Tom Krattenmaker: How to sell Christianity? Ask an atheist.

Posted by Kendall Harmon

Jim Henderson is a recovering evangelist. Back in his soul-chasing, church-starting days, he began hearing a grating dissonance between his faith in Jesus and the way he went about winning new converts. Henderson realized he was doing unto others what he would never want done unto him. He was manipulating conversations to set up a pitch. Viewing people as potential notches on his evangelism belt rather than fellow sojourners and prospective friends. Listening only to the extent it could reveal an argumentative opening. He realized he hated the whole enterprise.

"I told the people in my church, 'I don't like evangelizing, and I know you hate it, so I've decided that I'm formally resigning from witnessing. You're all free to do so the same,' " Henderson recalls. "I said, 'I love Jesus, you love Jesus, and we all want to connect people with Jesus. But we're gonna have to figure out new ways to do it.' "

In the 15 years since, Henderson has blazed a new path as an innovator, author, church-evaluator, self-professed subversive, and leader in the creation of new ways to be publicly and persuasively Christian in the 21st century. Maybe the most subversive — and sensible — surprise of all is the population to which this well-caffeinated Seattle man has turned for partners, friends and teachers: atheists.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryEvangelism and Church Growth* Culture-WatchReligion & Culture

13 Comments
Posted June 29, 2010 at 5:27 pm

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The URL for this article is http://www.kendallharmon.net/t19/index.php/t19/article/30936/



1. NewTrollObserver wrote:

Sounds like Frank Schaeffer.

June 29, 6:34 pm | [comment link]
2. John Wilkins wrote:

This is wise, but not easy for some.  “If you want to have influence, I said, you have to be willing to be influenced.”  Hard news.

June 29, 7:57 pm | [comment link]
3. Dilbertnomore wrote:

“willing to be influenced’
That certainly was the approach embraced by St. Paul and St. Peter and the other apostles, not to mention the way Jesus Christ chose.
NOT!

But then, why would modern, smart people like us elect to emulate the methods of illiterate north African peasants from 2,000 years ago including one many of us believe to be the Son of God.

June 29, 8:53 pm | [comment link]
4. Chris wrote:

willing to be influenced by whom and what Gawain?  Do you mean scripture and Christ?  Or Al Gore and Lady Gaga?

(thanks for posting Kendall)

June 30, 1:03 pm | [comment link]
5. Billy wrote:

#4, I think that’s an extreme position and not necessarily what John+ or the author meant.  My take was “willing to be influenced” means willing to listen to someone like an atheist, who can tell us when we are being arrogant, rigid, and not communicating in ways or with words that are getting through.  I don’t think it means to be influenced to be an atheist or a pagan.  In evangelism, like most everything else, one size does not fit all.  Even in my conservative Episcopal Church, some folks like Praise & Worship and others detest it and will walk out of church if it is used.  Some like Rite I, others don’t.  I have one child who loves to hear the gospel readings and another who is an agnostic, who I talk to gently and try to show her how the gospel is a good thing to live by and how she isn’t really giving anything up to live by it.  I disagree that atheists are “whistleblowers.”  But I do think they can provide excellent critiques of us as Christians, if they care to do so.

June 30, 1:47 pm | [comment link]
6. Chris wrote:

Billy: willing to be influenced and willing to listen are not the same two things at all, so I don’t see the basis to claim the former means the latter.

June 30, 2:37 pm | [comment link]
7. Billy wrote:

#6, sorry, I did not make myself clear.  “Willing to be influenced” to me means being willing to listen and change the way you are doing evangelism.  We can evangelize some with rock music and others with classical, if we listen to what they are telling us and let that influence how we communicate with them. 

I led a 12 person search committee - 9 were very conservative (including myself) and 3 were very liberal.  I had to listen and be influenced by those 3, and they by me, before we could begin to trust each other and reach consensus on the many things we had to decide.  None of us changed our principles or theological leanings.  But we influenced each other into trusting each other so that we could reach a consensus on the person to call - and no, it was not a compromise - it was a conservative call - the liberals trusted the conservatives enough to know that the parish was not one that could abide a revisionist rector, and at the same time they trusted us enough to know we were not going to bring in someone who would take our church out of TEC.  And we conservatives trusted the 3 liberals enough to know their suggestions were not aimed at undermining the conservative nature of the parish - we all just began looking for a man of God. 

An atheist can influence us in the same way.  If I’m told my schtick ain’t working by someone who is objective, then that can influence me to change it to something that may be successful.  If I’m evangelizing young people, I probably don’t want to rail against the election and consecration of Bp Robinson or Bp Glasspool, since homosexuality is not a big deal to most of them.  But I may want to talk more about providing stability in their lives; a crutch to lean on anytime you want it; or a community who will love and accept you, warts and all.  My agnostic daughter influenced me in that direction, as opposed to the 39 Articles of Faith and the catechism, for instance.

