Lee Strobel Q&A: How to Engage Spiritual Skeptics with the Gospel

Since Lee Strobel published his best-selling book The Case for Christ in 1998, thousands of people have been impacted by Strobel’s personal story of coming to faith after an in-depth investigation into proof for the Christian faith. The week before Easter, Pure Flix will release the first feature film on Strobel’s story. The investigative reporter-turned-pastor-turned-teacher recently discussed his suggestions for churches who want to reach out to spiritual skeptics with Pushpay writer, Tobin Perry. 

Tobin Perry: Lee Strobel, thank you for joining us! Before getting into the movie itself, what kind of suggestions would you recommend for churches that want to better engage those with intellectual stumbling blocks to the gospel?

Lee Strobel: That’s a great question. If you look at the top six reasons why young people are leaving the church, one of them is because they say churches are not safe places to express doubts and to pursue questions. It’s chasing some of our young people away. In fact, three of the top six reasons that young people are leaving involve apologetics, such as what to do when science and faith conflict with one another.

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Plus, there’s a phenomenon in the culture happening. Christians are not reading books by atheists. They’re not reading Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. But their neighbors are, their colleagues at work are, and their fellow students at school are.

Then they’re asking these Christians, “Well, what about this? Dawkins says this. This atheist says this.” Because most Christians have not been well-prepared by their churches to know why they believe what they believe, they stumble around. They get embarrassed. They perhaps start to have some doubts.

Now they’re going to their pastors and saying, “Hey, you need to help us because we’re getting hit by these questions.” Interest in Christian apologetics or evidence for the faith is bubbling up from the pew.

Now church leaders are saying, “Oh, what do we do? How do we do this?” I think there are lots of things churches can do to help. One of them is The Case for Christ movie, which deals with some of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. We’ve created a small group curriculum that follows it up, and churches can use that. It’s appropriate for believers (and for them to invite nonbelievers into) to wrestle with some of the tough questions of the faith. That’s just one resource, but there are now a proliferation of resources, from books, curricula, and training videos that are becoming available that weren’t there back when I was doing my investigation.

I’d encourage pastors to preach on it, to do a periodic series on the tough questions about the faith: Why does God allow pain and suffering? Why does a loving God allow people to go to hell? What about people who haven’t heard? These are the popular and tough questions that Christians get hit with. So I’d encourage churches to preach on the topic of apologetics and to create small group experiences around it. I’d also encourage them not to shy away from even doing outreach events, such as a debate between a Christian and an atheist or have an expert come in to do a seminar on helping us understand why we believe what we believe. I think pastors are going to be more and more motivated to do that because our culture is becoming increasingly skeptical and even hostile towards the faith.

Tobin Perry: What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see churches make when they’re interacting with those with intellectual stumbling blocks?

Lee Strobel: I think we tend, as Christians, to not validate the spiritual journeys of people who are struggling with doubts and questions. We try to short circuit the process sometimes by giving a 25-cent answer to a million-dollar question. That doesn’t respect the person. It doesn’t respect the fact they’re on a journey. It doesn’t validate them. I think we have to understand that sometimes, especially with people with intellectual questions, it takes time. The average person in America comes to faith I think in either six or nine times they’ve heard the gospel.

There’s a process involved. We have to respect that process. One of the things that I found that churches are most successful in using to reach people who have doubts is doing small groups for nonbelievers.

My friend, Garry Poole, has written a book on this called Seeker Small Groups that really explains how to do these groups. I’m a professor at Houston Baptist University. We just trained a bunch of students on how to do these groups. They are groups designed for people who have questions and doubts. What we found is that if a non-believer joins one of these groups and stays in it, 80 percent come to faith in Christ. They have a high success rate in terms of conversions because they allow time to discuss beliefs, to discuss opinions, to discuss faith, and to come to faith in someone’s own timing. I found that approach has been very helpful, and churches that have implemented that have found they’re reaching a lot of people who have skeptical obstacles in their way.

Tobin Perry: In the past 35 years since your story took place, how have these questions evolved or have they evolved?

Lee Strobel: I think the questions have evolved somewhat. There’s a core set of questions I deal with in my book A Case for Faith. Why does a loving God allow pain and suffering? Why would a loving God send people to hell? What about the supposed genocide in the Old Testament? Those issues are common. Nowadays, because of the influence of the internet, we see some long-refuted claims against Christianity being resurrected. Things like, “Oh, it’s just a mystery—it was copied. Christianity was copied from ancient mythology,” or things like thatridiculous claims that have been long disproven. Now, they are coming back because people are on the internet, and they’re spreading this stuff. Basically, the questions are similar. We’ve branched out into more cultural issues, too—like gender issues and so forth.

