sense when we aren’t listening or aren’t taking their beliefs seriously. They are repelled by that, and we miss opportunities to learn something or to befriend someone when we open our mouths and not our ears.
Encounters with people of different beliefs will, for many Christians, be eye-opening, difficult, and challenging, perhaps requiring us to critically examine long- and deeply-held beliefs. To participate honestly and lovingly is to open yourself up to sometimes scary doubts. If you choose to do this, prayerful preparation may be required.
These interactions definitely come with unexpected blessings as well. Sitting at the table with agnostics, atheists, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Muslims, Buddhists, and others has broadened my own perspective in a healthy way. I’ve learned things about other faith traditions, other ways of seeing the world. I’ve been forced to examine the things I believe and the things I take for granted. This is a good and healthy thing.
I’ve also learned that Christians aren’t the only people who want good things to happen in the world. While people of different belief systems may have different motivations for doing good, we can often agree on far more than we think. Even though people of non-belief are one of the fastest-growing elements of the population, we should not fear that statistic. Rather, we should see it as an opportunity to meet someone who sees the world differently yet often cares for it equally.
Today, when believers are portrayed as “delusional” and atheists caricatured as “evil,” we need more than ever to sit at the same table, ready to learn. When that happens, I can’t help but think that a little leaven of God’s kingdom mixes through the dough.
This article originally appeared in The Banner entitled How (Not) to Talk about God.