By Aaron Earls
For better or worse, the spiritual landscape of the United States is shifting.
Millennials are the least likely generation to believe in God. Nones are on the rise. And according to projections from Pew Research, Muslims will overtake Jews to become the second largest U.S. religious group by 2050.
Churches accustomed to operating within a culture dominated by a Judeo-Christian mindset will need to learn how to engage others in this new spiritual environment.
It wasn’t so long ago that most Americans had some type of religious affiliation or church background. Today, it’s not uncommon to have friends, neighbors, and coworkers who have no memory of going to church or who grew up in a faith other than Christianity. When reaching out to their communities, churches need to consider that those they are engaging may have a very different worldview.
Despite the global decline of the nonreligious, in 35 years, 1 in 4 Americans will be unaffiliated with any religion. In addition, adherents of minority religions will climb from 5 to 8 percent of the U.S. population.
Increasingly, churches and Christians will interact with those who have non-biblical worldviews. To help us better understand how to reach our neighbors more effectively, we spoke with Mary Jo Sharp, assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University.
Sharp is the author of Defending the Faith: Apologetics in Women’s Ministry, two apologetic Bible studies, Resilient Faith and Why Do You Believe That?, and a contributor to several other publications.
Here are four things Sharp says Christians need to know as we move into this new era of American religious life.
1. Know what you believe.
The first step in preparing to talk with others about their beliefs is to understand your own. Spend time in God’s Word. Read and memorize Scripture.
Then talk with a pastor or church leader about reading the doctrinal distinctives of your church or denomination. Those will serve as your foundation as you share your beliefs with others.
For the former atheist, Sharp says, “knowledge of basic Christian doctrines demonstrates intellectual honesty. Learning the basic doctrines shows that a Christian has taken considerable steps to understand the foundation of what it is he or she professes to be true.”
According to Sharp, this also helps confront much of the “misinformation floating around our society” about Christianity. “In many conversations,” she says, “I have found myself addressing an objection to belief in God by first stating, ‘That’s not what I believe.'”
2. Know why you believe.
More than knowing what you believe, you need to have some reasoning behind it. You need to be able to explain your beliefs and why they are true.
You don’t have to get an advanced degree in philosophy or read dozens of journal articles, but picking up a simple apologetic book like Truth Matters or The Reason for God can give you a good grasp on the issues.
Sharp sees “one of the main problems voiced by atheists is the issue of Christians who do not study their beliefs seriously enough to speak thoughtfully on difficult matters concerning the reasons for belief in God.”
She says, “At the very least, if you want to share Jesus with the world, you should be able to tell the world why it is you believe Jesus is the risen Savior of all mankind (the reason of your hope, 1 Peter 3:15).”
3. Know what others believe.
As the prevalence of those holding to minority religions grows, Christians will need to better understand their perspectives to form friendships with them and effectively share the gospel.
Sharp says there are “two practical steps a person can take to better understand what others believe.”
The first would be to talk to someone of a different faith. “Even if you’ve studied a belief system (Islam, atheism, etc.), the person in front of you may or may not believe the things you’ve studied about those views,” she says.
Secondly, “you can read surveys of the various worldviews and how those worldviews handle the big questions of life.” Sharp recommends James Sire’s The Universe Next Door. She says these types of books and surveys can help you understand the beliefs of others as well as your own.
4. Know how to ask and answer questions.
There is a reason Jesus frequently asked questions. You might be surprised at all you can learn (and expose) by asking good questions.
Sharp says she finds “people are more interested in a conversation in which they can share their own views. Therefore, I engage with questions about what it is that a person believes and why they believe it.”
After finding points of commonality, Sharp says a person is able to engage in a meaningful way. “Once a person is free to discuss questions, he or she is typically much more receptive to my answers,” she says.
Knowing how to ask and answer questions, along with knowing what we believe, why we believe it, and what others believe will better enable Christians to operate in American’s changing religious landscape.
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.