January 21, 2021

How we sound to those who don’t believe

Today I listened to the preacher in chapel. Really, really closely for a change.

It probably wasn’t a good idea. See, God is giving me a gift. I’m starting to hear sermons like non-Christians hear them. I’m starting to feel what they feel, and it’s disconcerting.

It’s scarey. Some of my Christian friends won’t like this, but that may be a good sign.

The first thing I noticed was the insulting approach tactics. The speaker had an object lesson, and took quite a while to work through the object lesson. In someone’s universe, people being forced to listen to a talk will have their minds pried open by these kinds of illustrations. You supposedly totally put aside that you are in church, that you are going to be evangelized, and you just think about the box of donuts or the picture of the puppy, or whatever. Then, while your mind is relaxed….bang! The real point comes flying out of the blue and jumps into your open mind.

This is cool. No….this is stupid. Anyone who is taken in by this sort of thing shouldn’t be subjected to religious appeals anyway. It’s unethical. But this is the way we approach unbelievers that we want to listen to us. We goof with them, and treat them like they have no idea what’s up.

Then it’s assumed we need Jesus. If you don’t know who Jesus is, you are lost right now. But assuming you know what Mel Gibson’s movie was about, you get at least something of what’s going to be the main issue of the evening. The speaker say that you need Jesus more than he says anything else. Over and over. We need Jesus. If you are awake to what’s going on, you know that it’s likely to prove true that anything and everything will be said until you finally admit you need Jesus. Does this seem like trying to get you to “break?” Yes.

There is, behind this appeal, a kind of crass sales pitch that really can make you angry. It’s like being told by the guy in your living room that you need a vacuum cleaner or Tupperware. You can’t help but feel that your “need” is really about this guy’s need to be right, or to make the sale. What you “need” is hardly his business, especially standing up there without really knowing you at all.

It must be insulting to constantly be told you need Jesus by someone who doesn’t know you. Even if you DO need Jesus, how about getting to know me at least as well as a telemarketer? You may even hear this guy say Jesus loves you and Christians love you….because they are telling you you need Jesus.

Gee thanks. I feel warm all over.

Of course, we have the Bible. The Bible is read, and quoted, with authority. It’s the bottom line, the final word on everything. It is the proof that this guy is right and everyone else is wrong. The fact that he isn’t explaining why the magic book is right, and your experiences and thoughts are wrong doesn’t seem to be on the agenda. You need to do more than accept Jesus. You need to accept the way this guy reads the Bible.

A preacher earlier in the week said he believed the Bible was true because it was controversial. Other people say it is just obviously from God. (Explain that please.) Or it’s full of proof by way of prophecies. Or the change in lives proves it. Or the sheer number of Bible-toting Christians proves it.

Is anyone else bored? This preacher was no better or worse than thousands of others: the appeal to authority was everywhere, and you are simply SUPPOSED TO ACCEPT IT. If you don’t, that’s proof you are on your way to hell. If you are going to heaven, you buy this without serious questions.

The content of the message? I have to admit, listening to it as an unbeliever might, it was so irrelevant I can’t imagine why anyone would listen. It would make sense to Christians, but to anyone else? Would anyone else ever start to find it interesting or worth believing? It was just a way to spend time yacking. Logic, reality, honesty. Not on the radar screen. We’re talking about filler for the weakened mind, and nothing for the serious thinker or seeker.

The real point is always the same: You need to accept Jesus. You need to accept Jesus. Whatever the heck that means. Best I can tell, you tell the preacher that you accept Jesus, and they say you accept Jesus, and from then on you get to tell people that you accepted Jesus. Say some religious things, do some religious things and join the Jesus team. Be one of the bunch that is sitting there nodding.

Perhaps nothing stands out as much as the total submersion of every word and action in the sticky-sweet, sappy overtones of being RIGHT and “You better listen to the guy who is right.” Christians live in this so much they can’t see it. They make absurd, ridiculous, bizarre, almost insane, fairy-tail statements as if they are run of the mill.

“Now when Jesus spoke to the Apostle John…”

What!! WHAT!!!!

