“If you can answer people’s questions and also learn how to question people’s answers, that’s how you can approach having these conversations,” Tim Keller, the founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, says of talking to skeptics.
During a recent interview with author and pastor Ed Stetzer, the well-known theologian explained how Christians should converse with people who are skeptical of Christianity, first pointing out there are two different ways to approach it.
He encourages Christians to determine what kind of skeptic the person is before deciding whether the believer wants to answer people’s questions or question their answers.
The author argues “the gentler approach is to question people’s answers.”
Keller points out that all people have “operating answers” to big questions that are posed like: “What’s my meaning in life? How do I handle suffering? How do I face death? How do I ever really find satisfaction? How do I get an identity that’s not unstable and fragile?”
He points out that, contrary to what most people might think, the answers to each of those questions are — by nature — religious.
“If over in Asia you get your identity from basically fitting into your family and pleasing your parents, and over here you get your identify from achievement and following your dreams and expressing your inner desires, those are not empirically proven, those are both basically religious answers to the question of, ‘How can I really get a strong identity?’”
Keller further points out this approach can be seen in a new friendship. When you first start developing a friendship with someone, it’s more surface level conversation. But once you start talking about deeper things, there’s an opening to talk about spiritual issues, like Christianity.
“Then, when you start talking about personal struggles, like when there are breakdowns, when a person gets disappointed, or when there’s a love relationship that falls apart, and their working answers to those big questions aren’t cutting it,” he explained, “there arises an opportunity to talk about not so much Christianity in general, but how Christianity works in your life and how it helps you deal with those issues.”
This then brings up questions like: “How does it help you face suffering? How does it help you forgive people? How does it help you?”
Keller added he has a list of those questions he asks people when they ask questions. Questioning people’s answers — rather than just answering them — shows a different side of yourself to people.
“Questioning people’s answers is one thing, answering people’s questions should only happen if they come at you with the list,” Keller said. “We all know the list. And I do think that Christians need to spend a lot of time thinking about how they will answer big life questions off that formidable list.”
This takes time and effort, Keller noted.
“You need to work with other Christians, your pastor, or whoever, to develop working answers that you feel good about,” he said. “Otherwise, what’s going to happen is that you’re going to hide who you are from other people because you’re afraid of those questions.”
“If you can answer people’s questions and also learn how to question people’s answers, that’s how you can approach having these conversations.”