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Photo by Duncan Hull

How to build relationships with skeptics

By Clay Morgan

It's easy to lose sight of how important it is to learn about others, especially those who hold different beliefs than ours. Atheists are one group Christians have historically kept at a distance, but shouldn’t we try harder to connect with these neighbors of ours?

The Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that:

"the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated — describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” — has jumped more than six points, from 16.1% to 22.8%."

It's clear that attitudes are changing quickly, and many outside the church distance themselves from self-identifying Christians.

Attitudes are changing quickly, and many outside the church distance themselves from self-identifying Christians.

Despite the wide range of denominations, traditions and views within Christianity, some people assume that all atheists are the same. The stereotype of an immoral atheist is widespread, but the skeptic camp is also wide and varied. In fact, even assuming that self-identifying atheists don’t believe in God is fallacious because 8% say they believe in a universal spirit.

What if we led churches that build bridges to those from whom we are disconnected? What are some good ways to engage and connect with those around us who don’t share a belief in the personal God we elevate?

Debating is good, but let’s face it: many people use the word “debate” when they really mean “argue.” And arguments are meant to be won. Sometimes the more we want to win, the less we seem to love, so it's always better to engage with an open heart.

Instead of going on offense with page after page of apologetics, what if we just listened to people share their story and then shared ours in return? Connecting with others over past experiences is a great way to build bridges and establish relationships. We are more likely to move closer together in such a constructive environment as opposed to times when we use talking points as wedges that drive us further apart. In other words, don’t have a secret agenda. Just listen and learn.

When asked about his approach to connecting with atheists, D.G. Hollums, Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church, says:

The great commission does NOT say go and convert, but go and disciple. “Disciple” is literally translated as “student,” “pupil” or, my favorite, “apprentice.” If we are to disciple people, then we are to be creating classrooms for people to be empowered to ask questions, to really desire to learn what Christ said and why he said it. Good professors made me want to learn, not by giving me all the answers, but by joining me in asking questions and working together towards all the potential answers.

Yes, the great commission goes on to say we should baptize, but that is only after God has done the heavy lifting — inviting them to “declare a major” — to declare Jesus as savior.

Here are some things to consider if your church wants to reach out and connect with skeptics or even welcome them into your faith community as speakers.

Move closer to those who are different than us

Acknowledge that it is good to be in relationship with skeptics. Theologically it’s about being bridge builders, about sharing truth we find in Christ. But building relationships and trust comes first. Focus on the things we agree on and have in common. Where do our views overlap and how can that overlap bind us together?

We must care about others even if they aren’t like us. Even if they don’t believe in a higher power. Even if they say harsh things against us.

It’s important to remember that atheists do not want to be your "project." If your friendship with them is solely based on the condition that they will eventually convert, they’d rather have nothing to do with you. They don’t want to fool with “friends” who will disappear after the ultimatum is not met.

Understand that atheists or agnostics may already attend your church

Sound crazy? You might be surprised to learn what someone in your congregation actually believes. Maybe they attend church out of obligation to family or local culture. Perhaps they’ve continued attending despite drifting from belief in God. Or maybe it’s a young person who hasn’t discovered his or her personal faith. The bottom line is that we be cautious in using words like “outsiders” when we’re likely already close to people struggling in their faith.

Make sure atheists actually want to engage in a conversation

Seems obvious, but we shouldn’t just ask the first atheist we encounter if they’d like to engage our group. That person may not be comfortable speaking publicly, especially about his or her personal spiritual views.

A skeptic might even have good reasons for keeping away from Christians. “If someone is hostile towards Christianity,” says Rauser, “ask where that hostility might come from.” Too many people have been abused by churchgoers, and their emotional pain trumps our intellectual points.

Acknowledge that it’s scary when someone disagrees with you

Disagreements are inevitable when you engage in conversations with people who think differently than you do. Be ready and willing to disagree, and know that’s not a bad thing.

Learn to say “I understand” before saying “I disagree”

Don’t just disagree based on assumptions. Give an honest hearing to the person articulating a different belief than yours. We should be able to clearly and fairly articulate their position before we begin presenting ours. You may read more about this in the article, Preaching controversial issues without dividing the church.

