Starting a Dialogue About Matters of Faith
About the Guest
When was the last time you shared your faith? Today on the broadcast, Tim Muehlhoff, an associate professor of communication at Biola University, and J.P. Moreland, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology at Biola, tell Dennis Rainey about practical ways Christians can engage nonbelievers around spiritual matters.
Tim MuehlhoffTim Muehlhoff (PhD, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California, where he teaches classes in family communication, interpersonal communication, persuasion, and gender. He is the author of I Beg to Differ and Marriage Forecasting, and the coauthor of The God Conversation, Authentic Communication, and Winsome Persuasion, which received a 2018 Christianity Today...more
When was the last time you shared your faith?
Starting a Dialogue About Matters of Faith
Bob: Do you have a friend, someone you know, who you've heard say, "You know, I think all paths lead to God. What really matters is just being sincere?" Have you ever wondered, "What do I say to that?" Well, here is an approach you might try from Dr. J.P. Moreland.
J.P.: You might want to start with a medical analogy. We've all known doctors that have recommended medicine to someone, and it was really the wrong and bad medicine. Sincerity in medicine is not enough. You can be sincere about the fact that this is the medicine that was prescribed, and if you take it, it will help you. But if you've got the wrong medicine, it's going to make you worse. It could even kill you.
And so the question is that sincerity is important, but you also have to see if there is some bad medicine out there, and is there a medicine that's actually better than the rest, and how could we know that?
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Wednesday, June 25th. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. How can you have those sometimes awkward conversations about God with someone who doesn't believe in God without being so awkward? That's what we'll talk about today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. You've had those airplane conversations, where you sit next to somebody and somehow things get turned in a spiritual direction, right?
Dennis: I had one a couple of weeks ago, yeah.
Bob: Yeah? Did you steer it in that direction …
Bob: … or did it just happen in that direction?
Dennis: No, it got steered in that direction. A young man who is working on his Ph.D. at a well-known Midwestern school. We just talked about him as a young man growing up, single, not married, and was on a journey in his faith that – well, he's asking a lot of questions, and I think was in the process of coming back to Jesus Christ.
Bob: Do you ever feel awkward in those conversations, like somebody may throw you a question that you're not sure how to answer?
Dennis: Sure. I've had them ask questions I don't know the answer to.
Bob: What do you do?
Dennis: Tell them I don't know.
Bob: Yeah, that's probably a good answer.
Dennis: Yeah, well, seriously, I mean, I don't want to sound presumptuous there, but I think if you don't know the answer, you can say, "You know, I don't know, but could I get back to you on that?" So I may get their e-mail address and, to the best of my ability, seek to find an answer to their question.
Bob: I think there are a lot of people who are intimidated about having those kinds of conversations, because they just don't feel equipped to do it.
Dennis: And if that's our listener today, we have a couple of guests on FamilyLife Today who are going to help you interact with your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers, and I think importantly they're going to help some parents, I think, equip their sons and daughters as they go to junior high, high school, college, know how to better engage people around subjects of faith.
Tim Muehlhoff and J.P. Moreland join us on FamilyLife Today. J.P., Tim, welcome to the broadcast.
Tim: Thank you.
J.P.: Great to be here.
Dennis: We've got a couple of compadres with us today, Bob. Tim and Noreen Muehlhoff speak at our Weekend to Remember Marriage Conferences all around the country. Tim is an associate professor of communication at Biola University. I just had the privilege of speaking at their 100th anniversary. That's a long time for a school to be around.
They have three children and he, along with J.P. Moreland, who is probably known best for his work in philosophy and apologetics around the country. He is a distinguished professor of philosophy at Talbott School of Theology, which is a part of Biola University, is that right?
J.P.: That's absolutely right.
Dennis: He and his wife, Hope, have two daughters, and J.P. and Hope, Bob, go all the way back to when Barbara and I were on summer staff with Campus Crusade for Christ, 1968.