Well, we’re not even stopping. That’s baby stuff. Have a miracle. Or some answered prayer. Or an incredible story. Or a Biblical example. Or a “can’t fail principle.” Or a talking snake, fallen angel or vision of heaven. These people have the book, they read it right, and they have the answers. They know what you need, and what everyone around the world needs. They will do the talking, and if you are smart, you’ll accept Jesus.

Is this the way it sounds most of the time? Are we really so insulated from real communication that we don’t realize how we come off?

In a future post, I’ll respond to this as a Christian communicator. Right now, I’m going to sit down and ask myself how I’m going to change as a result of listening to one sermon the way an unbeliever does.


  1. i am too hearing things in different ways than i have before, and it makes me ashamed and sometimes even angry. if i’m insulted what is keeping the others here. do we really think that god wants such weak minded followers? jesus asked more questions than he answered. why are we so afraid of the questions?

  2. stephanie says

    Explain what the difference is to the before and after – what is it that you see/hear now and didn’t before?

  3. Making a conscious effort to not be so inside the park. Not to make the assumptions, not to buy the presuppositions. Trying to hear what is said, not what I automatically hear in my head.

    Like going to a baseball game as a total outsider and just saying “WHat is in front of me?” WHat is this all about as is, no notes or cheats or help?

    That’s very hard. Like a fish out of water.

  4. Great observation.

    I wrote this commentary on your commentary, but I’m afraid I don’t know how to use TrackBack:


  5. The best question I’ve ever gotten from a non-Christian was this: “What do you mean when you say ‘Accept Jesus’?” This was a person with a JW background, and we’d been talking about religious things for a bit. I was completely stumped.

  6. tommythecat says

    great article on the church and ‘non-believers.’ i grew up in the evangelical church, went to missions trips, etc. and haven’t been back since for many of the reasons listed above. glad to see someone in the church has the ability to be critical of the church.

  7. Dave Palmer says

    Article had some resonance for me. I’ve been studying the first chapter of First John in my Sunday School. The Apostle starts how with a recital of how he was a witness to the Incarnate God. Obviously, he was impressed to the point that he want to tell the world, but why him and not us?
    Why aren’t we impressed today, or at least impressed enough to want to listen to a 20 minute sermon?
    Does it have to do with short attention spans from the TV culture of this age?
    Does it come because the Church no longer speaks of the universal condition of sin which is killing all of us (some faster than others)?
    Does it come because Satan is more effective than ever in denying that we are sinners, and no-one believes in sin any longer. I’m really wondering because I’m a sometime attender at a Bible study for pre-believers. The teacher is wondering through the Gospel of Mark, trying to paint a picture of Jesus. On this particular occasion, he had picked the miracle of the paralytic let down through the roof. You’ll remember the exchange: “Your sins are forgiven…But so that you may know that the Son of Man has the power to forgive sins, take up your bed and walk….” At any rate, one of the persons there said the problem with the vignette was that you had to assume that people believe in sin, and that is not a given–the implication was that she wasn’t there yet.
    If that is a common viewpoint, why is it that people no longer believe in sin. If they don’t, why would they need a savior?
    Dave Palmer

  8. I am a nonChristian and your article is right no the money. One of the reasons I left the church and the Christian faith is because of the practice of noncommunication. It’s nice to see a Christian who’s finally getting it.

  9. It’s good to see people wake up and ask themselves why they believe what they believe. If you want to get some arguments from others go here:

  10. Michael Spencer from downtown! *Swish* It’s good!!!

    I could’ve have said it better myself, Mike. I have a sister who is so deep into the “My Minister is the final authority” stuff, everyone else must be wrong. That is very frustrating from my POV since I’m the type of person that rattles off random trivia from time to time.

