Igrew up in a traditional evangelical church that considered saving the lost a chief aim of the Christian life. Sermons implored us to share the good news of the gospel with friends, neighbors, relatives, classmates, and anyone else with a pulse. The best evangelists even found ways to discuss Christ with grocery store clerks, somewhere between “How are you today?” and “Have a nice day.”
I never quite mastered that one. I couldn’t bring myself to casually ask, “If you were to die today, do you know where you would spend eternity?” while sorting double coupons. Still, the church offered plenty of other opportunities for reaching unbelievers—like door-to-door visitation, the process of walking house-to-house throughout the community, inviting folks to church (and if you got lucky, to heaven). The moral support of going in pairs, never alone, helped a great deal, since discussing Christianity with complete strangers can seem more frightening than bungee jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
I remember one occasion when I was about fourteen. They partnered me with another teenage boy and sent us off into the highways and byways. Talk about scary—two guys who spent most waking hours worrying about too much acne or too few whiskers, standing before a door that would soon open. Behind the door might be anyone: a sweet old lady, a haggard mother of preschoolers, or a Hell’s Angels biker. No matter who appeared, however, it was our job to share the good news of the gospel with someone whose meal we had just interrupted.
It probably wasn’t the most effective method of evangelism. But we did it anyway, believing the “unsaved” lived in perpetual misery even as they hurtled toward eternal damnation. Why did we feel so motivated to share Christ? Part of the urge came from the songs we sang during Sunday services that centered around the theme of evangelism. Titles such as “Send the Light” reminded us of the urgent task to which we’d been called:
There’s a call comes ringing o’er the restless wave,
“Send the light! Send the light!”
There are souls to rescue, there are souls to save,
Send the light! Send the light!1
“Throw Out the Life-Line” was another favorite:
Throw out the Life-Line! Throw out the Life-Line!
Someone is drifting away;
Throw out the Life-Line! Throw out the Life-Line!
Someone is sinking today.2
But I remember one song more vividly than any other, perhaps because we sang it so often. I doubt that I can ever forget “Rescue the Perishing.”
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one, lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus, the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.3
We got the message. People living in darkness need the light. Unbelievers are like drowning men gasping for air while gulping seawater, so we must throw them a life preserver to retrieve them from the strong current of sin that pulls them further and further toward destruction.
But as time went along, I discovered something odd, even perplexing. Very few move toward the light or reach for the life preserver. And when we try to convert them, it feels more like pestering the perishing rather than rescuing them. Hardly what we expected from desperate souls!
As an adult, I joined what is often called a “seeker church,” one of those shopping mall–sized campuses with a friendly parking crew, aromatic coffee bar, and cutting-edge worship. Our list of value statements includes phrases like “People matter to God, so they matter to us” and “Excellence honors God and reflects his character” and “Authentic worship is meaningful to believers and seekers alike.”
Following the basic principles of marketing, we manage every detail to create a winsome environment and package our message in a manner that people will find attractive (or at least easier to understand). We avoid “Christianese,” phrases that might make sense to the “in crowd” but sound foreign to unbelievers. We don’t refer to one another as “brother” and “sister,” or ask folks to “extend the right hand of fellowship,” or sing songs with titles like “Are You Washed in the Blood?” And we never embarrass guests by asking them to stand and identify themselves. In short, we try to make our church a safe place for people to process their spiritual journey or, as our pastor likes to say, “kick the tires of Christianity.”
A simple philosophy drives churches like ours: people eager to embrace Christianity are looking for a church sensitive to their needs. And use of progressive language, contemporary music, and comfortable surroundings makes hearing the message and embracing the gospel more likely.
So goes the theory. And on the surface it makes sense—if not for one problem. Hardly any “seekers” are coming. By some estimates, only about 5 percent of those attending churches like mine fit a loosely defined criterion for a seeker. And a case can be made that churches one might call “seeker insensitive” have a similar percentage of converts.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not criticizing my church, the seeker movement, or any other earnest attempt to spread the gospel. I’m just not convinced that our approach is any more effective than the hymn-singing, grocery-clerk-confronting style of my childhood congregation. And the reason seems linked to something far more complex than program methodology or presentation style.
