Witnessing in an Age of Apathy
How can we witness to a person who doesn’t care about God?
This is one of the challenges in carrying out our prophetic calling in this world: we don’t always have an audience that’s interested in what we have to say. Our conversation partners might be apathetic. Why should they care about Christian truth? Some are openly hostile, of course, and some are interested to hear more.
But if I may generalize, I would say that our time and Western culture are marked by religious apathy.
At the core of religious apathy is a disinterest in questions related to God’s existence. These are questions like: Does God exist? If so, how does He reveal himself, and what is God like? And if He doesn’t exist, what does that mean for us? For many people who are living in Western countries like ours, these God-questions mean very little.
So where does this apathy come from? For this article, I am greatly indebted to the book called Apatheism, by Kyle Beshears (B&H Academic, 2021). He puts into words an undercurrent of thinking that makes it hard to be a faithful witness for Christ.
Beshears says that traditionally, there were a few different perspectives on the question of God’s existence.
1) atheism: the belief that God (or gods) do not exist
2) agnosticism: the belief that there is not enough evidence to prove or disprove the existence of God – ‘we just don’t know’
3) theism: the belief that there is a God (or gods) with whom we may relate
As the fourth perspective, Beshears says there’s another common perspective on God’s existence, and it’s probably the dominant attitude today. It has been called apatheism. It is the view is that whether or not God (or gods) exist is not that important.
An ‘apatheist’ doesn’t take a position on the question of God—he or she doesn’t care.
We’ve probably all had the experience of trying to engage with someone who doesn’t care, having a conversation about a topic in which they have no interest—it’s very hard. Ironically, it’s far easier to talk to someone who strongly disagrees with you about a topic: they still care about the matter under discussion.
For instance, think about interacting with a devout Muslim at university. Strangely enough, you actually have something to talk about with them! They’re invested in continuing the conversation, because they acknowledge that there is a divine Being.
Many years ago, I had a co-worker who loved to talk religion. He was a post-secondary student, well-read, and polite—and he did not believe in God. In terms of beliefs, he was on a very different foundation than me. And yet we had great conversations. We could talk easily and naturally, for he had clearly thought through some of his ideas; he had read and listened and considered.
Even though he was an atheist, he still cared about the idea of God.
That is probably typical of an atheist. They don’t believe in God for a reason: because of the problem of evil, or because religious people have done so much harm in this world, or because of some other critical point against faith. The point is, they have thought about it. So you can try to respond to them, to sort through objections, maybe use some apologetics to defend the truth and turn a conversation toward Christ.
By contrast, you might struggle to speak with someone who is apathetic. They just don’t feel anything about ‘God questions.’ This has been my experience several times while flying here and there. I sit down beside someone in the airplane, say ‘hi’ and tentatively start a conversation. Talk soon turns to what I do for a living: ‘Oh, I’m a pastor.’ And that’s a natural entrance to a discussion about God. I can ask: ‘Are you a Christian? Do you ever go to church?’ But I’m soon up against a brick wall.
Maybe a plane ride isn’t the best setting for this: When they hear that I’m a pastor, I think people get scared that they’re sitting beside a religious nut, someone who’s going to try to convert them for the next ten hours. So they shut down the conversation and get very interested in whatever movies are playing. Are they intimidated? More likely, I think they’re simply apathetic about God questions.
We struggle to relate to an atheist, but this might be even harder. It boggles our mind: How can you not care about God? Faith in God is the most important part of our life, and Christ gives meaning to all that we do. Yet here is a person who has no interest.
Sources of Apathy
It is good to think about where this apathy comes from. Because of sin, the Bible says, all people are blinded to the reality of the true God, and lost in the darkness. Apart from God’s regenerating Spirit, no one will ever acknowledge him with a saving faith.
Unbelief in God isn’t new. But there can also be a ‘spirit of the age’ that has a powerful influence on people (Rom 12:2). In terms of the spirit of our time, we can say that there is a general aversion to faith. Beshears points out that such religious indifference is typically found in a society that is secular, comfortable, and distracted.