    This is especially difficult because of the diversity in belief within my family. I am a strong-leaning weak atheist. My step father is an atheistic agnostic. My mother is the average non-practicing Christian (She doesn’t go to church or read the Bible). My sister is a fundy. One set of grandparents is the classic rich golfing conservative type who could care less whether or not the Bible is true so long as Bush lets them keep more of their fat paycheck. Another set of grandparents are also conservatives, but talk about militaristic! My grandfather uses his ex-military interrogation training against me about my lack of faith. He’s even requested that I draw him a picture of praying hands. With all these different belief systems in my family, I tend to get a pretty balanced perspective on Christianity. The bad side of it is that all the fundies/conservatives look down on me. There is no one in my (blood) family that I can talk to about what in my opinion are the negative aspects of religion. Only my stepfather can hold a conversation on it without resorting to an attempt to convert me.

    On top of all that, my grandparents (former set) have asked my stepdad to “fix” me, as if I were broken. Upon telling my fundy sister about this, she agreed that it was wrong of them, but only because it only reinforces “my problem.”

    And they wonder why atheists sometimes appear to be so depressed.

    Well, thanks for reading my rant

  11. reusablepheonix says

    hey great observations,
    dont get too critical of christian culture or you’ll wake up one day a non beleiver!
    It happened to me, the last person on the earth I ever expected to deconvert.
    Well, I should say its been a good liberating ride, I wouldnt change a thing if I could do it all over again! Question everything!

  12. revolutio says

    I enjoyed the article a great deal. I hadn’t looked at the rest of your page when I was given a link to this article and by half way through I was wondering if you were only pretending to be a Christian to make a point. Your observations were just about right on the head of what a non-Christian would think if they walked into a Church and sat down to listen.

    Personally, I have heard so many of those catch phrases repeated before that I end up listening to the way a preacher speaks instead of about what he speaks. The words don’t hold meaning like they used to. If you just listen to the style of speech instead of the content, it seems downright unfiendly.

    I think that is a major point of divide between non-Christians and Christians. What Christians think should be a powerful and meaningful phrase comes across as utterly banal.

    Luckily though I joined the Christian Forums in the hopes of meeting Christians who could help me relate to them and understand them. Now I don’t have those kinds of preachers as my only source of knowledge about Christianity.

    Once again, thank you for the refereshing article.

  13. Some pretty good points in there. I’m a non-Christian. That’s probably what made me step away from Christianity–lack of thinking. Everyone just listens to the preacher without question. That’s a good way to mislead people easily.

  14. I’m still waiting for you to answer Michelle’s question.

  15. Excellent article. Very good points and things Christians need to think about. It’s humorous how different “Christian-speak” is from normal everyday speech. Equally humorous is how some Christians have this gift for turning it on and off, depending on what company they’re keeping at present.

  16. Excellent article. Very good points and things Christians need to think about. It’s humorous how different “Christian-speak” is from normal everyday speech. Equally humorous is how some Christians have this gift for turning it on and off, depending on what company they’re keeping at present.

  17. Great article!
    **waves hand** Another non-Christian– You hit the mark! I’ve only been to a church service a couple of times (plus weddings/funerals), but that’s basically what I’m thinking the whole time. It really is a peculiar experience! Very cool that you’re trying to see things from others point of view!

  18. Wow.

    WHo let you people in here? 🙂

    Who is Michelle?

    You all should read my longer stuff on this topic at Internetmonk.com https://internetmonk.com/

    I Have My Doubts https://internetmonk.com/doubts.html

    Why Do They hate Us

  19. Excellent piece.

    The ability to see things from other points of view is a valuable one. Most people never really develop it; they may try it out for a bit, but never give themselves fully to the attempt. You seem to have done a wonderful job actually trying to understand a view that you don’t support. Congratulations, and I hope your insight will serve you well.

  20. I’m a non-Christian too. However, I have a very strong faith in God and was raised as a Christian. As such I’m not bothered by the clichés. The reasons I left Christianity and any form of organized religion is:

    1. The massive incongruity between what the majority of Christians say, and what they do in everyday life. And I don’t mean trying live by the Gospel but failing. I mean the moment they walk out of the Church the gospel gets left IN the Church, and is not thought of again until the following Sunday. Until you get that down, the finest words in the world are irrelevant, because you are just not a believable witness for God.

    2. Whenever people get to together in a group to worship God, it always ends up with the same politics and behavior as a High School clique, no matter how well intentioned. Invariably.