America is widely considered a Christian nation, a broad generalization since only about one-third of the population attends religious services with any regularity. But when they do attend, most participate in a Catholic, Protestant, or evangelical church rather than worship in a mosque, temple, or shrine, making us the best approximation of a Christian nation on the planet. So why does a country seen as Christian by the rest of the world have so many people who reject Christianity? If Christ is most evident here, why do so few believe in him?
In fact, despite the “mega-church” phenomenon of the past two decades, American church attendance on the whole hasn’t even kept pace with population growth. While we have become more sophisticated in presenting Christ, our population has become less Christian.
Millions who have heard the gospel message have simply said, “No thanks,” leaving those of us trying to convince them in a bit of a quandary. Although we lovingly prepare what we believe to be a beautifully garnished meal, they have no interest in eating. And that leaves us with a nagging question: are they honestly not hungry, or are we terrible cooks? What if those to whom we are throwing out the lifeline don’t see themselves as drowning in a sea of despair? What if those for whom we’ve retooled our churches to be sensitive aren’t seeking? What if they aren’t hungry? What if the choice to believe has very little to do with how the message is delivered, and very much to do with how it is received?
But I have an even more troubling question. What if the choice to believe has less to do with how Christianity is received, and more to do with what is? Perhaps our message doesn’t convince because our message isn’t convincing. Or, to use my cooking analogy, maybe we’re serving something hard to swallow, something our decorative garnish can’t cover.
I should clarify what I mean by “Christianity,” since we can’t discuss the nature of belief until we understand the object of belief. Some use the word “Christian” as an action verb or code of behavior. To be Christian means being nice to others and living a decent life. Many would find it offensive to be called unchristian, in the same way I might find it offensive to be called uncivilized. Using this definition, the term Christian can be applied to any law-abiding citizen who hangs Christmas lights in December.
In this book, I use the word “Christianity” as a noun to refer to a set of beliefs. To be Christian means you embrace the central tenets of the faith: belief in God, sin, the divinity of Christ, and other essential teachings that have defined mainstream Christianity since the start—beliefs summarized by the early church fathers in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and used for centuries as the touchstone of orthodoxy by believers of virtually every denomination and persuasion.
As a noun, Christianity means several very specific truths revealed to us by God through the Scriptures and in the person of Jesus Christ. It provides an overarching framework for understanding life and salvation, consistent with the orthodox faith as understood by believers of all times—whether Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, United Presbyterian, or Southern Baptist.
As a noun, Christianity is a worldview sophisticated enough to encompass every academic discipline and resolve life’s thorniest problems, while simple enough to prompt a tiny child to sing, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
But why doesn’t everyone exposed to it believe it? And what good can come from believers poking into unbelief? How Fragile?
Two hikes under the ninety-degree heat of a merciless sun behind us, I sit with friends at a picnic table in Mueller State Park, downing a soft drink while discussing my fascination with unbelief. Neither Clark nor Tori have had a crisis of doubt since becoming Christians; both feel confident the doors are locked. They wonder why I think the topic is important.
“Strong faith should not accept easy answers,” I reply. “And I worry about our kids.” They have five, I have four—most of whom are currently playing in the woods or slapping a mosquito.
“A high percentage of those raised in Christianity walk away from it during their first year of college. I believe a big part of the reason is that when confronted with tough questions for the first time, the easy answers they’ve been given can’t win the day.”
One can believe something to be true, yet have weak or even faulty reasons for doing so. I believe the microwave heats food; I have no idea why or how. Imagine that I were to encounter an unbelieving professor in the classroom, one who has never used a microwave because he cannot find anyone to make a convincing argument for its utility. If asked to defend my belief, I could easily be made to look and feel foolish. But when I get hungry, I will heat my microwavable, gourmet mac & cheese, while the professor eats a cold, squished PB & J.
While accepting easy answers does not invalidate the object of faith, it can undermine the confidence of faith, especially when confronting hard questions or disenchanting life circumstances.
“My goal is not to argue or try to convince unbelievers,” I continue, “but to give them an opportunity to convince me.”
They glance at one another before responding. A bit hesitant, Tori asks the question: “But what if they do convince you?”—the concern, I suppose, that we all share at one level or another. How fragile, we wonder, is faith? How difficult or easy would it be to shake our confidence in Christianity? And why would anyone want to open themselves to the possibility? What if the case for unbelief seems more compelling than the case for confidence?
