I've known several people that have tried to engage in apologetics ministries because they love to win a debate. Many of the most revered debaters are those who make their opponents look foolish. Though that might win the day, it doesn't win the heart.
A few years ago, I started engaging in some attempts at apologetics. I named this branch of our ministry, “Questions From Atheists.” We produced a few videos about Jesus that went viral, receiving around three million views. This brought in a tanker load of comments from angry atheists and defensive Christians. The comment wars that we watched on our own social media streams were sickening. They weren’t winning anyone. I struggled with trying to decide how to engage with the people who commented.
At that time, I developed a personal policy. It was simple. I would be kind and interested, no matter what the person said. This was not easy, considering that for months I woke every morning to comments full of profanity directed at me. Not all were angry, but much of the interaction began with such vitriol that it was difficult to keep my cool.
I did my best to operate in a different way from everything else I've seen online. When someone was aggressive, I would be passive. When someone told me why I was wrong, I would listen with real interest asking questions, and thanking them for their input. When someone cussed me out, I'd respond calmly, often with self-deprecating humor, agreeing with whatever epithet they used against me. I would do my best to only restate my perspective when they asked or when the conversation called for it.
This got the notice of a few atheists. A handful of unbelievers reached out to me. They commented on how different my approach was to most apologetics ministries. Often they had been insulted by would-be evangelists. My goal with these unbelievers was not to force them into the faith but to offer real friendship. Obviously, I hoped they would eventually become believers, but I knew I couldn't make them. Even Jesus ran into a lot of people who simply refused to believe. Once when talking to some Pharisees, he said:
You refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:40 ESV)
Have you ever met a salesman who is nice until he realizes that you're not going to buy anything? I didn't want to be like that. There are some who will flat out refuse to buy what we're selling, but that doesn't excuse us from doing our part. I continued to offer friendship to those who didn't want Jesus. Obviously, there is a limit to the relationship, but for my part, I want to be as friendly as possible.
Even though I no longer do anything under the title “Questions From Atheists,” to this day I still maintain friendships with a number of atheists whom I met at that time. It's not because my apologetic was better than anyone else's, but because good manners and kind words invited them to be my friends. They know where I stand on the faith issue, and I know where they stand on the non-faith issue. None the less, they still like to talk from time to time. I recently got this note from an atheist friend.
I see your online live-streams every once in a while, but usually, don't comment because I don't want to look like the weird atheist that watches Lucas' religious live-streams. It seems like that stuff is going well for you, and I hope you and your family and congregation are all healthy.
I didn’t know this until he told me. It’s funny to think that there is an atheist, maybe a few, who sometimes watch our church services and faith-based broadcasts. As far as I can tell, it’s just because we’re friends. I had another atheist friend ask me about my faith-based broadcasts. He’s pretty uninterested in the subject matter but he keeps an eye on what my ministry is doing because we’ve built a friendship. I’m not holding my breath, expecting either of these guys to become believers, but I’d be happy if it happened. If I had originally responded to them with aggressive or unkind words, none of this would be happening.
I think the conversations that produced those kinds of friendships might be a good illustration of what our next verses have to say. Paul's final remarks to the Colossians come in chapter four. We've already studied most of chapter four, so we have only two verses that remain. I've left them for last because they are brilliant.
Before his closing salutations, Paul makes a call to consider how we treat those outside our community of faith. This could apply to atheists, agnostics, people of other faiths, or those who are unaffiliated with the church. Notice his practical advice on how to interact with unbelievers:
Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. (Col. 4:5)
Paul advises that we act wisely toward outsiders. Outsiders are unbelievers.I have known, as I'm sure you have, those believers who share the gospel forcefully no matter whose feelings it hurts. There are some who ruin the possibility for friendship because they insist on always controlling the conversation, directing it toward Christ. Clearly, we need to be willing to share the Gospel, but we must be wise in how we interact with unbelievers. We're not called to be obnoxious; we're called to be wise.
Paul offers great motivation for being wise in our correspondence with unbelievers. He says we need to make the most of the time. Christ could return at any moment. We don’t know how much time we have to bring outsiders into the faith. Let that motivate you to eagerly watch for opportunities to share your faith. Paul goes on to describe what these wise interactions should look like:
Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person. (Col. 4:6)
When we talk to unbelievers, we are to exercise grace. Notice he didn’t say that we are to force grace upon unbelievers, but that we are to always be gracious. What does graciousness look like when talking to unbelievers?
First, we are to ask questions, listen, and be interested in their answers. If your unbelieving friend wants to talk about fishing, football, or global finance, then be gracious. Listen, ask questions, and show genuine interest. Interested listening is one of the greatest gifts you can give another person. Most people won’t be interested in what you have to say until you’ve shown interest in them. They won’t care what you know until they know that you care.