Learn as much as you can about skeptics

Atheists and agnostics consider the same questions about whether or not God exists as Christians do. The Pew Research Center reports that 35% of self-identifying atheists often think about the meaning and purpose of life. More than half of all atheists frequently feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe (up from 37% in 2007). Like King David, we can consider the heavens alongside the skeptics we meet.

According to Randal Rauser, author of Is the Atheist My Neighbor: Rethinking Christian Attitudes Towards Atheism, atheists are also more likely to point out problematic texts in the Bible than Christians are. So they’ll focus on problems we may be quick to bypass. It’s healthy to confront those difficult issues such as biblical violence and contradictory texts.

Consider just a sampling of all the things we may seek to learn about skeptics:

  • What led them to become an atheist?
  • How we can be their friend?
  • How can we embrace doubt and use it to develop a critical mind?
  • How can human-made traditions and laws be turn-offs (ex. Pharisees)?

Skeptics could even anonymously evaluate your church and give you a unique perspective that helps shape your ministry.

Learn as much as you can FROM skeptics

Be sure you are willing to go beyond merely understanding to learning alongside people of all walks of life. You don’t have to agree with their worldviews to learn from them.

Hollums remembers, “I had a seminary professor once tell me that in the Greek culture ‘learning,’ at it’s highest form, happened when the teacher became a fellow learner alongside the students.

He goes on to say, “What if the church understood this and decided to learn the phrase, ‘I don’t know, let’s find out together’? Because right now atheists hear, ‘I have all the answers, we just need to get you to ask the right questions.’ Instead the church should genuinely say, ‘I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I have a feeling that if we look for the answers together we both might come out of this as better people.’

Invite atheists to share their story

When the time is right, invite them to share the things you all have been learning together, with your faith community. Keep in mind, many people are afraid of public speaking, so you may need to look for other ways to fellowship and converse in more comfortable settings. If a skeptic does agree to speak in front of a broader group, invite them to meet anywhere from a coffee shop to a larger community venue and pick a day and time that doesn't conflict with worship services.

Another idea is to record an interview. You could show the video on Sunday morning as part of a relevant teaching on narrowing the gap between your congregation and surrounding communities.

Ask skeptics to help serve

Since most people are resistant to speaking engagements, try to find other areas of common ground. If you can agree that the world is hurting and that people should do everything possible to help, then you can encourage atheists to "take a leap of faith" and start serving. Maybe they're already involved in social justice activities. Chances are, at this stage of your relationship, they have already served you.

Hollums provides a great example: “When I was working at the Apple Store, there were several times when I did not know how I was going to buy food, and my non-Christian co-workers would give me gift cards for groceries. It was not the church that came to my assistance, it was the very people, God was calling me to disciple. What better way for God to help teach someone what it is like to be sacrificial and Christ-like than for them to be Christ to me? It is a great discipleship moment for them and it happens when them becomes us.

“What would it look like if the Church depended upon the Christ (not yet) within those around us?

Hollums refers back to Luke chapter 10 and the time “when Jesus sent out his disciples to announce that the Kingdom of God was near, that they were not to take anything with them. Jesus forced them to be dependent upon the very people that were to be hearing this unique good news.

“The best way of sharing something with someone else is to become dependent upon their hospitality. Then you will be forced to get to know them and they, you. And then at that point, you can create a healthy atmosphere of learning together.

Remember, the goal is not that Christians walk away from their faith but rather to be strengthened through gaining greater understanding. It’s easy to connect with people who are just like us, but getting to know people who are different can be challenging.

Bridge building is rewarding. We bear the image of God when we embrace those who aren’t like us. By racing toward those who are different than us, we live out the good news of Jesus.

Additional reading:

Read The United Methodist Church's guide to developing relationships with persons who hold other faith perspectives: Called to Be Neighbors and Witnesses: Guidelines for Interreligious Relationships

To learn more about atheism and the church throughout history, read Peter Surran’s excellent article How Should Christians Respond to Atheists?