J.P.: That is a long, long time ago. That was in the middle of the Jesus Movement.
Dennis: It was. We were paid 50 bucks a month.
J.P.: And all we could eat.
Dennis: And probably were overpaid at that.
J.P.: Yes, and underfed.
Bob: You went to one of the very first FamilyLife Weekend to Remember conferences.
J.P.: I sure did. Oh, yeah, absolutely. My wife and I got engaged, and we went to one of the very earliest FamilyLife conferences. I believe it was one of the first three in 1977. And it was a wonderful, wonderful time. The exercises, just being there with other couples that were in the same place we were at, having an opportunity to talk with them, realizing we weren't abnormal, at least in too many ways. That was really a great experience.
Dennis: You guys have teamed up and taken your expertise to write a book called "The God Conversation," and actually what you're after here is you're wanting to practically equip individuals to know how to share their faith, the very thing that Bob was talking about at the beginning of the broadcast. People are scared to death, they're intimidated, and yet it's a conversation we need to have.
J.P.: Absolutely, and the focus of the book really is how do you make these conversations memorable so that people, long after the conversation is finished, will be thinking about what you had to say.
Bob: What the two of you have done is combined your interest in apologetics and evangelism with your interest in communication and evangelism and said how can we take these two and marry them so that we're not just talking about facts and figures, but we're doing it, as you said, in a memorable way?
J.P.: Well, and, Bob, I think "The God Conversation" really was born out of passion. I think Tim and I have a deep passion, almost a life message, to want to help Christians feel empowered. We know what it's like to feel the shame and the guilt of not sharing our faith, of being intimidated or thinking, "Well, I should have said something at the office, but I just didn't know what to say."
And we're convinced that the average believer who is listening to us has a ton to say if they can be given just a few illustrations and a few stories to tell, they can – their courage level and their readiness to be able to engage in a conversation that's friendly and informative and helpful will go off the charts. And so this book really was born in a deep sense of passion for both of us.
Dennis: You know, I want to talk about the illustrations and stories in just a moment, but let's lay out an assumption here that I think it's good for our listeners to hear, and that's a Newsweek statistic that you give in the book, that 92 percent of Americans have some religion or faith. They're a spiritual person, and they consider themselves spiritual.
This is important, as we think about having conversation, because we're not talking about a topic that people don't have some thoughts about to begin with.
J.P.: No, people are incredibly interested about it, and they're in process. It's not that they sit down and say, "I'm going to devote a whole weekend to thinking about God, about heaven, or things like that." But they continually think about it. So it's on their mind, and we can see that in movies, TV programs. So what we need to do is to tap into that interest, and we can do that through illustrations, stories, popular culture, but people want to have the conversation so long as it's packaged in a certain way, I think, and that's what we try to do is craft conversations in this book that you can have that aren't necessarily threatening but, at the same time, they're getting at the heart of who Jesus is in the Christian worldview.
Bob: You say people want to have the conversation and yet most of us feel like, "Well, maybe they do but not with me," not with evangelical Christians. There's something about us that they don't want to have this conversation with us.
J.P.: And that's the perception is that every conversation, once we get to talking about who Jesus really is will go badly; that people will have a really adverse reaction, and we all have experiences, I think, where it's not. What's been hard is getting into the conversation. I think most of us would say, "If my neighbor, my friend, came up to me and said, 'Hey, listen, I really am wrestling with God. I know you're a Christian. Would you tell me about your faith?'" I think all of the listeners would say, "Oh, I'd love to have that conversation, but it never comes up. I never have an open door like that."
Dennis: And part of the reason for that is I think we sometimes preach at people instead of asking questions and coming in the back door.
Tim: We had a couple over for dinner once, Hope and I did, and the man was a very quiet introvertish type fellow, and he didn't say a whole lot. He grunted a few times when he wanted us to pass the potatoes, and so it was kind of a three-way conversation until the conversation turned to the topic of boats, motorboats.
