Have you ever had a conversation with a non-Christian (or even an outright atheist) that said, “I really can’t consider a Christian a good, moral person if he isn’t trying to convert me.”
Or how about this: “I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward…. How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
The comments, from a college student who is a professing atheist and from the famed illusionist and atheist Penn Jillette, sort of turn our expectations on their head, do they not? I think it is safe to assume that, usually, we expect non-Christians and atheists to want Christians to downplay their evangelism. We can assume that non-Christians and atheists will respect Christians more if they minimize what they believe and largely keep it to themselves.
However, what if our expectations and assumptions are mostly wrong, and that it is largely authenticity that is attractive to non-Christians? This is what Larry Alex Taunton argues in an article for The Atlantic. Taunton and his non-profit, Fixed Point Foundation, began a nationwide project last year where they interviewed college students who identified themselves as atheists. His main question to these students: “What led you to become an atheist?”
The answers they gave are quite interesting. For instance, most of these students embraced atheism in high school, and their reasons for embracing “unbelief,” while they claimed were rational and scientific, were actually more emotional and relational.
Taunton also consistently found that these atheist students had more respect for and were more attracted to authentic Christian faith. Most of the students interviewed came from some sort of church background, and their atheism was largely in reaction against the church. But it is interesting to note what they were reacting against. They decried churches that were “shallow, harmless, and ultimately irrelevant;” churches with pastors who were ignorant of the Bible and could not provide answers to their questions. These students had heard plenty about being good and “social justice” but little about why Jesus matters and how he fits into their lives. They experienced churches that were more focused on being “friendly” and “attractive” than authentic, and, ironically, these churches became utterly unattractive.
Taunton wisely refrains from laying the blame of these students’ atheism at the feet of the church; it is always more complicated than one thing. However, he draws a very important conclusion as it relates to evangelism: authenticity is always more attractive than minimizing. People crave authenticity, and as disciples of Jesus Christ, we should be the most grace-filled, authentic people in our communities. If Christ really has transformed us, if we really do believe the gospel, if our fundamental identity is disciple of Christ, shouldn’t that be our most noticeable feature?
Taking it a step further, not only should it be but non-Christians also want it to be! You will always build a deeper, more meaningful relationship with a non-Christian if you are authentic rather than if you hold back. Of course, this does not mean that all non-Christians will be friendly, some will be outright hostile. Nor does it mean that the non-Christian friends you do have won’t get angry at you when you tell them things that challenge and upset their unbelief. However, it will mean that what you do say will carry more weight, because they will not only hear the message of a glorious Savior they will see someone who really believes it! There is something attractive about a person who is so convinced that Jesus Christ really is the resurrected and reigning King that he is willing to give his entire life to him.
I love the anecdote about George Whitefield and David Hume that Taunton ends his article with:
“There is something winsome, even irresistible, about a life lived with conviction. I am reminded of the Scottish philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, who was recognized among a crowd of those listening to the preaching of George Whitefield, the famed evangelist of the First Great Awakening:
‘I thought you didn’t believe in the Gospel,’ someone asked.
‘I do not,’ Hume replied. Then, with a nod toward Whitefield, he added, ‘But he does.’”