Western culture is secular in that it has become far less acceptable to hold a belief in God with any kind of conviction. Faith in God is merely one choice among many other beliefs. Today there are many alternative explanations for the universe and for what gives meaning to life. For example, people look to evolutionary science to give the answers to life’s biggest questions. We have also become more aware of many different religions—between Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, who is to say which one is right? It is a time of pluralism, and it gets harder to care about God when there’s a field crowded with competing ‘truths.’ Religion is then purely a private matter with a greatly reduced impact on society. Our culture is secular.
There is apathy because our age and context are so comfortable too. Today there is a widespread sense of safety and tranquility. We lead nice lives: a good career, a comfortable home, enough wealth to have our creature comforts, and positive relations with other people. And when life always feels safe and steady and predictable, there is little motivation to turn to God for help. What can God give to me that I don’t have already? With good reason, Jesus often warned that the wealthy will have a hard time to enter the kingdom of God—and aren’t we all wealthy, in many ways? Wealthy and comfortable, and tempted to forget God.
A third factor in an age of apathy is distraction. People are either busy with their work, or with their many hobbies, and busy with their electronic devices. The typical person works all week, but he lives for the weekend. And when we’re occupied like this, always moving on to the next thing, people struggle to reflect on why we exist and what is really true and important in life. Thinking deeply takes time, and we don’t have time. In a distracted world, God is not merely unneeded, He is unnoticed.
These are big factors of living in an age of apathy. And we can surely see how witnessing to someone who is apathetic is going to be difficult.
You used to see billboards along the highway that announced, ‘Jesus is the Answer.’ I think that message would not really resonate today.
Jesus is the answer to a question that people simply aren’t asking.
Most people aren’t worried about being reconciled to God because of some vague idea of sin and guilt. This means there isn’t much of a spark for a gospel conversation.
How to Engage?
How then can we witness in an age of apathy? Scripture always teaches us to begin with the heart. In this case too, we must begin with the heart. And not the heart of our neighbour, but with our own heart! As we interact, we should think first about the example of our own life. To what degree does our walk stand out in this culture?
And maybe we should begin by considering whether we too, have been affected by our apathetic age. Living in this secular, comfortable, and distracted culture, is it possible that I have begun to lose touch with the joy of salvation? And when we think less of the true God, we turn so quickly to the idols of the present age. So where we look for joy? Do we find joy in material things? In the people around us? Do we have joy in how wonderful our lives are?
The alternative, of course, is for us to recapture the joy of salvation. For if there is one contrast to apathy, it is true joy in Christ. Think of how the Scriptures speak of about the life-shaping joy of the gospel (e.g., Luke 24:52). We can share in that same great joy because we know God through Christ. And when our own life is marked by a joy in the Lord, it becomes a little easier to show people how worthwhile is life in Christ.
Of all the apologetic arguments we can make, probably none is better than the life of a sincere believer.
If we are apathetic, we have no reason to expect anything but an apathetic response to the gospel.
But when we ourselves care about the gospel, we are so much better positioned to speak with those around us.
Something to Consider
In all this, let’s be realistic about our goal in interacting with our neighbours. The goal is not conversion but consideration. It has been said many times that one of the goals of witnessing or Christian apologetics is to put pebbles into people’s shoes. Our neighbour may walk away and seem to be unmoved, but what you have said—and how you are living—may stay with them like a pebble in the shoe.
And after a while, maybe it will bother them enough to take another look.
And in this case, the pebble that we place is about their own source of joy. What is their greatest source of happiness? Is it work or music or friends or money or love, or something else? Is the joy that they have powerful enough to sustain them through life’s darkest seasons? Is their joy permanent enough to remain always?
As children of God, the Lord has entrusted to us a great treasure—something to rejoice over and find delight in. When we demonstrate this joy to others, we can leave the results of each encounter to the Lord. God alone is the one who ignites true love and right passion. He just calls us to be the faithful and joyful witnesses of his glory.