the shape of leadership

Three Reasons to Befriend Skeptics

Building bridges to nonbelievers

Preston Ulmer on September 13, 2021

Years ago, an atheist friend and I started a gathering called The Doubters’ Club. The idea was that a Christian and a non-Christian would model friendship and pursue truth with one another, all in front of people who don’t think alike. Our uncertainties about faith and life would become our common ground.

We offer a set of conversation guidelines and free coffee. Our topic for each meeting is whatever the group chooses by majority vote at the previous session. Since its inception, The Doubters’ Club has multiplied to include more than 40 locations around the world.

Sarah* is an example of the kind of person The Doubters’ Club attracts. At her first meeting, the young woman listened with interest as we discussed the Golden Rule. Her legs were crossed, and she bounced one foot impatiently. It was clear she had a thought ready to share.

“When it comes to issues we disagree on, I do not think we should live by the Golden Rule,” she said at last. “The whole do-unto-others thing isn’t always good.”

I was shocked. This was the first time I had ever heard anyone disagree with these words of Jesus. It’s common for people to argue against the Bible, but few take issue with Jesus’ teaching on neighborly love. And rarely does anyone oppose Matthew 7:12.

“Do you think there is a better rule of thumb to live by?” I asked.

“Actually, I do,” she said enthusiastically. “I heard this years ago, so it’s not original to me. Someone once told me about the Platinum Rule.”

“What’s the Platinum Rule?” another asked. Even skeptics are curious about how anyone can claim to one-up Jesus.

“Do unto others as they would have you do unto them,” she replied. “How I want someone to treat me is not always how they want to be treated. If I learn to listen to them first, I can treat them how they want to be treated. For example, Christians evangelize because if they were lost and going to hell, they would want someone to tell them about Jesus. Therefore, they feel that, according to the Golden Rule, they should be telling others about Jesus.”

Sarah wasn’t wrong on that point. We Christians do have a tendency to befriend skeptics and atheists for the purpose of converting them.

Since starting The Doubters’ Club, I have heard hundreds of stories from people who used to have faith in Jesus and regularly attended a Christian church. Their skepticism of Christian doctrine and Christian community now manifests in a variety of ways, ranging from mere disengagement to radical activism. No matter where they fall on that spectrum, each is skeptical about why I want to be his or her friend.

What’s my motive? What’s in it for me? Does the friendship end if the person never goes to church or comes around to my way of thinking?

In many cases, the incentive for friendship is under interrogation more than Christianity itself. This calls for personal reflection among Christians. What are our motives when befriending skeptics?

Although we certainly want everyone to come to know Jesus and enjoy fellowship with Him for eternity, entering relationships with ulterior motives promotes more skepticism. Perhaps conversion shouldn’t be our first and only objective in getting to know non-Christians. After all, drawing a person to Christ is ultimately God’s job, not ours (John 6:44).

Here are three reasons to befriend skeptics, regardless of whether they become Christians:

Pressuring people to think like we do may
be the barrier, not
the bridge.

1. Instead of defending the reputation of the flock, we learn to be more like the Shepherd. Skeptics have some terrible stories that are worth hearing — stories of abuse, trauma, error and hypocrisy in church. In fact, I have never met a skeptic who left Christianity for purely intellectual reasons. There is always a story.

When we hear these stories, we have a decision to make: Do we defend the reputation of the flock, or do we advocate for the skeptic when we can?

In the Gospels, Jesus seemed to do the latter. I can’t help but wonder who would have become a skeptic had they not encountered the love and compassion of Jesus.

Consider the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:3–11). Male religious leaders harshly condemned the woman for having sex outside of marriage, while ignoring the transgression of her partner. (There are many such stories from women today who have become deconverted skeptics.) Rather than siding with her accusers, the Good Shepherd held ground for the accused. He then invited her to turn from her life of sin and experience a new life with God.

2. Instead of insisting skeptics think like us, we learn to consider their perspectives. Pressuring people to think like we do may be the barrier, not the bridge.

Evangelical parents often approach me about adult children who have left the faith, asking, “How can we have a relationship again with our kids?”

They have tried to convince their sons and daughters to vote pro-life, oppose gay marriage, and believe the Bible, but pushing these issues only seems to deepen the divide. Many want to know which they should hold more tightly: their doctrine or their children, as if they must choose one over the other.

Rather than doubling down on what we have to say, Christians can start the conversation by listening empathetically to other perspectives. This is not about changing minds so much as opening our hearts to people who don’t agree with us.

We don’t have to share all the same views to believe another person is sincere. Allowing others to think differently, and being willing to love them anyway, can help pave the way for them to encounter Christ.

3. Instead of being a tour guide, we learn to be a detour guide. Tour guides have a predetermined route to a predetermined destination. As Christians, we have unwittingly become tour guides in our friendships with skeptics. We have equipped ourselves with the best arguments, prayers, or outreaches to see our skeptic friends go from nonbelievers to believers. The problem is that life is not a tour. Life is full of detours.

Marriages end. Businesses fail. Betrayal happens.

Everyone needs friends who stay close when life goes awry. Being a detour guide means helping people get to where they need to go, while also understanding there isn’t always a predetermined route.

Yes, Jesus is the only way to God. But the journey to Jesus can look different for each individual. Having someone walk with them through the detours of life may be the most compelling and convincing gospel skeptics have ever experienced.

Sarah now has a group of Christians as her community. She is growing in her knowledge of who Jesus is — mostly by experiencing His love and commitment through her friends. She may make Jesus her Lord and Savior. Or she may not. All I know is that the closer we get to God, the closer He will ask us to get to the prodigal, the skeptic, the atheist, and the spiritually wounded.

We are glad Sarah is in our lives.

*Name has been changed.

Adapted from The Doubters’ Club: Good-Faith Conversations with Skeptics, Atheists, and the Spiritually Wounded by Preston Ulmer. Copyright ©2021. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries.

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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