    If you are going to have believers, then that means you are going to have non-believers. And pretty soon they will start pointing fingers at each other denouncing the sinners and the righteous, and the guilty and the dammed.

    The original reason the group got together, to worship God, gets pushed to the sidelines.

  21. Patrick,

    I appreciate your comments, but I would call it a profound misunderstanding of Christianity to say it is invalidated by the hypocrisy of Christians. In an interesting way, crucial tenets of CHristianity are validated by the inability of Christians to live up to the example of Jesus or the Ten Commandments.

    I can’t see where the truthfulness of a worldview is ever validated by those who claim to believe in it. It may be evidence of a sort, but Christianity in particular claims to be about what God does for imperfect people.

    In those forms of CHristianity that claim immediate and miraculpus transformation of character, I can see that their behavior calls their claims into question. But a religion that says God loves skunks isn’t really invalidated by my skunkiness 🙂

    peace, MSpencer

  22. Just a couple of thoughts.

    1.—”Christian-eze” fits into the category of a technical JARGON: the language of a sub-group that has it’s own special vocabulary and referents (NASCAR fans, opera afficionados, lawyers and drug users all have their own specialized jargon). The mere existence of a jargon does not make Christians more or less guilty of anything.

    2.— Many Christians do become isolated from the mainstream culture, within a few short years developing almost exclusively Christian friends, and to a lesser degree work associates, and sometimes choosing exclusively Christian entertainment, dropping their kids into private schools, etc. There is nothing wrong with any of those things per se; the problem is the side-effect of failing, after a while, to be “in, but not of” the world (or, un-jargoned, the larger culture and its values). This is a tightrope that every Christian I know (including myself) has tried, with various success, to remain on. We should all take private inventory.

    3.— Christians so isolated attempt to address the world using their Christian jargon, having become comfortable with it after hearing it so long and absorbing the ideas of the Christian faith in those terms. They often don’t realize that they are making little sense to the non-believers around them. Now you can make an accusation of non-thinking, parroting God-talk stick. Many of us are too intellectually lazy to read our Bibles, not to mention convey the Gospel coherently to a culture that not only does not share our vocabulary, but doesn’t believe in some basic concepts of the Christian worldview (ultimate Truth and the sin nature, to name just two stumbling blocks). Blame the lack of authentic persecution or cloying affluence in Christian North America or whatever you want, the majority of us are guilty of Biblical illiteracy and complacency.

    4.— These realities make a good case for an every-day, layman’s Christian Apologetic: removing intellecttual barriers through reasoned discourse before presenting the life, work, death and resurrection of Christ is more important than ever in our post-modern, relativistic culture. Fortunately, there is a nacent resurgence in interest in apologetics in evangelical circles. I’ll allow myself two Biblical examples that underscore the need for every believer to be proficiently conversant with the culture around him: I Peter 3:15 commands all believers always to “be ready to give an answer to those who ask concerning the reason for the hope that lies within you,” suggesting that we can’t just dump the burden of evangelism and pre-evangelism on our pastorate; and when Paul addresses the philosophers at Mars hill in Athens (Acts 17:22ff) (a decidedly Greek, not Semitic, mindset) he doesn’t demand that they acknowledge his God first, but engages them on points of thought they have already been discussing (he hits them where they live) in language they can understand. Such is our challenge.

    5.— If you are a mature Christian and you find your mind numbed during your sermon, it’s time for YOU to do something about it: start an adult apologetics Sunday School class or mid-week evening small group. If you have spent more than a couple of years in the Church, you should be able to teach the basic precepts of the Christian faith clearly. You can start with something very easy, like Paul Little’s “Know What you Believe” and “Know Why you Believe,” which are excellent primers (they even have discussion questions at the end of each chapter, O ye fearful small group discussion leaders!). These are easy reads for the layman, and there is not a Christian cliché to be found between their covers. There are many more such books, of varying accessability to laymen, as well as a growing body of video/DVD choices, such as “Icons of Evolution,” in any good X-ian bookstore, that are wonderful for small group discussion from high school level upward. Oh, yeah: there is a new release of the “Jesus” movie (of third-world evangelism fame) that now has the remarkable additional feature of modern, conservative evangelical scholars, teaching about such topics as the historicity of Jesus, the strength of the New Testament narrative, the defensibility of the bodily resurrection, etc., that make for great discussion. Plug & play. The resources are out there. And the thinking, semi-comatose people in your congregation will love you for it.

