Convincing Skeptics of Christianity

Timothy_KellerAdaptation of gospel communication to persuade secular skeptics is a skill that Tim Keller has carefully developed. Those who want to communicate the gospel in the current cultural milieu would do well to listen to Keller’s advice in this areas. Below are notes from his lecture on his topic, the second in a series on preaching.


There are three components to good preaching (and a fourth…but not really). You must preach biblically, attractively and powerfully [from the first lecture: What is Good Preaching?]. The fourth is to preach Christ, but this is actually the only right means to doing the other three. You will never really restructure the affections of the heart apart from preaching Christ.

The goal of this lecture: How to convince people who are skeptical about Christianity because they’ve been secularized (whether secularized Christian or non-Christian). This topic is a sub-category of contextualization (definition: the unavoidable way in which you culturally incarnate any explanation of the gospel: your cadence, emotional expressiveness, illustrations you choose, your language. As soon as you open your mouth, you move yourself toward some and away from others).

Three Problems With Contextualization

1. There are problems on both sides: you can overtextualize or undercontextualize. If you overcontextualize, your church will be full but no one will be changing, because largely you’re just confirming with them. If you undercontextualize no one will come. You may be preaching valiant-for-truth sermons, but they’re off-putting in style.

2. Your culture is largely invisible to you, so it is difficult to see where you’re communication decisions are reflections of your own culture. Don’t ask a fish to write an essay on water.

3. The idea of contextualization is difficult to define.

Four Principles for Adaptation (9:00)

Four things that Paul does when adapting to various groups of non-Christians. These are drawn particularly from Eckhard Schnabel’s book Paul the Missionary.

1. Paul used shared or well-explained vocabulary.

Our evangelical churches used to stand within a canopy of basic Christian understanding in the broader culture (knew the terms and doctrines), but this is increasingly not the case. Therefore…

Be careful about using theological terms without giving explanation

E.g. dispensational, hermeneutics, amillennial. If you act like everyone in the audience is a Christian, then your people will not bring non-Christian friends. How you preach will largely determine the makeup of your audience.

Be careful about using biblical words that are actually evangelical jargon

E.g. backsliding, lukewarm, spiritual warfare, seeing fruit, great fellowship, blessing, opening up doors, walking with the Lord. These are fine terms, but although people understand them within the subculture, “outsiders” don’t necessarily comprehend.

Be careful of using “prayer language” that is unnecessarily archaic and sentimental

E.g. just really, I echo that, I’ve really been released from that, your witness, your testimony, a God thing, a total God thing. People may find these kinds of terms cloying, sentimental, abnormal. Some of this language may “feel spiritual” but in effect excludes the outsider. At Redeemer Presbyterian, we get rid of that. People say we don’t feel very spiritual. Not that we are disrespectful or lack elegance, but it makes people from the evangelical world feel alienated. However it doesn’t make secular people feel alienated.

2. Paul used respected authorities to supplement what he was saying from the Bible. (20:00)

Paul quotes Eratus in Acts 17. Some feel like its not a great idea to cite secular authorities, but if you’re talking to people who don’t trust the Bible, then what’s wrong with quoting people they respect who happen to agree with the Bible?

Idolatry: If you’re talking about idolatry, have no other gods before me, then quote David Foster Wallace (postmodern, novelist, non-Christian, cool and sophisticated): “Everbody worships something. Everbody’s worshiping,” from his Kenyon College commencement address.

Absolute Morality: If you’re talking about God as lawgiver and absolute moral laws. Quote MLKJ Letters from Birmingham Jail. He points out that the only way you can judge if a human law is unjust is if it contradicts God’s law (then quotes Aquinas). Or go to W.H. Auden, who went into a theatre and saw a news reel with depictions of Jewish people yelling “Kill the Jews.” He was shaken up because he realized he had no way of saying they were wrong. “I always thought civilized people would be enlightened.” Auden eventually moved back toward Christianity because of this.

The Devil: If you’re speaking about the Devil, quote Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan. “Secular people have no vocabulary to deal with evil.” He cites FDR who was slow to believe in the death camps of WWII. Delbanco tells the story of FDR going to church and asking the pastor about Kiekegaard, who taught him about original sin. C.E.M. Joad (British intellectual, atheist) Recovery of Belief, “It was because we rejected the doctrine of original sin that we on the Left were always being disillusioned by the behavior of the peoples, nations, and politicians and by the recurring fact of war. Because I didn’t believe in original sin I couldn’t understand why nothing was working.”

Nature reveals God: If you’re speaking from Psalm 19 and the evidence of God in nature, then cite Leonard Bernstein, “Listening to Beethoven’s Fifth, you can’t help but get the feeling that there’s something right with the world, something that checks throughout, something we can trust, something that will never let us down.” Keller says, this is Bernstein’s way of saying he can never believe in God…except sometimes.

Sin: If you’re saying something about sin, quote Lauren Slater, “The Trouble of Self-Esteem” (article in NYT magazine)  “The higher the self esteem the more bad things the person does. Its actually the people with low self-esteem who are usually better citizens.”

3. Paul ratified some of their beliefs, and then confronts them on the basis of that shared belief (found points of contact and contradiction)

In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes a pagan, “We are his offspring.” Then Paul argues that since we are his offspring, we should not think of the divine being as material substance we can fashion into images. Schnabel says, “Paul uses the quotation as an argument against his listeners’ rapprochement with the reality and diversity of the religious cults.” Paul uses their own belief “against” them. This is how all persuasion works.

Example 1: How do you get across to people that the Bible is authoritative in everything it says? This is difficult because secular culture is a culture of self-autonomy. You could say, “Isn’t it true that there is no perfect culture? No ultimate, superior culture? Every culture has good and bad elements?” This is a baseline narrative of secularism, pluralism. Next step: But what if the Bible is not from any particular culture, but rather from God? Then it would have to offend everyone at some point. It would have to confront every culture at some point. In other words, the Bible agrees that no culture is perfect.

Example 2: The baseline cultural narrative of loving relationship. You could say, “If there was a God, wouldn’t you want a personal loving relationship with him?” In a personal relationship, isn’t it true that if one person always wins the arguments, then the other person is being trampled on or not being honest to self. So if you’re in a personal relationship with God, then he must be able to contradict you at times.

Key Point: Take the baseline cultural narrative and use it “against” them.

Example 3: Cultural diversity. People need to live together despite differences. Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission, Points out that 90% of all Muslims live in one part of the world (Middle East/North Africa/South Asia), 88% of Buddhists live in East Asia, 98% of Hindus live in India. But about 25% of Christians live in Europe, about 25% live in Central/South America, 22% in Africa, 15% in Asia, 12-15% in North America. “Christianity is the only major religion that has spread out. Almost certainly Christianity exhibits greater cultural diversity than any other religion and that must say something about it.” So we must ask why. Whose Religion is Christianity? Lammin Sanneh says that Africans have turned to Christianity because it is the most culturally flexible of all worldviews. The gospel has no Leviticus…it undermines cultural superiority by rooting identity in Jesus Christ, rather than a particular cultural identity.

4. Paul solved people’s personal problems by presenting Jesus as the solution. (47:30)

When you’re preaching, you don’t want to spend Sunday morning only evangelizing non-Christians but not edifying the saints. So you must preach the gospel as the answer to every problem. The gospel is the motivation to do the things that you are calling people to do. “If you always exhort believers…grounded in what Jesus Christ did, then every time you are preaching to the Christians, you’re also preaching the gospel.” What’s great about that is that then secular people who are coming are hearing the gospel every week. Late moderns actually want to know how the gospel works in someone’s life. What does it look like fleshed out?

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