This guy knew everything there was to know about motorboats. He had built his own motorboat from scratch, and if you'll pardon the pun, he became a motor mouth from that point on.
Because we got on something that he felt like he knew what he was talking about and was interested in, and what we believe in the book, "The God Conversation" is that by giving Christians a few simple tools, they will be like that guy, Bob. They'll feel like they're more equipped to know what to say, and they'll have more courage and actually more energy to start conversations with people.
But if you don't feel like you know how to start a conversation, or what to do if somebody – what if someone asks you a question? What are you going to do? Do you have to become a scholar to answer all their questions? Boy, I hope not.
So what we've done is tried to package some things that will help folks have more confidence to enter into those kinds of discussions.
J.P.: The book is basically organized around something called "defeater" beliefs. Now, a defeater belief simply is that some of our friends have beliefs that make other beliefs very difficult for them to have. Let me give you for instance. I have three boys. They love basketball. They think the best basketball player in the history of basketball is Dwayne Wade, the Flash.
Now, listen, I'm from Detroit. I hate the Chicago Bulls, but even I will say to my three boys, "Listen, what about Michael Jordan?"
J.P.: And they'll look at me, and they'll say "No way, Dad, it's the Flash. It's Dwayne Wade." I go, "How many rings does the man have? How many rings does Michael Jordan have?" Well, they have a defeater belief that Dwayne Wade is the best basketball player, and until you dislodge that belief, they simply will not embrace Michael Jordan. It doesn't matter how much proof you give them.
Tim: I think that might even be a destroyer belief. Michael Jordan, I mean, that's the trump card of all trump cards.
Dennis: Give me an illustration of what a defeater belief would be that keeps someone from having faith in Jesus Christ?
J.P.: For sure, I think one of them is that all religions are basically the same. And the issue is really sincerity. If you're a good Buddhist, and you're sincere to that tradition; if you're a good Muslim, the crazy thing is for you to get attached to this one religion, and suddenly say, "My religion is better."
Bob: So because they believe that, you come along, as a Christian, and say "Jesus says I am the way the truth and the life," and they say, "That's wrong. It must be wrong, because I know that all paths lead to God."
Tim: Their belief defeats the Christian claim. That means it blocks them from being able to accept it.
Tim: So a defeater belief, you might just think of as a blocker. It blocks a person from being able to accept what you want to share with them. It raises a red flag in their mind.
Bob: And what do we do when we recognize – "Well, that's one of those defeater beliefs." Is there a way to convince somebody that Dwayne Wade isn't really the best basketball player?
Tim: You try to turn the red flag green. You try to lower the defenses and share a story or an illustration that shows that the Christian claim isn't silly, after all; that it's been misunderstood, for example.
Dennis: And you use illustrations and stories to be able to do that, and what I liked about your book, it's just loaded with contemporary stories as well as some from the great authors like C.S. Lewis.
J.P.: Yes, exactly. Let's go back to the defeater belief, Dwayne Wade, very quickly.
J.P.: It would not be effective with my 14-year-old son to sit and say, "Okay, let me tell you five things about Dwayne Wade that I don't think he's the best basketball player. Okay, number one, number two," and you go all the way to five, what you've done is you've put that person on their defense, and the Proverb says "An offended brother is like a fortified city."
So I start to attack Dwayne Wade – my son goes into protection mode. So if I say to another person with another religion, "Well, let me tell you five things about Buddha that I think are" – immediately a person is going to get defensive. So we can't just jump in and attack a person's worldview. We have to kind of take a more indirect route to talk about certain things, and that's what we tried to do in the book – are different things to think about these other religions or other issues.
Bob: So you'd start to share about Tim Duncan with your boys, and that would turn everything around, though, wouldn't it?