    There are also some very good websites full of resources for the merely curious or the erstwhile teacher. Two excellent sites are:

    The Christian Research Institute@ http://www.equip.org

    Stand to Reason @ http://www.str.org

    P.S.— I’m not accusing anyone here of this, but if yo expect to bring your friend to your Sunday morning church service and have him evangelizeed by your pastor, you’re lazy: you already should have engaged your friend in conversations that does the heavy lifting of removing his intellectual objections (or at least giving reasonable answers to them). The church service is not for evangelism; it is for worshiping of God, and for the education and building up of the local body of Christ. It is an “insider” activity, though it’s still unfortunate that Christian jargon takes the place of clear textual exegesis. Having a pastor who speaks plainly is a treasure.

    Whew! Longer than I thought. Okay, I’m done, I think…

  23. Winsome

    Thanks for the good post.

    Context of my post: I was listening to an evangelistic sermon in a school run by Christians for nonChristians. An unusual environment. I never said this was a church service. It is a place where hundreds of nonChristians are required to attend a daily chapel service.

    I agree with your point as regarding the purpose of worship. Our ministry is a bit unique in that we have the opportunity to preach to students who are not Christians.

  24. Hope that worked. Several of the people commenting on this topic are regulars at the `Christian Forums’ site, in the `General Apologetics’ area.

    It looks like many of the issues you write about get debated at length from several sides at that site.



  25. Oh yeah…that’s the place that pronounced me an apostate for saying something positive about my Public school experience.

    Christians can be very mean. But then….look at the cross 🙂

  26. David Scott says

    “A preacher earlier in the week said he believed the Bible was true because it was controversial. Other people say it is just obviously from God. (Explain that please.) Or it’s full of proof by way of prophecies. Or the change in lives proves it. Or the sheer number of Bible-toting Christians proves it.”

    Oh, I do think you’re being a bit hard on him-for, say, a super-detailed dissection of evidence for and against orthodox views of scripture that center around manuscripts, their age, and comparisons to other literature, see tektonics.org.

    It’s more than a little bit heavy to get into casually, in the middle of a sermon, though… If you have half an hour, pointing out that the Bible changes lives, is believed by many, contains fulfilled prophecies, and disrupts peoples normal views isn’t the worst possible thing.

    Also, as far as Christians being divided from normal culture… this is in no way something uniquely Christian. I personally have a fondness for Role Playing Games, and consider myself a pretty serious gamer-I go to conventions and whatnot, and am on the staff, yadda yadda. Certainly my gamer friends and I have conversations a person on the street would be completely confused by-‘Prestige Classes’, ‘mini/maxing’, and so on. Also, my sister is a professional actor and dance teacher, and my eyes glaze over sometimes when she talks to me about being chosen to be in the front for a particular motion or dance studio politics.

    The church is, unfortunately, all too human, which is a great difficulty if one erroneously thinks that Christianity teaches that the church will be perfect-actually, the epistles, a large portion of the New Testament, are largely devoted
    to dealing with profound division and trouble in the early churches. Paul, who himself complained of doing things he did not want to do, would have laughed at the idea of the church being somehow perfect.

    All of that being said, rather than leaving the church or one’s faith, the best solution is to get involved. My family and I had to try a few churches to find one that fit us now that we had a baby; our old church was so small that my wife was sitting, alone, in the nursery through every service. So, we went on a sort of quest, finally finding a church that we enjoyed, and we were challenged by, after eight months.

    A lot of the problems with today’s church is that the people in authority are, to put it bluntly, getting old. Our church is very friendly to non and new Christians, and, our Pastor is young-a few years shy of 30.

    Maybe the best solution to crusty churches is for a new generation to get involved…

    Just my personal thoughts and experience.

