December 9, 2005

Debating Atheists?

Category: Theology :: Permalink

In The Radical Reformission, Mark Driscoll talks about a friend of his who became a pastor at a church whose attendance had dropped from several thousand to about a hundred. One of the things the congregation did to try to draw people, and in particular to attract non-Christians in the neighbourhood, was present a debate between a Christian and an atheist. “They went to great expense only to have no one from the community attend,” Driscoll says.

Why? Because the church did not know that atheism, popular a generation or two ago, is virtually dead today. This church believed that people are either Christians or atheists, and because they didn’t know their neighbors, they wrongly assumed that, since their neighbors were not Christians, they must be atheists. Actually, their neighbors were very spiritual people who spent great amounts of time praying but had no idea to whom (pp. 51-52).

Now Driscoll’s analysis may be a bit superficial and even a bit condescending. I doubt that the whole congregation really believed that if a person isn’t a Christian he must be an atheist. But Driscoll does have a point and it’s a point that Reformed apologists would do well to keep in mind.

I’ve listened to Greg Bahnsen debate Gordon Stein and Doug Wilson debate Dan Barker, and I enjoyed both of those debates. I even learned a lot. I’m sure that some people have been drawn to Jesus Christ through these debates. I am not saying that debates like that are necessarily ill conceived.

But Driscoll’s point needs to be heard. Most North Americans today would not identify themselves as atheists. Sure, there may be many intellectuals who are atheists. You may find atheists on college campuses (and perhaps a debate with an atheist would draw an audience on a college campus). But most of our neighbours, if asked, would say that they believe in God.

The question is which God. They don’t necessarily believe in the God of the Bible. But a debate with an atheist wouldn’t appeal to them. They might be Muslims or Sikhs, for instance. They may just believe there’s a god out there somewhere. They may view themselves as “very spiritual.” They might well say, “You know I don’t agree with that atheist. I think there is a God. But I don’t really agree with that Christian guy either, especially when he was talking about God destroying children in Canaan and stuff like that. That doesn’t sound like the God I believe in. The God I believe in is….”

If we don’t get to know our neighbours, Driscoll is saying, we can’t effectively present the gospel to them. A debate with an atheist won’t necessarily reach them. For that matter, a debate may not reach them. But if we want to reach them, we have to find out what they really believe and who their god is.

Posted by John Barach @ 10:29 pm | Discuss (0)

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