A hiker emerges from the wilderness. He's rail-thin, having survived for weeks on what he could forage. Well-meaning greeters urge him to share in the rich, delicious meal they themselves are enjoying: sixteen-ounce steaks with sauteed mushrooms and onions; baked potatoes with butter and sour cream; and chocolate sundaes with whipped cream. The hiker tries a bite or two. Accustomed to leaner fare, his stomach rebels.
The hiker would have been better served if his greeters had recognized his condition and started him out on just a little clear soup. But the greeters insisted on giving him what they liked, instead of what he needed. He turns away from the table, no better off than he was before.
Unfortunately, some Christian evangelists are like the well-meaning greeters. They offer non-believers a rich meal of theological doctrines — delicious to those accustomed to them, but hard to digest for those who aren't, especially those brought up in the West's culture of rationality. They are puzzled when many non-believers, like the hiker, turn away from the table after a bite or two.
For many of these non-believers, we'd serve them better if we offered to start them off with the equivalent of clear soup, instead of the complete steak dinner that some of us might like. (Cf. 1 Cor. 3.2: "I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.")
Just the Thing: Jesus's Core Teachings
As it happens, we have just the "soup" to give them: Jesus's simple, empirically-defensible, core teachings about how we should live our day-to-day lives in relation to God. I can't do justice to those teachings in a summary. Even so, I would be so bold as to paraphrase a selection of those teachings — all of which can be supported with citations to the Gospels — along the following lines:
- Love God above all — conduct yourself as though he existed and does great things, albeit in ways we don't necessarily understand.
- Seek the best for your neighbor as you do for yourself — and remember, your neighbor is whoever might cross your path, not just the folks you happen to favor.
- Live in the real world that God created, not in a fantasy world of your own making (or someone else's). Pay attention to what's happening around you: watch the signs, face the facts, and prepare for what the future might bring.
- Acknowledge your limitations — you don't know everything, and what you think you know, just might be wrong.
- Don't conclusively presume that God has finished revealing his will to us, nor that he will always want the same things as history progresses; that's for him to decide, not us.
- Before you accept someone's claims, it's not a sin to ask to see the supporting evidence.
- Be willing to offer a fresh start to those who have hurt you.
- Remember that even divinely-ordained rules and practices are tools, not ends in themselves.
- Don't be afraid to change your heart and your mind when that seems to be called for.
- It's not your job to pass judgment on others; you've got enough to do in concentrating on your own life and behavior.
- Love — or duty, which is a form of love — may require a costly sacrifice of you. [ADDED in response to Barry Fernelius's suggestion in the comments]
- Don't let your fears control you: Live your life as though, in the end, things will turn out unimaginably well.
This isn't quite a complete list of what Jesus taught, of course. But these particular core teachings, I submit, provide us with what we need to lead a successful life. (Recall that in Luke 10, a lawyer rehearses the Great Commandment and Summary of the Law for Jesus, who responds: You have spoken rightly; do this and you will live.)
Importantly for reaching out to skeptics, I believe the life benefits of these particular core teachings can be strongly defended in purely-rational and -empirical terms. I hope to write more about this in the future.
And I can personally testify that starting to appreciate the real-world significance of these teachings was something of a born-again experience for me.
Starting Evangelism Off This Way Is Not "Cafeteria Christianity"
According to some evangelists, Christians must not preach anything short of full-blown, traditionalist doctrine, as summarized in the Nicene Creed. Anything less, they claim, is merely cafeteria Christianity.
Unfortunately, such an all-or-nothing approach seldom persuades people. It's reminiscent of the seduction technique of the fictional Dr. Me-Lay Marsden in the novel M*A*S*H, who in his bachelor days would simply ask women up front, with no preliminaries: "Me lay, you lay?" This brutally-simple technique supposedly worked about one time out of ten. That was enough for the young bachelor, but presumably we want to do better than that in our evangelistic efforts — if for no other reason than that we have a duty to try to bring the other nine to God too, not just the one.
I submit that, when dealing with educated non-believers — including many of our own young people — we're better off focusing on a smaller, more-achievable goal, and that is to get them to give Jesus's core teachings a serious listen. If we can engage their attention in that way, we have a better shot at getting them to take seriously the other things we have to say to them.
First things first: To attract educated non-believers to God — and to encourage them to stay at the table with us — we should be offering them this clear, nutritious soup of Jesus to start out with. The church's complete steak dinner can wait till later.