    One last thought: It makes me sad to see Christians complaining about ‘the church’-we are supposed to _be_ the church, although it is not always true…

  27. Where did the purveyers of apologetics get such confidence that they can demonstrate the inspiration of scripture by manuscript evidence? No matter what the evidence for the accuracy of transmission, it says nothing about inspiration. You have to add in some presupposition about “preservation” or whatever, which can’t be proved.

    https://internetmonk.com/bible.html I’ve addressed my views on scripture here. The Bible is a human book that presents us with Jesus as God’s ultimate Word. That’s its inspiration and authority. Jesus. Period. The Bible isn’t a grocery store of neat things from God. The Bible is a cookbook and the cake its baking is Jesus. All comments about the cookbook are irrelevent.

    Christians constantly inventing new ways to compliment and elevate the Bible are creating worse problems for their communication. Now you have to believe ten things about the Bible before you can hear anything about Jesus. The Bible is about Jesus. It says so. That’s all that’s important in it. As a source of financial advice, weight loss advice or parenting advice, it’s just a book.

    If Jesus doesn’t impress you, I can’t see where the percentage of OT prophecies fulfilled is going to interest or matter.

  28. I call this sort of thing Christian-ese or Christian speak and I find that our faiths detractors attack our beliefs on this basis. For those whose grasp of the faith is feeble to non-existent Christian speak is easily mistaken for the sum total of our theology. As someone who is very familiar with the testimonies of converts to Islam, I can’t count how many have said that they converted because (to them) the whole of Christian theology is based on the claim that all we have to do to be saved is “accept Jesus as your personal savior” in the sense that just having the thought in your mind is supposed to be enough. But listen to some preachers and it isn’t hard to see where some people get this kind of caricature from.

    If non-Christians have a paper tiger labelled Christian theology to knock about and mock, we have only ourselves to blame for the situation for not bothering to translate what we are about into language that anyone could understand and appreciate.

  29. “Where did the purveyers of apologetics get such confidence that they can demonstrate the inspiration of scripture by manuscript evidence? No matter what the evidence for the accuracy of transmission, it says nothing about inspiration. You have to add in some presupposition about “preservation” or whatever, which can’t be proved.”

    Well, perhaps, but I was writing that in response to your disliking the Pastor’s Bible proofs, which included prophecy and whatnot-understanding how the Bible was transmitted to us is actually rather important, as far as things like that go.

    I had assumed that when you complained about constant appeals to authority you meant that you were looking for something more logical or secular; apparently, I misunderstood you…?

  30. To Michael Spencer: Sorry for my assumption about the context of your experience. Now I see your frustration, and it is largely a language problem. I teach my students always to “consider the audience” when writing. Anyone communicating from behind the pulpit would be wise to consider that axiom.

    To others: I was a first-time visitor, and just stumbled onto this thread. Didn’t mean to sound patronizing; I can’t always assume that believers know what apologetics is: many times I get blank looks from X-ians when I mention the topic. I may have been carrying coals to Newcastle (Aw, now I’m feeling all sheepish). I’ll check out the apologetics thread, and thanks for the tip.

    Especially to former believers: yes, many Christians, especially in America, are shallow, vacuous, hypocritical, and behave in ways that undoubtedly grieve God (me, too), often for reasons like the Biblical illiteracy and laziness that I mentioned. But their behavior says nothing about whether or not Christianity is correct. If you’re stuck there, I would beg you to look deeper.


  31. See, God is giving me a gift. I’m starting to hear sermons like non-Christians hear them.

    This is a talent I’ve had for a long time, though it’s seemed to decline as I aged. I’ve heard it called “Growing up Martian”, or “Hearing like a Martian” — the ability to observe something familiar as if you were a complete outsider seeing it for the first time.

  32. Oh, yes, godtalk, how it distances people from each other, especially those who speak it from those who dont! This is part of the focus of my new blog, Better Bibles Blog, which I think one can get to by clicking on my name next to this post: http://beam.to/revision or at the godtalk url: http://englishbibles.blogspot.com 🙂

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