finding common ground with skeptics
This new MTI blog series aims to help you and your readers sharpen your skills in communicating faith matters to secular readers – skeptics, seekers, and the spiritually disinterested.

As you examine your life – or your career as a writer – can you think of any lessons you wish you had learned earlier than you did?

I’m really glad I learned this lesson very early in my career as a Christian communicator.  It’s made a world of difference.

God has graciously sent me to present Christ and biblical truth on six continents before university students and professors, on secular television and radio talk shows, with executives, diplomats and professional athletes.

He’s had me writing for mainstream newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet about controversial subjects like sex, abortion, the afterlife, and reasons for faith.

As you might imagine, I’ve encountered many skeptics and objections to faith.  I’ve learned much from my critics, the “unpaid guardians of my soul.”

But if I hadn’t learned this crucial lesson at the outset, would all those outreach doors have opened?

The lesson

I learned it on an island in a river in Seoul, Korea.  Over a million believers were gathered for Explo 74.  One speaker that day was a prominent church leader from India who discussed how to best communicate the message of Jesus to the types of Buddhists in India.  Here’s my paraphrase of his advice.

We could use two methods, he said.  One was to begin by stressing the differences between Buddhism and Christianity.  But that often gets people mad and closes their minds.

A second way involved agreeing with the Buddhist where we could.  We could say something like this:  “I know that you as a Buddhist believe in Four Noble Truths.”  (This is foundational to many strains of Buddhism.)  “First you believe suffering is universal.  As a follower of Jesus, I also believe suffering is everywhere.  It needs a solution.”

“Second, you believe that suffering is caused by evil desire or craving.  I believe something very similar; I call this evil desire ‘sin.'”

“Third, you believe that the way to eliminate suffering is to eliminate craving.  I feel selfishness needs to be eliminated, too.  And fourth, you feel we eliminate craving by following the Eightfold Path: right understanding, right aspiration, right behavior, etc.”

“Here’s where I would suggest an alternative.  For many years I, too, tried to eliminate my selfishness by seeking to think and do the right thing.  But you know what happened?  I became very frustrated because I lacked the power to do it. I realized that if I relied on God, he could give me the inner power I needed.”

Do you see the contrast between those two methods of approaching someone who differs with you?  The first emphasizes differences and has the emotional effect of holding up your hands as if to say “Stop!” or “Go away!”  The second begins by agreeing where you can.  Your emotional hands are extended as if to welcome your listeners.  If you were the listener, how would each approach affect you?

Start by agreeing where you can

In communicating with skeptics, start by agreeing where you can.  You’ll get many more to listen.

I call this approach “Advocacy Apologetics.”  You’re approaching the person as an advocate rather than an adversary.  You believe in some of the same things they do.  Expressing agreement can penetrate emotional barriers and communicate that you are for that person rather than against them.  It can make them more willing to consider areas of disagreement.

Don’t compromise biblical truth; but agree at the start where you can.

Paul used this approach.  He wrote (1 Corinthians. 9:19-23 NLT, emphasis mine):

I have become a servant of everyone so that I can bring them to Christ.  When I am with the Jews, I become one of them so that I can bring them to Christ. … When I am with the Gentiles who do not have the Jewish law, I fit in with them as much as I can. …

Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone so that I might bring them to Christ.  I do all this to spread the Good News….

Here’s an experiment:  The next time you encounter someone who differs with you, take a deep breath.  Pray.  Ask God to help you identify three areas of agreement.  Can’t find three?  How about one?  Discuss that first.  Become an advocate for them.  Maybe you’ll oil some stuck emotional and intellectual gears and nudge someone in Jesus’ direction.

Disagreeing without being disagreeable

How can we cultivate respect and learn to disagree without being disagreeable?   Maybe you’ll enjoy this personal story.

I entered university in the turbulent late 1960s.  The Vietnam War, Civil rights, sexual revolution, and campus upheaval permeated our lives.  The fraternity (men’s social group) I joined was quite diverse.  We had political liberals and conservatives; athletes and scholars; atheists, agnostics, Christians, and Jews.  Late night bull sessions kept us engaged and learning from each other.

When I was a first-year student and a new believer in Jesus, our fraternity agreed to allow a Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru) meeting in the chapter room.  I posted a sign inside the front door for all the guys to see, announcing the date and time.  As a gag, at the bottom I wrote “Attendance Mandatory.”  Needless to say, the sign quickly filled with graffiti.  My favorite said, “Jesus and his Lambda Chi Alpha disciples will be autographing Bibles in the hallway during intermission.”

The night of the meeting, one fraternity brother welcomed visitors from the head of the stairway, literally tied to a cross.  Some members heckled the speaker, who gracefully engaged them in dialogue.  He demonstrated how to remain friendly while disagreeing … and point people to Jesus.

Our diversity taught me lots about tolerance and civility.  We lived, worked, studied and played together and forged friendships that have endured despite time and distance.  Many of us still gather for reunions and still enjoy each other’s company.  That environment was a crucible that helped me develop invaluable communication and relationship skills that have aided me in sharing Christ with skeptics.

One reunion involved six class years.  About 50 men came, plus spouses and significant others.  Ex-spouses began asking to come.  Then ex-spouses asked to bring their new spouses!  It was a diverse mix, but we loved it … and we love each other.

These friends have taught me to love those with whom I disagree, and pray for Jesus to open hearts.  Today, when I write, I have in mind my fraternity brothers, their spouses, significant others, ex-spouses and spouses of ex-spouses – the ways they were back then and are now, and similar people through the decades.

Civility, bridgebuilding and finding common ground can open lasting doors for Gospel influence.

Want to know more?

Gratis online resources:

  • Secrets of Successful Humor:  Humor can break many barriers.  How to use humor effectively to attract and hold your readers and listeners … and to help open hearts and minds to your message.  Why do people laugh?  How can you relate humorous stories with a punch?  By the author of the award-winning book, Secrets of Successful Humor. (MTI article)
  • Finding Common Ground with SkepticsOnline video of Magazine Training International webinar; 00:57:11; simple free registration required.  Handout (3-page MS Word document); Slides.
  • Finding Common Ground with Skeptics.  Steve Brown, Etc. nationally syndicated radio broadcast interview.  Online video (28:59; scroll down page to access video) and audio (44:44).
  • Related articles:   English  Spanish  French  Portuguese
  • Podcast Interview on Near-Death Experiences:  (An example of connecting with skeptics on subjects of common interest.)  Listen to audio of an interview with Rusty Wright podcast on, a website that aims to “Explore controversial science with leading researchers and their critics.”  The theme is his article One Minute After Death: NDEs and life after death.  (“NDE Research From a Christian Perspective;”  ~55 minutes.)
  • Civil Discourse?  Tired of TV talking heads yelling at each other?  Exhausted/disgusted with debates and discussions that become food fights?  Consider inspiring stories of risk-takers who build bridges of understanding and communication across philosophical, political and religious lines.  Practical examples to help inform your own interaction with those with whom you differ.  (Probe radio series transcript.)
  • Freudian Slip:  The father of psychoanalysis had some compelling personal reasons for disliking Christianity.  What belief barriers and faith factors might have influenced him? (Probe radio series transcript.)  Italian

by Rusty Wright. Rusty is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2023 Rusty Wright

Photo by Sid Balachandran on Unsplash

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