Almost everybody has been visited at home by Jehovah’s Witnesses, and most people probably wouldn’t hesitate to call the group crazy. It’s difficult to reach any other conclusion when they start conversations with, “Do you think God punishes people with natural disasters?” Nonetheless, I’ve found that when given an opportunity to speak, they’re willing to discuss their beliefs, and they can do so quite thoughtfully. What I find even more interesting, however, is that this seemingly strange approach to evangelism actually works. There’s a valuable lesson here for Christians.
The JWs know their theology well. But more importantly, they know why they accept that theology. There’s certainly plenty of room for disagreement; I almost never agree with the Witnesses who regularly visit my house. Their doctrines are, to put it mildly, really strange and based on a gross misuse of scripture. But that’s not the point. When I laid out that argument for them they were ready for it. In fact, on every point of contention they were prepared to cite scripture and then explain why their views make sense.
Christians should be ready in the same way when the cartoonishly named “freethinkers” attack our faith, as there isn’t a greater threat to Christian belief than the supposedly rational arguments these skeptics throw at us. But in contrast to the Witnesses, many believers today appear disinterested in apologetics, and even critical of defending the faith. I was once told by one “spiritually mature” Christian that the intellectuals in the Church are the reason the Bible has been distorted over the years.
Anecdotes aside, pastor and popular apologist Timothy Keller explains that many Christians say we don’t need apologetics “… because people aren’t rational. We need loving community instead.” There are a number of reasons why that’s a foolish line of reasoning. But Keller lays out a particularly interesting one: secularism is a lousy foundation for society, and people would be open to critiques of the skeptics’ worldview if we’d bother to offer them one.
I agree with the critics that say the old, rationalistic, ‘evidence that demands a verdict’ makes people’s eyes glaze over today. But that doesn’t mean that people don’t still use reason and still make arguments. There is a big chink in the armor of western thought right now. People don’t want to go back to religion, which still scares them, but they are not so sanguine about the implications and effects of non-belief.
I’ll also add that when we ignore the need for a solid defense of our faith, we fit ourselves neatly into the caricature that skeptics like Richard Dawkins have created for us, that we’re just a bunch of superstitious rubes whose worldview is unworthy of consideration. If for no other reason, we should embrace apologetics just so self-righteous naysayers like Dawkins are forced to abandon that line of argument.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses also help solidify Keller’s point that people are interested in rational arguments. When they came to my door last time, for example, the literature they offered me wasn’t filled with fluffy sentiments about living a happy life or why faith makes you feel better. Rather, they left me a pamphlet outlining the textual transmission of their Bible, The New World Translation, and why it’s a reliable text. Textual Criticism as an evangelism tool. Go figure. I humbly suggest that they go through the trouble and expense of printing those things because they work. People probably read them and eventually show up at the Kingdom Hall.
Emulating the Witnesses on this front won’t be as simple as stocking Christian bookstores and church lobbies with Chick Tracts, as previous pastors of mine have thought sufficient. We have to actually educate ourselves and be prepared to field objections. But as it works for the Witnesses, it will work for us, too. And since we have the truth on our side, I think it will work even better for us.