Among the 50 books authored by evangelist statesman Luis Palau is the unconventional volume A Friendly Dialogue Between an Atheist and a Christian, which documents his two-day faith discussion with China’s Zhao Qizheng (co-author), a nuclear physicist, political figure, author and educator. What’s striking about the book—a best-seller first published in China by the communist press—is its tone of respectful listening as well as bold proclamation. A tricky balance for any who profess to speak for God. Mindful of that challenge, Outreach interviewed Palau, and what emerged from the discussion was a reminder of the power of civil discourse and patient, loving evangelism.
Sometimes we Christians are too confrontational, and it limits our opportunities. It doesn’t work in dealing with nations, and it doesn’t work dealing with individuals.
I may be more sensitive to this because I grew up in a confrontational church. It was a good biblical church in many ways, but it was a fighting church. Some of the preachers hurled insults at “the other side.” As a child, I would sit there and say to myself, They’re going to come and chop our heads off—and we’re asking for it. But we were safe because there were no unbelievers present. Few ever came in, and for years the church did not grow—probably because the attitudes were not loving.
Spurgeon used to say, “The pulpit is the coward’s castle.” You can hurl insults from the pulpit that you would never say over a cup of coffee at the local restaurant. You wouldn’t sit in the restaurant with a pagan, atheist, Marxist and start insulting him, his intellect, his mother. First, he might throw the coffee at you. Secondly, he’d get up and walk out.
If you really do one-on-one conversations about faith, you learn to respect the person, understand that in his mind, he’s sincere about his nonbelief. At the same time, you believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. He’s the one who really does the converting. I’ve been at this for almost 60 years. I always felt like when I talk one-on-one, I must first respect the person. Even if they were the wildest character, you show respect for their thoughts. You listen carefully.
I always know the Lord is going to open a door into the person’s soul—or at least a window—and I’m waiting to see: Where’s the window? In my experience throughout all our years, you listen to the person, and they want to tell you all kinds of things. They want to tell you where they’ve been and what they’re up to—what the wife does or what the children are doing. Politics, world events, all kinds of things. And I’m interested in all that. I may be in a hurry to get into their soul, but not in such a hurry. So you wait.
There’s no question that there is a great cultural shift [in America]—it is breaking down because we are a diverse culture. The big question is, how do you then respond to the challenge?
I grew up in a country and a time when we were consistently and constantly confronted by attacks, insults, put-downs and offensive language. I was brought up in a culture when, as a believer, I was in the minority, and we were treated like dogs. Every insulting term you could use, we heard.
What has changed? We have now seen the blessing of God in Latin America. Africans have experienced a similar shift. The public, persistent, positive proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ has made a difference. That will bring better results if you give it time than attacking the other side and demeaning them for their convictions.
If you want to see change—and who doesn’t?—do something revolutionary: Love your neighbor as yourself. Pray for your enemies. Don’t curse those who mistreat you. No, pray for them. How often do we hear a church praying for its enemies?
And of course, continue to faithfully preach the Good News.