The 2010 Christmas parade in Bryan-College Station, Texas, had more than 100 entries. Just one resulted in raised eyebrows. The local atheist group sponsored an 18-member vuvuzela marching band. In case you are wondering, vuvuzelas are those loud, obnoxious, monotone two-foot-long horns often seen at sporting events. The reason the eyebrows were raised was not because “Jingle Bells” on the vuvuzela was obnoxious, but because atheists were marching in a Christmas parade. A number of Christians were offended that these people were intruding on a parade that celebrates the day commemorating the birth of Jesus.1
Historically, at least in the Western world, “conversions” to Christianity have come from two groups of people. First, there are those who change denominational loyalty. This has been, by far, the most receptive group for Seventh-day Adventists. Attend any evangelistic series and, from the very first meeting, you will discover that the language and the presentation of topics are based on the twin premises that Jesus is the Son of God and the Bible is authoritative. Often our primary focus in these meetings is to demonstrate that our Adventist understanding of Scripture is the most accurate. The second pool is people who claim to believe in God and Scripture, but who have not made religion a priority. To focus on these two groups is not an unreasonable approach. According to a 2009 Gallup survey, 78 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians. However, the number of non-Christians is growing rapidly. In 1948 only 2 percent of Americans did not identify with any specific religion. By 1998 that percentage had grown to 6 percent; in 2003 it grew to 10 percent; and, as of 2009, it is 13 percent. Additionally, today 9 percent of Americans identify themselves as having a non-Christian religious belief.2
Reaching Out to Atheists
A number of years ago I wrote an article for the Adventist Review in which I told the story of walking away from church and God, marrying an atheist, and how, after I came back to God, she experienced a miraculous middle-of-the-night conversion.3 My wife was the first atheist I had ever knowingly spent any time with. Today I live in Silicon Valley with many atheists, agnostics, and non-Christians. I frequently cross paths with those who, either openly and actively, don’t believe God exists or who, while nominally open to the possibility that God exists, don’t really believe it. This has caused me to spend a lot of time wrestling with how to tell these people about Jesus in a way that will make some sense; in a way that will be compelling enough to open their hearts to the working of the Holy Spirit. I can understand those who felt offended by the atheist Christmas vuvuzela band. However, if we take seriously the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son (told by Jesus in Luke 15), we must recognize that these atheists are very precious to God. If they are extra-precious to God, we should reach out to them more consciously and effectively.
I have spent a great deal of time digging through my Bible looking for the answer to this question. It is not as easy a task as one might imagine. Throughout the whole of Bible history essentially everyone believed in God or in gods. This means that we are not able to examine straightforward examples of Jesus or the early church founders interacting with those who had no belief in God. However, we do find relevant biblical principles that may guide us in our desire to reach atheists. Here are four:
1Look for a Bridge: In Acts 17 Luke tells the story of Paul in Athens. Paul has run for his life, and, while waiting for his ministry companion to join him, he wanders the streets to get a flavor for the community, to better understand how to present the gospel of Jesus. Acts 17:16 says that Paul was “provoked within” when he saw the thousands of idols scattered throughout the city. As the story continues, Paul is invited to come to Mars Hill and present his new ideas about God. Listen in on the story: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To the unknown God” (verses 22, 23).4
At first reading, you might be either repulsed or baffled by Paul’s approach. Back in verse 16 we read that he was disgusted by the idols, and now he is talking about one of those idols almost as if it fits right into his belief system. What Paul has done is use this idol to the unknown God to start the conversation. It was a place where he could meet his audience partway. If he had condemned them for idol worship, he would have been correct and justified, but would have lost the opportunity to tell the great controversy story. There is no better way to begin a conversation than by asking what the other person believes. Their responses may terrify you, baffle you, and even horrify you. Yet once they have told you what they believe, they have given you permission to talk about what you believe.
2Demonstrate Love: In Luke 17 Jesus passes through Samaria on His way to Jerusalem. As He is walking through a Samaritan village He encounters 10 lepers “who stood afar off” (verse 12). It would have been easy for Him to ignore them, to keep moving toward Jerusalem. But when they saw Him, they called out for help, and Jesus responded with compassion. He engaged in conversation, and then healed them. In verse 15 we find that just one of them, a Samaritan, came and bowed down at His feet in thanks. Just one of them “got it.”
