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Sunday
Mar012009

Evangelizing the bus stop: How to respond to the atheism ads 

By Sharon Dewey Hetke

"There probably is a God--so stop worrying, the world is not a runaway bus."

That's theologian David Reed's offering, when asked to give an alternative to the atheistic slogan that's been plastered on British buses, and will soon come to Toronto and Calgary. The original reads “There probably is no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.”

Like his slogan, the approach Reed recommends in responding to these ads is creative and non-polemical: “Don't get grouchy and defensive and reactionary; treat it much more lightly.”

Reed, a retired professor of Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, who specializes in spirituality and society, explains, “When I was younger, if somebody challenged me I would jump in and have a big long debate but the older I've gotten, I've looked at that and thought ‘What a waste of time that was.’”

Any veteran of philosophical debates knows that winning an argument is not the most likely way to save a soul.

Nevertheless, Reed recommends that pastors give some instruction in sermons so that when a response is needed it’s really helpful. Otherwise when church members are at work or socializing and somebody says, ‘Did you see those ads on the buses? What do you think?’ “without having the pastor speak on it or preach on it they might not know even where to start. A lot of the conversation is likely to happen at the water cooler in the office.”

Jenny Andison, a priest at St. Paul's, Bloor Street in Toronto who focuses on evangelism, is convinced the ads could have a positive effect. "For me it would come up in this context: the vast majority of my friends are secular, they're not Christian. But they all obviously know that I'm an Anglican priest. And I could imagine them saying ‘Well, what do you think of those bus ads?’ I'm kind of waiting for that to happen.

“I think I'd probably say something like, ‘You know what? I'm really pleased those ads are there, because it gives me a chance to have this conversation with you.’

They're kind of waiting to see that I'm going to be outraged or upset or offended.

‘Hey, I'm so thrilled. You and I have never had a chance to talk about faith before and that bus ad has made you ask me--that's really good!’”

Andison says Christians need to reclaim the “art of apologetics” [a reasoned defence of a faith or position] and that challenges like those posed by the bus ads are a kind of “refiner's fire for the Church and for individual Christians.” She reminds us: “If your faith is real your faith should be able to stand up to scrutiny.”

There could also be a place for “public apologetics”--and Reed has some creative ideas. “One thing you could do is plan a sermon or sermon series on the topic and then advertise it in the local paper. That might actually get people to come in and engage with it. Secondly you could do your own ad in the local newspaper in response to the bus ads. So it would create a little bit of a profile for your church; it would be an ad with a caption on it in response to their caption—one aphorism to another. And then thirdly, if you’re really an intellectual type and are good at apologetics and face-on debate and discussion, book a room in a pub room, advertise it, put yourself on the hot seat for a discussion on the topic.”

Posting on the Anglican website StandFirm—another forum for public apologetics!--Matt Kennedy, priest at The Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghampton, New York, used Romans 1 to discuss atheism. “Paul writes this about the effect or power of God's general revelation on humanity: ‘The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived...in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse’” (Romans 1:18-21).

Kennedy writes: “Though God reveals himself perfectly and beautifully in nature, general revelation does not effect faith, it does not produce true knowledge, not because general revelation fails but because humans suppress or reject what general revelation succeeds in revealing. There are, according to Paul, no true atheists. Everyone knows God exists and that he is to be worshiped and served because God has ‘shown’ it to everyone through general revelation but everyone willingly suppresses that knowledge.

How do modern people actually come to an awareness of God—or to a point where they are no longer “suppressing the knowledge of God”? Michael Hawkins, Bishop-elect of Saskatchewan, says, “I think for most modern people, it is through Christ. That is, we cannot assume [acceptance of] the existence of God in the modern world--and that’s a bit of a problem in that Genesis 1 begins ‘In the beginning God.’”

How to get people to that is a question. I don’t think that reacting in anger or persecuting atheists is the way to move them. Probably being kind and not taking them too seriously--just as I assume they don’t take us too seriously--is a good first step. Then the question is whether approaching it from an intellectual point of view is the right way to proceed or whether, for most people, the existence of God is something that is only resolved in the knowledge of Jesus Christ. And that certainly is, in some ways, my own story, but I think it’s a story for a lot of modern people.”

So as always--even though these ads can be a springboard for evangelistic conversations--it’s helpful to remember that, as churches and individual Christians, our witness to faith in Christ, through word and deed, is still the bread and butter of evangelism.

Another way of approaching this campaign without becoming entangled in endless arguments is to focus on the second part of the slogan: "relax and enjoy your life."

Andison says the ad “supposes that a relationship with God or faith in God in your life somehow makes your life worse.” And she’d tell her friends “‘You know, actually Jesus says the precise opposite: He says 'I've come to give you life in the fullest.' So many of my friends don't know there's anything better out there--what having a relationship with God in your life would bring to their life. And this ad is totally supposing that having God in your life somehow limits you, means you're going to get less out of life, when in fact the exact opposite is true.”

Instead of mere enjoyment, we can talk about having joy, fulfillment and a meaningful life. And these issues—even more so than questions about the existence of God--resonate with the young. Rev. Reed says this is one reason he's "not too excited about these ads--for young people, their DNA is not atheism."

Instead of attacking atheism, we can give a positive defence of our faith. Andison quotes St. Paul saying, "We need to give an account for the hope that is in us."

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