How to Share the Gospel With an Atheist
By Greg Stier
Last week I sat next to James on a flight from St. Louis to Denver. As we talked the subject turned to spirituality and religion. I confessed that I was a preacher and he confessed he was an atheist. What unfolded on the rest of the flight was a deep, thought-provocative, laughter-laced gospel conversation.
Over the years I’ve had the privilege of engaging many atheists like James in various settings. I’ve discovered five helpful tips when sharing the gospel with someone who claims to not believe in God.
1. Don’t be shocked and do ask tons of questions.
Some atheists like to shock Christians with the fact that they don’t believe in God. This brand of atheist pulls the pin on the “there is no God”grenade and drops it in the middle of the conversation, expecting Christians to run for cover.
Don’t be phased. As a matter of fact start asking questions about their atheism. Find out what they mean by atheism (some are agnostics but call themselves atheists.) Ask questions about their background. Were they raised in church? Do they have any Christian friends? Where were they educated about atheism?
And remember that, as you ask questions, your goal is not to trap them but to understand them. Find out areas where you agree. Just like Paul found common ground with the athenians when he discovered an altar “To the Unknown God” we can find common ground in a mutual rejection of legalistic religion, a passion for science and reason and, usually, an overall positive view of the historic Jesus.
Although James spoke somewhat negatively of religion he spoke well of Jesus. While he didn’t view Jesus as the Son of God he did perceive him as an enlightened soul. At the minimum that was something I could build on in making my own case for Christ.
2. Listen deeply for the real “why.”
Often atheists have a reason (other than “reason“) for becoming atheists. Listen for it. Sometimes it’s anger over losing a loved one. Other times it’s that they were hurt by the church in some way. But often there’s a “why” behind the lie they are embracing.
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In John 4 Jesus masterfully attacked the why behind the lie that the woman at the well was embracing. She was not an atheist but a hedonist who thought that satisfaction could be found if she finally found the right guy. But Jesus offers her living water to satisfy her deepest needs and, finally, her thirst was fully quenched.
James shared with me about his upbringing in England and his regular attendance at The Church of England. He told me about how his wife had left him and how he could only see his kids every other weekend. James shared how he reads at least a book a week and how he loses himself in novels.
As he shared I couldn’t quite nail why he was an atheist but I could sense that he was a lonely man. My heart went out to him and I think he could sense my sympathy.
3. Connect relationally.
Atheists are real people with real feelings. They laugh, cry, talk and connect like anyone else. I think that too many times Christians treat atheists as objects and not people.
James and I joked together as we sparred each other. I listened to him and he listened to me. Bottom line is that I like James. He is an interesting guy with an interesting story…