The first lesson from this story is that, when we engage in acts of kindness and compassion, some of the people we serve will move into a saving, trusting relationship with Jesus. The second lesson is less obvious, but perhaps more important. God has created each of us with the gift of compassion. Even atheists and agnostics have compassion; sometimes, it seems, in greater measure than in Christians. When we as Christians engage in acts of compassion, it creates a positive image of Jesus and a positive image of Christianity.
Every Sunday morning you will find me in the fellowship hall of our church, where we serve breakfast to between 40 and 75 homeless people. The bulk of the food preparation is done by a dedicated group of mostly agnostic/atheist high school and college students. For most of these young people God has no relevance: an invitation to church or evangelistic meetings would be rejected. Yet because, side by side, we scramble eggs, fry potatoes, and mop bathroom floors, they are interested in what I believe and why I believe it. It makes them willing—actually even eager—to hang out with me, to come to my house for dinner, to go bowling, to go snowboarding with me. It even makes them eager to have conversations about God. These are conversations that would never take place except for my commitment to serving the least of these, week in and week out.
3Have Reasonable Expectations: Our traditional approach to sharing the good news of salvation is to hold public evangelistic meetings and invite friends, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers. This is an important part of our evangelistic efforts and will continue to be an important part of our work until Jesus comes. However, this approach will work best with people who already believe in God. It is rare for an atheist or agnostic to step through the doors of this kind of meeting. But imagine what would happen if each year every Adventist made a commitment to begin conversations with people who are not of our faith community, people of other religious traditions or no tradition at all. Imagine if each of the more than 1 million Adventists in just North America had 50 conversations. That would be 50 million conversations in North America. Now imagine if just 1 percent of those conversations would lead to someone accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior. That would be 500,000 new converts, 500,000 new baptisms, and they would happen just one person at a time. While it is a tiny percentage, the results would change the face of Adventism in the Western world.
4Tell a Story/Tell Your Story: In Matthew 13 Jesus tells the story of the sower. At the conclusion of the story the disciples don’t get it. They turn to Jesus and ask: “Why do You speak to them in parables?” (verse 10). He responds: “Because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (verse 13). Jesus was right: even the disciples did not get it. However, they asked questions—another way of saying, “Tell me more.”
I am a volunteer ski patroller, and many of the other volunteers have no interest in God or religion—period. If anything, they are hostile to spiritual things. At one resort there was a patroller who was a self-confessed and vocal born-again Christian. He was known to break out in prayer over some unsuspecting injured skier. He was hated for his Christianity, for the way he inflicted his Christianity on others. There was not a single person on the patrol who did not know how committed I was to Jesus. Almost every time I came up to volunteer, I would bring kids from my youth group to snowboard. I would sit in the patrol shack at the top of the mountain with other patrollers, waiting for emergency calls, and tell stories about my youth group going to Mexico and building churches, about how lives were changed. Because I was telling stories, because I was not shoving religion down their throats, the response was not hostility but rather “Tell me more.”
This brings me to a very sensitive issue. As Adventists we are understandably committed to our unique doctrines. We love to talk about them, and we love to defend them. However, if we start with doctrine, it will have no context, particularly with people who have no belief in God. This is an area in which we need to be wise and listen very carefully for the prompting of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, I suggest that we never hide our doctrine. Sabbath is my favorite day of the week. It comes up frequently in my conversations, but always in the context of talking about what’s going on in my life. If I’m asked about Sabbath, I always address it in the context of being one of God’s greatest gifts—a forced vacation one day each week. The most frequent response I get is envy.
There is no greater thrill than to play a role in helping others to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ. The very greatest thrill of all is to have someone who does not believe in God come to know Jesus as the Holy Spirit works through you. This is an opportunity offered to all of us—if we are willing.
1. Ask people what they did last weekend. (Make sure you have something Jesus-related that you can talk about when they ask you the same question.)
2. Volunteer at a secular charitable organization.
3. Work with your church to organize regular community service projects (once a month, once a quarter), and invite people you could never invite to church to join you in these acts of compassion.
4. When you are panhandled, offer a dollar and pray with the person.
5. Ask people what they believe and tell them what you believe only if they ask you.
3 Steve Moran, “Married to an Atheist,” Adventist Review, May 15, 1997, pp. 12-14.
4 Scripture quotations in this article have been taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Steve Moran lives in Mountain View, California. He is passionate about serving the least of these as a way to reach the fortunate. This article was published May 26, 2011.