J.P.: Well, you know what you could do is regarding this idea that it's pretty arrogant and intolerant to claim that one view is true, you might want to start with a medical analogy. We've all known doctors that have recommended medicine to someone, and it was really the wrong and bad medicine. Or maybe a nurse picked the wrong medicine out of the medicine cabinet. Sincerity in medicine is not enough. You can be sincere about the fact that this is the medicine that was prescribed, and if you take it, it will help you. But if you've got the wrong medicine, it's going to make you worse. It could even kill you.
And so the question is that sincerity is important, but you also have to be sure you've go the right medicine. And what we're claiming is that with a question as big as the question of God, we should also try to do the best we can, not to just be sure that we're being sincere in our quest, but to see if there is some bad medicine out there, you know, like Jim Jones and Jonestown, that's not good medicine, and is there a medicine that's actually better than the rest, and how could we know that?
Bob: Well, if I’m your skeptic, though, J.P., I'm going to say, "Well, medicine is scientifically verifiable. You can run the tests, you can show the clinical data. But when it comes to religion, you don't have scientific reliability. You can't run the test and say, "Well, this many Christians get to heaven, and this many Buddhists don't."
J.P.: Well, and that's a great question, and what we do in the book is to show that that isn't the case. As a matter of fact, there is scientific evidence that Christianity is true, and we actually lay out a number of those pieces of evidence. We tell stories about them and show that, in an odd kind of way, it turns out Christianity is really the only one of the major religions that does, in fact, have scientific evidence behind it.
Dennis: I want to take you back, J.P., to your dinner with the motorboat specialist, all right? Because I think, more than often, that's where we find ourselves at a meal or at a ballgame, in the bleachers next to someone, or on an airplane, and we have an extended opportunity for some kind of conversation.
Now, I don't know if you steered that conversation with your friend, who was over for dinner, toward spiritual matters or not, but one of the ways, in fact, one of the beefs I have about the Christian community is we're always quick to offload truth and to begin to assume we know where the other person is without asking the questions to begin to dislodge where they really are spiritual in their journey. And I think one of the great tools you talk about in your book is asking people questions to have them reveal currently what do they believe, where are they in their own quest?
And then you begin thinking about how can I take the Gospel to this person? Now, back to your dinner – did you turn that conversation to spiritual matters?
J.P.: Well, he was already a believer, in fact, he was in my church. I'll tell you something interesting about him, though – I had just finished teaching a course for six weeks in the church in a Sunday school class about some of the very same things we've got in our book, "The God Conversation," and believe it or not, he told me that he had been at a job for 10 years, had never shared his faith because he was afraid to open up conversation, but in the last three weeks he had talked to six people about Christ at work, because for the first time in his life, he felt like he had some things to share with people that gave him – it empowered him.
Tim, I think you've done some great thinking in the book about this whole topic of standing alongside someone and asking them the right questions rather than, as Dennis pointed out, just unloading truth on them. Why don't you share a little bit about that?
Tim: Well, one of the illustrations we have in the book comes from "American Idol," which people just kind of chuckle at. They're, like, "Okay, if you're getting illustrations from "American Idol," how in the world did that Clay Aiken, okay, get into the Gospel from Clay Aiken?
But, but, if you watch "American Idol," and we do …
Dennis: And so does Bob.
Bob: Tim, that was horrible what you just shared, that was terrible.
Tim: Well, if you remember from last season, "American Idol" did a great thing. They did this thing called "Idol Gives Back," and it was addressing poverty in Africa and the United States, and they sent Simon Cowell to an African village that had been ravaged by AIDS and poverty. And here you have Simon Cowell going into a shack where a woman was raising 13 kids, eight of those kids were AIDS orphans that she had taken in. And Simon Cowell was visibly shaken. I mean, you could just look at him, and he kept saying, "This isn't right. This isn't right."
And I have gotten into conversations with people saying, "Did you see that American Idol episode?" I'm amazed so many people have, but even if they haven't, you can describe it very quickly. And then to say to them, "Why are things like that? Why isn't the world right?" And we can talk not just about Africa, we can talk about inner city Chicago where things just aren't right, and there is a sense within us that something is wrong with the world today, and it's very interesting to go from "American Idol," just to ask the person, "What do you think is wrong with the world?"
