One summer in the early 2000s, thousands of evangelical Christian teens were released upon several Atlanta malls. The energized young believers had just finished a multi-day conference learning how to defend and prove their faith. Now, to practice their newly acquired tactics, they swarmed into public spaces with a holy and militant fervor.
I know because I was one of them. My bright-eyed enthusiasm made me the target demographic for the conference: Not only was I outgoing enough to talk with people easily, but like most teenagers, I also was convinced I knew everything.
We briefly spoke with several amicable shoppers, our excitement intensifying with each interaction. Scanning a food court, we noticed a man in his 50s, alone and slightly disheveled. He barely acknowledged us as we rushed his table and immediately began engaging with him.
Before we had a chance to rehash our monologue, the man sighed, looked away, and said, “Not today, kids.”
And in only three words, my burgeoning momentum halted completely.
Something about this man was different. He didn’t respond to us out of annoyance or frustration, but from simple exhaustion. While we were prepared for dismissal, nearly to the point of relishing it, this reaction was something else. Something nobody had prepared us for.
Long after the fact, I realized that a strategy like ours served to make those employing it feel as if they’re accomplishing a great deal, without necessarily acknowledging where people are at. Even when it came to my own non-believing friends, I often failed to dialogue with the goal of learning from them—of finding out what their questions were and, more importantly, whether they had people they could go to with those questions.
When it came to my own non-believing friends, I often failed to dialogue with the goal of learning from them.
With this in mind, I decided to do some research and surveyed 50 nonbelievers. Though they all had a family member or friend who was a Christian, about 70 percent said they were uncomfortable speaking with those individuals about religion. When they were asked why, words like “lecturing,” “defensive,” and “hostility” kept appearing. Fearing rejection from loved ones or people in positions of power, many felt compelled to remain silent. One respondent said, “They don’t listen to understand—they listen to respond.”
In the same survey, I asked what it would take to make them more at ease when speaking with a Christian friend or family member. Sadly, a few said that they would never be fully comfortable. But a majority of the answers revealed some very basic and common longings—for respect, open dialogue, less judgment, and more understanding.
The last of my questions involved their own: What faith-related questions did they have, whether about God, beliefs, or other believers? Their answers, for the most part, fell into broad categories. Some said they no longer had questions or were too weary to formulate any. They either had explored on their own and remained unconvinced, or had too many faith leaders brush aside their legitimate concerns.
Others had specific questions about Christian doctrine—often concerning the tension of free will and God’s plan, and why all of humanity is held responsible for the individual choices of Adam and Eve. It was also common for them to express strong doubts about the veracity of Scripture or mention interest in the relationship between religion and politics.
Though they all had a family member or friend who was a Christian, about 70 percent were uncomfortable speaking with those individuals about religion.
Several individuals had questions regarding Christians—specifically why some feel it’s okay to attack those who do not share their beliefs, or why they don’t hold their own beliefs to the same rigorous standard of questioning that they impose on others. Most respondents wondered why conversations on the topic have to be so defensive and argumentative if believers actually possess the faith they claim to have.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of the entire endeavor was that for many, the mere act of completing an anonymous questionnaire appeared to be a cathartic experience. While reading the paragraphs of stories and details, I wondered if this was because they’d been asked to share their thoughts and knew someone on the other side was interested and listening.
As for me, conducting the survey gave me new insights, not only about those participating but also about the Christians in their midst. At times, I realized, we miss the mark by not being an approachable audience. And though we’re eager to share our point of view and the reason we have hope, perhaps our willingness to listen and truly hear—to be attentive, to understand—is just as important as speech. I’m convinced that’s where the sincerity of our witness will be tested and proved worthy.
Illustration by Tim McDonagh