This isn't as hard as you might think. Over the years for whatever reason, God has given me the gift of being the person that people send their friends and family members who do not believe in Jesus. If I’m completely honest, some of my favorite people to interact with are atheists, but that is another story.
This question is usually motivated by a genuine concern for people loved dearly by Christians and a confusion of where to start.
Well, where do you start? How do you talk about your faith without pushing the person away, fighting with them, or making your faith seem shallow?
This is key. I don’t know any atheist that has ever been convinced to be a Christian through a theological or philosophical argument with a friend, family member or coworker. The whole argument approach is fraught with all sorts of difficult issues.
First among them is that atheists don’t believe in the sources of authority Christians take for granted like the Bible. You can quote as many Bible verses as you want and even explain the historical reliability of the ancient text, but it will not matter because they don’t believe in God. For them, the words in the Bible are interesting philosophy, but unable to be inspired by God because God doesn’t exist.
Atheists are also intensely skeptical which is something for which I personally have a deep respect. However, unless you have the same level of skepticism, you will likely be caught off guard by the fundamental truths/realities that they question, and will be at a loss for how to respond.
Then there is the problem of logical argument. There has never been a logical proof for God that has not been able to be dismissed by a group of freshman philosophy students (trust me, I’ve seen it). That is because one of the most troubling aspects of religion to atheists is that God exists in some part beyond logic. That is not to say that faith is illogical, but that it talks about ultimate things and spiritual realities that extend beyond our rational existence. Because of that our logic and language does not have all the tools needed to fully convey that reality.
Finally, there are often deep non-propositional issues that undergird their viewpoint. Like every human ever, Atheists have experienced deep pain and loss. Some have been torn apart by Christians in their school, some have been shamed by Christian parents, some have watched as their children died, some have been alienated by pastors, and some have suffered even more horrific things. These sorts of trials would shake the faith of even the most devout Christian, but in the life of a person who was not 100% sure about God they represent proof that this world lacks the presence of a loving God.
Though there are philosophical and theological answers to all those problems, those answers provide little comfort to the deep emotional pain and unsettling loss that is wrapped up in those stories. And no one, NO ONE, has ever found healing from abuse or loss through a theological argument with a person of faith.
When it comes down to it, all you have is your own story. When you are interacting with a person whose beliefs are in direct contradiction with the most fundamental elements of your own, all the elements of your theology have no validity from their perspective. When the Bible is irrelevant in the discussion along with all the theological stances of your particular denomination, all you have left is your own story.
But, that is a lot! Your story contains the same truth of God that exists in the Bible, but in a narrative, personal form. There is real power in our stories because though others may not share your theological beliefs, they do share the human experience. You have both loved and lost and been hurt and experienced beauty.
In sharing how you have experienced God you are sharing the Gospel. In revealing how you deal with doubts, you are giving voice to the Holy Spirit, and when you talk about experiencing the transcendent presence of God in nature you are speaking the words of God that have been written into sunsets and fields of flowers.
All of this leads me to what is possibly the most important piece. The way you talk to your atheist friends is to have a thousand interactions about faith not just one. The goal is not to convert them in a single moment of Billy Graham-fueled glory, its to share the story of God unfolding in your life as often as possible.
The standard posture towards this relationship for most believers is to avoid talking about faith because you don’t want to make the person uncomfortable, but its only uncomfortable when it only comes up as part of a concerted effort to change their mind.
Instead, we need to live our faith openly and publicly so that they can see the work of God in our lives. It is about mentioning that you spent time in prayer before you got ready for the day or how much it meant to you that your small group leader came by the hospital and prayed with you before your surgery. It is about sharing a scripture that helped you out or talking about how the evil in the world frustrates you.
And it is also about letting them see you question and doubt and find an answer or live with the unknown. It is about expressing when you are angry at God for allowing humans to have free will and do evil things, and offering to pray for them when things are less than good in their own life.
It is about allowing the Holy Sprit to speak a thousand tiny messages of hope through your words and actions.
Trust the Holy Spirit
When it all comes down to it, there is very little we can do on our own to convert anyone to Christianity. If your friend decides to follow Jesus it will not be because of something you said, it will be because of the Holy Spirit working in their heart. That means that in this situation you are a tool for the Holy Spirit to use.
This is a stretching moment for most people. The question is whether or not you trust the Holy Spirit. The answer may be “no” in which case you should study all kinds of arguments against atheism and make sure to have a lot of fights with them. But if you truly want them to experience the love and power of being filled by the Spirit as they follow Jesus you are going to have to grow in your own faith to the point that you can trust the Holy Spirit with the soul of your friend.
Which should lead you to your knees because when faced with the fact that we are going to be the vessel for the Holy Spirit we are always confronted with our own brokenness and the need to be healed. So, pray. Pray for your friend, pray for yourself, pray for the Holy Spirit to use your story and the thousands of interactions you have. Then, trust because at the end of the day it is not up to you.