The Most Common Mistake when Talking with Skeptics

Over at the great Apologetics 315, Donald Johnson has posted a very good piece of advice entitled The Most Common Mistakes when Talking with Skeptics which a Christian may ust to better address or approach his or her skeptical friends. Donald's most basic piece of advice is that the Christian should not immediately launch into a response to the doubts or accusations expressed by his or her skeptical friends about Christianity. Rather, he argues that it is better to ask questions to learn more about the skeptic's own worldview as it deals with matters of religion. In other words, a cold, sterile, logical argument is not nearly as effective as responding to the individual's underlying concerns. 
Instead of jumping right in to address some objection or present an argument, Christians would be much better served by asking a few important questions and then listening carefully to the answers.
What Donald is suggesting is, at least in part, based on Greg Koukl's "Columbo Tactic" -- a very good tactical approach which Greg has recommended for years at one of my favorite sites, Stand to Reason. Essentially, Greg Koukl says that when you are puzzled about how to respond to a particular claim, you should ask a question. Asking a question allows the Christian to understand better the nature of the objection being offered. In fact, asking a question provides at least three important benefits: it allows the Christian to gain more information that can be used to respond to the person's actual objection, it opens up flaws in the skeptic's worldview, and it can be used to shift the burden of proof to the skeptic. 

What Donald Johnson suggests in his post at Apologetics 315 seems to be a bit more of a relational use of the Columbo Tactic. Rather than asking questions to simply learn more from a tactical standpoint, he suggest (even citing Koukl's book) that we use the questions to build a rapport with the person raising the objection. 
First, it builds relationship and defuses animosity. As Hugh Hewitt writes: “When you ask a question, you are displaying interest in the person asked. Most people are not queried on many, if any, subjects. Their opinions are not solicited. To ask them is to be remembered fondly as a very interesting and gracious person in your own right.” (In, But Not Of: A Guide to Christian Ambition, p. 172).  Greg Koukl adds “[Questions] invite genial interaction on something the other person cares a lot about: her own ideas.” (Tactics, A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions p. 48)
I suggest that Donald is absolutely right, but by quoting from Hugh Hewitt's book, he has given an impression that asking questions is merely a tactic. It is not that we want to "display an interest in the person asked" as stated in the Hewitt quote. Rather, we want to have an actual interest in the person asked. If we don't actually care – I mean, truly care with the love of God – about the skeptic, we are being Paul's “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1). We are making a noise but having no impact because we are not speaking to the skeptic with the heart of God – a heart that loves the skeptic as much as the Christian and longs for the skeptic to turn from her rebellious life back to the God who loves her. 

You see, I think that asking questions is great. But asking questions merely to gain a tactical advantage will never succeed unless the underlying motivation is love for the skeptic. And from what I see, many, many apologists are online looking for intellectual victory -- a spiritual notch in their sword of the Spirit. I don't think God is pleased with that. I really don't. 

So, I certainly agree that failing to ask questions is a common mistake, but it seems to me that the most common mistake is not fully looking at the skeptic through the loving eyes of God. And it's not always easy -- many skeptics (the hardened atheist types) go out of their way to be offensive and unloving in response. But God sees through that, and those of us who want to share the Gospel must start with that viewpoint, too, or we almost certainly will be ineffective in our arguments. To me, that's the most common mistake when talking with skeptics.


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