Dennis: Yeah, you ask a question, and in their answer they will reveal some of their faith and where they stand around spiritual matters.
J.P.: Absolutely, and look at the – if I may say, the brilliance of this kind of an illustration, Dennis, because what you do is you could start a conversation by saying, "Boy, I don't know if you saw the American Idol episode the other day, but" – blah blah blah, and you tell that story and, all of a sudden, people are engaged. They are engaged, and they're engaged in the wrongness of this, and then the question – what's wrong with the world? What is at the bottom of all this?
Bob: And you don't have to be watching "American Idol." You can just pick up the newspaper …
Bob: And there's plenty that's not right on the front pages every day.
Tim: And that – following an illustration of that sort, the question screams out to be asked. And once you ask the question, Dennis, like you said, then the person has a chance to just share, and you get, as you pointed out, a kind of a take on where they're at.
Dennis: Yeah, and what you guys have written about in your book is really, I think, helping followers of Christ fulfill Christ's last command that He gave in the Book of Matthew, and He said in Matthew 28:19-20, "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you and, behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age."
Any follower of Christ knows, more than likely, that that is Christ's Great Commission. They feel a sense of obligation that they ought to be able to give a defense for their faith, be able to share their faith with their neighbor, a family member, a friend, and yet what you guys have done in writing "The God Conversation" is you've equipped individuals, whether it be a person in the marketplace or a teenager at school or a college student to engage around contemporary events with all kinds of illustrations.
And I know, as a parent, as we raised our children into the teenage years, these were the kind of things we wanted to build into their lives so that when their faith got attacked – not if – because it will get attacked – when their faith was attacked, they knew how to respond, and they didn't just get angry in return, they responded with grace and with some rationale that was a good defense for their faith.
Bob: Well, and we live in a time, in an era, where our faith is under attack. There is scrutiny, there are books, as we've talked about, on the bestseller list that talk about whether God is real or not, and we've got to be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within us, and I think that's what you guys help us do in the book you've written called "The God Conversation," which we have in our FamilyLife Resource Center.
In fact, there are a variety of books we have there, including C.S. Lewis's classic book, "Mere Christianity," which is an apologetic, a defense for the essence of what Christianity is all about. And Jerry Bridges' book, "The Gospel for Real Life," helps identify what the core message, the central message, of Christianity is.
You can go to our website, FamilyLife.com, and on the right-hand side of the home page, you'll see a box that says "Today's Broadcast." If you click there, it will take you to a page where you can get more information about the resources we have available that can help you be ready to give an answer for the hope that is within you, including the book we've talked about today by Dr. Tim Muehlhoff and Dr. J.P. Moreland called "The God Conversation." Again, you'll find information about it at FamilyLife.com, or if you'd like to order, you can simply call 1-800-FLTODAY, 1-800-358-6329, and when you contact us, someone on our team will let you know how you can arrange to have any of these books sent to you.
Speaking of resources, there's a popular book that has come out in the last several months, and, in fact, we talked about it on our program not long ago. Dr. Robert Lewis has written a book called "The New Eve." It's a book that helps women understand what the Bible has to say about what's at the center of being God's woman? How can you embrace and better understand what it means to be feminine in our culture today?
The book comes with a companion DVD that offers discussion starters so that the book can be used for small group study. And this week we want to make that book available when you make a donation of any amount to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today. We are listener-supported, and those donations are what keep us on the air in this city and in other cities all across the country, and we appreciate your financial partnership with us.
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Well, tomorrow we're going to continue unpacking some of the objections people have to Christianity, and understanding better how we can engage them in a God conversation. Tim Muehlhoff and J.P. Moreland are going to be back with us. I hope you can be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We'll see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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