It’s very easy to categorize people or assign a particular label to them. If an unbeliever tells us that he is an atheist or agnostic, we sometimes too quickly assume that that is what he is. Forty-three years in evangelism has taught me that people are not always what they say they are, and I would like to share two examples.
First, in the April 2016 issue of Outdoor Life, I read that a 16-year-old girl was the sole survivor of a plane crash in the North Cascades. Ninety minutes after leaving a city in Montana, all turned white as fog engulfed the plane. The plane scraped trees and crashed. Her step-grandparents died. As the young girl crawled out the wreckage she remembered that the survivor shows taught her to keep moving downhill and follow water. She also went to prayer. Considering herself an agnostic, she explained, “I did pray, if we’re being honest here. I felt alone. When you’re that alone and probably going to die, you might as well pal up to the big man.” She was rescued two full days later. Those words could indicate that she may not have been as much of an agnostic as one would think.
Secondly, an EvanTell board member walked into the hospital to visit a friend who had just been diagnosed with cancer and not given long to live. The patient had always been a self-professed atheist. After as few moments of conversation, the board member simply asked him, “Would you like to know beyond any doubt that you are going to heaven?” The man said yes and my friend had the privilege of leading him to the Lord. He was not the atheist many would have thought he was.
I have spoken with many of other religions who quickly tell me that they do not believe much of what their religion teaches. Being too quick to categorize someone can be both unhelpful and misleading. Instead of instantly assuming an idea about that person, consider the following suggestions:
Be a good listener. Let them do the majority of the talking. Ask questions that relate to their experiences, upbringing, occupations, concerns, and beliefs. As you do, you discover where they really are in their thinking versus where you may have placed them due to one thing they may have said. The more they talk, the more you learn.
Use the key question, “What do you mean by that?” This will reveal their definition instead of yours. A man once stated that he grew up in a Christian home. I asked, “What do you mean by that?” I discovered the way he defined a Christian home was vastly different than the way the Scriptures do. It led to a different series of follow-up questions than I would have asked had he defined a Christian home differently.
Guard against making any assumptions. This is where being a good listener pays off. The person may bring up a vast array of subjects related to church, religion, beliefs, activities, relationships, etc. that lead you to assume the wrong thing. Asking questions about what he says and letting him do the talking will help you sort out where he is in his understanding of spiritual truth. Repeatedly I have discovered the less assumptions I make, the better.
Again, the non-Christians you meet may not be what or where they say they are. The above three suggestions can help you determine where they really are and how you need to proceed in your conversations with them.