He was wearing a black t-shirt with white writing on it proclaiming himself a member of the atheist club. His shirt and the message it bore were stark and confronting.
I was speaking at a lunchtime public meeting on a university campus when I saw him – or rather his shirt. There was no doubting the sincerity and earnestness with which he held his viewpoint. However, his shirt made it clear that he came not to listen, but to argue.
Whether by accident or purpose, the Christians were advertising their meetings with similar black t-shirts and white writing. Our message was as confronting and stark as the atheists. But when it is your own message the volume with which you shout seems a lot quieter than those who shout at you.
Advertising your position on your clothing (the modern equivalent of the sandwich board), gives little sense of engaging in conversation, dialogue or discussion. It says you believe you have the answer and want to tell people. You are not in questioning mode, wanting to join with others in discovering the truth or learning from them what they may know. You are in the teacher role, knowing what others need to know.
Self-effacing humour is widely used to build rapport with an Australian audience. Being self-effacing more than just connects speaker and listener in sharing the humorous absurdity of the human condition. It shows that we do not take ourselves too seriously. It establishes our egalitarian credentials.
In a similar vein, expressing doubts, questions, admission of failure and inadequacy is a way to win the confidence of the audience. It can build a bridge to the hearer in a way that confrontation establishes a vast chasm between speaker and hearer. It demonstrates humility, openness to fact and evidence, willingness to change our mind and engage in inquiry; it is the same way that we want the audience to respond.
This then can be a culturally sensitive way to reach our audience – an example of becoming like the people that we want to reach with the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:22). So we become open, humble, honest inquirers to reach the open, honest inquirers of the world. And many speakers can testify to the greater warmth of reception they have received by adopting such a practice. But prophets and evangelists should not expect or desire to be well received (Matthew 5:11-12, John 15:18f). While, wherever possible, we are to live at peace with all people (Romans 12:18), there can be a desire for human acceptance and approval that is quite unbecoming to a minister of the gospel (Luke 6:26).
Furthermore, being well received in public debate is not the same as communicating your message. While all manner of people have argued with great subtlety of mind and diplomacy of language for causes like atheism and feminism, it is the Richard Dawkins and Germaine Greer’s of this world, with their ‘take-no-captive’ approach, who have forced their issues onto the public agenda and brought about a shift in culture. Their opponents may not like them, and they may embarrass their friends but their crude advocacy has had an enormous impact. This does not mean that Christian preachers should model themselves on these advocates, but the pragmatic argument of effectiveness in communication must take their success into account.
But the real problem with self-effacing humility is hypocrisy. It’s one thing to crack jokes against yourself because you do not take yourself seriously, it’s another thing to ‘put it on’ purely to win an audience. Similarly, it’s one thing to invite the listener to instruct the speaker with their bits of the jigsaw puzzle of life, it’s another thing to feign ignorance to gain a hearing. In the end truth will out – people see through the phoney.
But there is a deeper hypocrisy that undermines this style of evangelism. It’s the lack of belief that uses ‘effective evangelistic bridge building’ to mask itself by conceding to our opponents, avoiding the hard and unpopular truths, critiquing our allies instead of our adversaries, and so soft-pedalling our message as to distort it. By the time we have qualified what we believe, recounted how we learn from other religions, and are embarrassed by Christian history – it is a little hard to hear the unique claims of Christ and the need to repent, or gain any impression that we are real in our commitment to Him.
Why, if we believe in the truth of the Bible, do we spend most of our time trying to soften its message to accommodate it to modern sensitivities? Why do we reject the Bible’s teaching on the sinful blindness of the debaters of this age, who use their cleverness not to discover truth but to hide from it (Romans 1:18-32, 8:5-8, 1 Corinthians 1:18-20, Ephesians 4:17-19)? Are they not veiled by the god of this world from seeing the truth (2 Corinthians 4:3)? We may reason and try to persuade people of the truth of the gospel (Acts 17:2,17& 18:4), and be ready to give answer for the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus (1 Peter 3:15) – but in the end the gospel is a proclaimed truth not an optional opinion for humans to sit in judgement upon.
Dr Lloyd Jones wrote against debating the gospel – for the gospel is not open to debate. It is not for people to sit in judgement of God, for we are under the judgement of God. Professor Lennox said in Sydney that he does not aim to win debates but to use them to give a credible explanation of the gospel. Our task is not to be quarrelsome or argumentative (2 Timothy 2:24), but it is to declare God’s announcement of the truth as servants of those to whom we speak (2 Corinthians 4:5).
Black and white t-shirts are loud advertisements – too loud for private conversation. But hiding them under our jumper risks the hypocrisy of people not willing to nail their colours to the mast.