The good news about Christianity is we have good answers. The toughest questions are about life and faith. We have an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas. We have truth on our side. I don’t mean we ought to go out and confront people or debate people necessarily. I think the key words for the average person is dialogue, discussion, friendships, and relationships. We have to sit down with friends who have doubts and questions, and talk about it, not pretending we have all the answers. Sometimes the best thing we can say is, “That’s a good question. I have no idea how to answer it, but why don’t we do some research together?” That gives you an excuse then for another meeting to look at some of the great resources out there on apologetics and help your friend discover the truth.

Tobin Perry: As you go through your story, it’s obvious that it’s more than just intellectual issues, but there are also relationships that play a part in it. Your wife played an incredibly big part in this. How important are relationships in the process of helping people those with intellectual stumbling blocks come to faith?

Lee Strobel: I’m a huge proponent of what I call relational apologetics, which is friendships and dialogue, where we do more listening than talking, where we validate the person is someone made in the image of God. We respect them and the questions they have. We are empathetic toward the spiritual sticking points that are holding them up in their journey. I’m a big proponent of apologetics not being just about spewing like a machine-gun 50 facts for the resurrection, but instead it’s a relationship. When somebody asks me why does a loving God allow pain and suffering, I don’t immediately give them an answer. When they ask me that question, the next question I ask them, “Well, gosh, of all the questions in the universe, why did you choose that one to ask?” Then you get at the underlying emotional issue.

Then they say, “Well, because our baby was lost at childbirth,” or, “My dad just died of after long bout with cancer.” Now, all of a sudden, we’re on their emotional level. Rarely is a person’s path to God blocked purely by intellectual objections. Almost alwaysin fact I would say alwaysthere’s a moral issue and/or an emotional issue and/or a psychological issue. For me—and the movie portrays this—I had a difficult relationship with my father. Studies have shown that if you look at the famous atheists of history, they all have a father who abandoned their family when they were young, or died when they were young, or with whom they had a difficult relationship.

[Sigmund] Freud even speculated on this. If an earthly father has disappointed or hurt you, you’re not going to want to know a Heavenly Father because He’s going to hurt you more. There are these psychological issues, emotional issues, life issues, and moral issues. Frankly, I enjoyed my sin. I enjoyed being a happy drunk when I was an atheist. I didn’t want to give that up. There’s a lot of things that play into a person being stymied in their journey toward God. I think the questions are part of it, but rarely, if ever, are they the only part.

Tobin Perry: Now onto the movie. Why did you decide to be a part of a movie on your life? What spurred that on?

Lee Strobel: We never thought about it. We were approached by Pure Flix with the idea. My immediate thought was there’s a lot of people who won’t read a book, and there’s a lot of people who won’t go into a church, but they’ll go see a movie. My heart is to see spiritually confused people find faith in Christ and find security in their relationship with God forever, so I want to use whatever means I can. When Pure Flix proposed it, I jumped at it and said, “Absolutely! Let’s reach a whole new group of people with this message of hope and grace and see what God does with that.” I was motivated by the evangelism of it and still am.

That’s really my heartbeat in this, to see spiritually confused people find clarity. That’s why we use this faith equation from John 1:12 in the movie, which was so pivotal in me coming to faith: Believe + receive = become. We realize there’s a lot of people who believe in Christian doctrine, but they’ve never become a child of God. They’re not really born again. We’re hoping they’ll realize this when they see the movie and that believe + receive = become equation from John 1:12 will prompt them to take that step of faith and really receive this free gift of God’s grace.

Tobin Perry: Great. How can churches use The Case for Christ movie to engage people with the Gospel?

Lee Strobel: I hope churches use this in outreach. Easter’s coming up. That’s our biggest time of the year when friends take a risk and invite people. Well, the week before Easter, here’s this movie, it’s in theaters. What a great opportunity to rent out a theater. When you rent out a theater, you get the right to have the microphone at the end. You can do Q&A, or you could invite people to church. I hope churches use the movie as an outreach event to lead into Easter, so they can invite people to come back. That’s why we timed it to come out on Palm Sunday weekend. I hope they use it to impact their community, to encourage people in their church to invite their friends and neighbors and colleagues and fellow students to come. Then use it for a next step to say, “Hey now, why don’t you come back. We’ve got Easter services next week. Why don’t you join us for that?” It’ll be a one—two evangelistic punch that we think will have a lot of impact.

There are a lot of pastoral resources, like the small group curricula. I also wrote a little book called The Case for Christianity Answer Book that deals with tough questions about Jesus that you can get for the price of a song and give it away to people. There are sermon helps. There are scenes in the movie that you can use in your services. There’s a four-week outline of a campaign if you want to do that at Outreach.com/CaseforChrist.

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