June 30, 3:03 pm | [comment link]
8. Utah Benjamin wrote:

When we see ourselves as missionaries, this makes a lot of sense.  A missionary’s goal is to effectively communicate the Gospel to a particular culture.  Building relationships and learning everything we can about the culture—language, customs, sensibilities, beliefs, etc.—is part of a missionary’s job.  That means listening to those who are not believers to hear what we can do better to communicate—provided we do not budge on the content of the message as set forth in Scripture.

June 30, 3:28 pm | [comment link]
9. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

As for being willing to be influenced, in general terms I think that’s inevitable in any truly authentic relationship.  By definition, it’s always a two-way street.

I did my dissertation on the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10, which is often called “The Conversion of Cornelius.”  And it was, of course.  But in some ways, it was also the conversion, or transformation, of St. Peter, who was radically changed by that missionary encounter.

Naturally that doesn’t mean supposing that truth is up for grabs.  But while there is always the danger of becoming consumer-driven instead of gospel-driven, I think the idea of monitoring how we are coming across in our attempts to communicate the gospel is not only valid, but very important.  For example, the old James Kennedy, Evangelism Explosion approach (“If you were to die tonight…”) worked for a while, at least for a lot of people anyway.  But it has indeed become increasingly counter-productive when so many folks these days aren’t at all worried about “getting into heaven.”

This past week I read a fascinating book that illustrates the value of learning how unbelievers see us.  The book was The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University, by Kevin Roose, a secular journalist and Brown University student who spent a semester undercover posing as a fellow Christian at Liberty University in 2007.  Now Roose, who grew up in a totally unchurched family and who admits that he knew exactly zero practicing Christians before his semester at Jerry Falwell’s school, confuses evangelicalism with fundamentalism, as you might expect from a complete outsider.  But I found it a very helpful, and quite balanced, look by a far from hostile observer.  Lots of food for thought on how we Christians could communicate better.

David Handy+

June 30, 4:37 pm | [comment link]
10. Already left wrote:

If you want “simple, easy evangelism” go to: http://www.servantevangelism.com/main.cfm
Doubts? Just read the book and decide for yourself:
http://www.kindnessresources.com/Books-C1.aspx
It’s low risk-high grace evangelism.

June 30, 4:52 pm | [comment link]
11. Timothy Fountain wrote:

“Relational evangelism” is a style that seems fruitful in some settings.  But the CofE is a counter example - a church that’s just there, doesn’t really evangelize, is part of the general population - and the secularists and politicians are after it with a vengeance.

I don’t think there’s one form of evangelism for every setting.  The style described in the article is “relational evangelism,” and I’ve seen some churches that work from that model and bear good fruit.  But it’s not a silver bullet.

June 30, 8:03 pm | [comment link]
12. John Wilkins wrote:

#4 first of all, I think that “influence” is also a descriptive, not a proscriptive term.  I’m influenced, whether I like it or not.  By my parents, culture.  I’m not even aware of all the ways I’m influenced.  My prayer is that I am fundamentally influenced by Christ.  I will probably be influenced in the future.  Sometimes my biases will be confirmed, other times challenged. 

Al Gore and Lady Gaga?  That’s a bit imprecise.  I did find Gore’s environmental work convincing, but I’m not an expert.  As far as Lady Gaga goes, I think that all Christians should engage pop-culture and offer concrete, accurate reflections about what’s happening.  I find her perplexing and a bit bewildering.  I don’t even know what she’s trying to say.  What is true is that people are listening to her.  Perhaps its only because of her costumes and catchy beats.

#9 - It was a great book, and one that more non-believers should read because it, like the book rapture ready, humanizes conservative evangelicals.  This is especially true:  being influenced doesn’t mean the truth is up for grabs.  It may mean simply learning to speak in a way that’s comprehensible.  And this is the challenge for most evangelicals:  most atheists simply don’t know the most fundamental basics of the language, the alphabet of faith. 

Because I do not have God’s omniscience, it is my humility that demands that I should be open to being influenced.  That includes by reasserters.

July 1, 9:09 am | [comment link]
13. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

John Wilkins (#12),

I’m glad you like Kevin Roose’s book too.  It’s enlightening in lots of ways. 

Just one minor quibble: like Roose, you seem to equate “conservative evangelicalism” with the fiery brand of fundamentalism that Liberty U. represents.  As a Wheaton grad, I could certainly see some interesting common features between Wheaton and Liberty, but there are also HUGE differences between the two famous schools.  Wheaton is truly evangelical; Liberty is fundamentalist, and cantakerously proud of it.  I wouldn’t expect an outsider to Christianity like Roose to appreciate those differences (that may seem minor or subtle to many), but I hope you would readily acknowledge them, when pointed out like this.

But you’re sure right that we believers have a massive communication problem in terms of using language that non-believers can understand.  The level of religious amnesia, and especially of biblical ignorance, in our secularized culture is incredibly high.  Dismayingly so. 

That so much of the Christian tradition could have been forgotten so fast by so many is a sobering reality.  But it also affords us some exciting opportunities, as a genuinely blank slate is better than some of the false “knowledge” that used to be widespread.  I think it was that old skeptical wag Mark Twain who said something like this:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

David Handy+

July 1, 12:35 pm | [comment link]


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