From where I sit today, I can’t imagine being convinced by “the other side.” I’ve used the microwave too many times to question its power. My entire being, mind and soul, considers Christianity a framework for life that surpasses all others. I agree with former skeptic C. S. Lewis: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”4
I suppose that someone, somewhere, could shoot a hole in my defense or reveal a flaw in my logic. But my standard for faith is not one hundred percent certainty or watertight evidence for every minor point of Christian theology. Not, “Is Christian belief irrefutable?” but rather, “Is belief more reasonable than unbelief?”
Still, it is high time I stood toe-to-toe with skepticism in order to discover whether and why I might flinch. Until now I’ve assumed those who reject Christianity do so less because they disagree with its claims than because they dislike its demands. Adopting G. K. Chesterton’s view, I’ve failed to give unbelievers the benefit of the doubt. “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” he said. “It has been found difficult, and left untried.”5
I suppose that might be true of many, perhaps most. But it cannot be true of all. There must be those who genuinely disagree with the Christian religion—no axe to grind, no score to settle, no agenda to hide. They understand it, perhaps even respect it. They just don’t buy it.
Faith is a complicated notion. On one hand, Jesus commended simple, childlike trust:
Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these (Matthew 19:14).
I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it (Luke 18:17).
On the other hand, we are told to grow up:
Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity (Hebrews 6:1).
In one place we are told that faith is its own confirmation:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1 NKJV).
Yet in another place we are directed to build a reasonable case to defend what we believe:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15).
So which is it? Childlike simplicity or grown-up maturity?
Faith as its own foundation or evidence that demands a verdict?
For me, the answers grow out of understanding the nature of belief itself. An interesting incident occurred during Jesus’ time on earth in which he seemed to lose patience with his followers while demonstrating compassion toward unbelief. A father distressed over his son’s convulsive seizures asked, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid.” Enough for any parent to take whatever steps necessary to relieve his precious boy’s suffering! “I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
So far, nothing out of the ordinary; people asking for help or healing approached Jesus every day. But for some reason, this incident prompted Jesus to express frustration with an unbelief that affected even his closest followers.
“O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.”
Just before healing the boy, Jesus spoke to the father.
“Everything is possible for him who believes.” In response the father immediately shouted, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”6
What does this story tell us about faith? First, one can believe and doubt something at the same moment. The father believed. . . or at least, thought he believed. Or perhaps wished he believed. All he knew was that he felt desperate to find help for his son, and had enough confidence that Jesus might be able to heal him. Was he certain? No. Did he believe? A little. Did he want to believe even more? Very much so.
Second, strong faith can be incomplete faith. The disciples felt more convinced of Jesus’ teachings than anyone. After all, they had left careers, families, stability, even fortunes behind in order to follow a homeless, wandering preacher. But giving up everything to follow him did not equal complete belief or an understanding of everything he said. They may have desired such faith.
But they did not possess it.
It seems there is a continuum of belief. Faith is not like a light switch, either on or off, but more like a dimmer knob that can increase or decrease the light, depending upon one’s mood.
Ask people whether they believe in God, and you will find most on the far positive end of the continuum. Relatively few in the human race reject the existence of a Supreme Being. But ask how many believe that God is concerned about the details of every life, or whether Jesus is the only way to heaven, and you will find the lights begin to dim.
All of us find ourselves in different places on that continuum, often depending upon the topic at hand. I know some very strong professing Christians who question whether Jesus will return to earth or whether there is a place of eternal damnation called hell. They may not talk about these doubts, but they exist. The dimmer knob moves up and down for all of us, depending upon the statement made.
God is love. A brilliant flash of light.
Jesus died and rose from the grave. An optimistic glimmer.
Jesus is the only way. A faint glow.
God condemns nice people to hell. A barely detectable flicker.
I am convinced that facing Christianity’s critics can actually strengthen faith and move us further up the continuum of belief—sort of like facing your greatest fear in order to conquer anxiety. What good comes from timidly hiding under the covers in response to sounds of uncertainty? Checking the locks should not, in my view, undermine faith. It should allow us to crawl back into bed and sleep soundly.
But in order to do so, we must join the distraught father in his prayer. “Lord, I do believe. Now help me overcome my unbelief!” For me, that prayer became intensely real while listening to the unconvinced. A prayer that, in the end, led me to boldly declare, “I still believe!”