I've known way too many Christians who preach constantly but never ask a question or listen to those they are preaching to. Here's a general rule, if you're talking more than fifty percent of the time, you're talking too much. I should know because I'm an expert at talking way too much. I often have to stop myself, usually saying, "I'm talking too much. What do you think about all this?" Everyone wants to be valued by being listened to. That's where gracious conversation starts.
Another aspect of being gracious is to resist the urge to constantly correct. If you leap on every incorrect notion your conversation partner has, then you'll leave a bad taste in their mouth. If you're talking to an unbeliever, be gracious, understanding they possess some worldly ideas. Being gracious means you should be able to forgive incorrect ideas, bad habits, and insensitive comments.
I was recently talking to an unbeliever. He was asking me why we do broadcasts on end times prophecy. Being an unbeliever, he described the subject as gloom and doom. He asked me to explain what I thought about it, so I did. He reiterated that he found it depressing. At this point, I had a strong urge to correct him, but I determined that I needed to do what this verse says, be gracious. So I said, “I see what you mean.” The conversation then shifted, and we talked a while about his favorite Spielberg movie. We have to resist the urge to pounce on every inaccuracy and insensitivity.
We live in a society that encourages overactive justice on social and standard media. Every little inaccuracy is attacked and debated ad nauseam. I see so many Christians who are addicted to correcting others as if it were crack cocaine. What would being gracious mean in that kind of environment?
I was recently on a trip with a buddy. He pulled out his phone to show me something impressive. He pulled up all the comments his wife had made on social media in the last six months. He said, "look at that." I glanced through them to find that they all were positive and encouraging. In some cases, she was commenting on controversial topics, but she was unwaveringly kind and supportive.
“Is that on purpose?” I asked. It seemed too consistent to be random.
"Of course," he said. "It's her social media policy." I was impressed. She had noticed, as most of us have, that social media is packed with an overactive pursuit of conversational justice. She had decided to combat the unhealthy practices of others by being incredibly gracious.
There are times when a correction needs to be made, of course. So, if a correction does need to be made, I like to think that we need to accompany it with ten times as much affirmation. From time to time, I have to make hard phone calls and deliver unwelcome news. When I know that's coming, I will get out a piece of paper and prepare about a dozen positive comments I can deliver about the person before I give the correction or criticism. This has served to help retain friendships even in the midst of potential conflict. If you feel the need to correct someone in a conversation, you must work very hard to balance that criticism with many positive statements that will affirm the person's value.
Paul goes on to say that our conversations with unbelievers should not only be gracious but as though they are seasoned with salt. Everyone loves a little salt. I sometimes have a sweet tooth, but I more often have a salty tooth (I’m not sure that’s a thing). What does it mean for our conversations with unbelievers to be seasoned with salt?
When I have a little salty popcorn, I always want more. Our interactions should leave a good taste in their mouth. A Christian's conversation with an unbeliever should be tasty. An unbeliever should find it pleasant to talk to you. You should leave unbelievers wanting more. When you talk to an unbeliever, they should want to talk again soon. How do we do this? We must ask questions, listen, and be interested in them. There is one more thing to consider, though.
A little salt is great, but too much, and you'll ruin the dish. Leave some things unsaid. When a person shows some interest in your faith, it's easy to get over-excited and try to share too much all at once. That's like the girl who hears a certain boy likes her, so she goes and starts talking to him about getting married and having a dozen kids. It's easy to get excited and unload all of your faith-based thoughts all at once. We have to remember the rule of salt: a little at a time.
Storytellers know this. Imagine that an author told you what was going to happen at the end of the story, but he told you on the first page of the book. That would ruin the story wouldn't. Humans are designed to love discovery. If you try to unravel all of the mysteries at once, your listener will lose interest. Don't over-salt your talk. Give a little, leave a good taste in their mouth, and they will want more.
All of this leads to a very practical outcome. Paul says you ought to be gracious and tasty, “so that you may know how you should answer each person.” Notice that Paul is implying that we get to know the person's situation. We should ask questions and listen enough so that we know the circumstances of the person we're talking to.
Paul didn't say we ought to preach at them whether they want to hear it or not. Instead, he said we will give an answer. That implies that the unbeliever asks a question. We should spark interest instead of showing fiery insistence. We should be interested in them, which will trigger their desire to be interested in us.
If we’re gracious and tasty at some point, they may just start asking questions. At that time, you will have listened to them long enough to understand what they are searching for. You will be able to give them an answer that is based on their spiritual need.
Be gracious. Listen as much as you tell. Savor tasty conversation. Be interested. Ask questions. Listen relentlessly. When your time comes, be ready to share your faith. It’s a beautiful recipe. Be gracious to the faithless, and you'll get a chance to share your faith.