Q: I’ve appreciated the concept behind your book, A Friendly Dialogue between an Atheist and a Christian. I read it as a book about advancing the faith through respectful listening. Did that experience in China affect the way you view your ministry elsewhere?
A: It certainly confirmed what we’ve seen in other countries. For example, when Mikhail Gorbachev was still president of the Soviet Union, we were welcomed in 12 different Soviet republics. We saw then that there was more openness than was generally known. But sometimes we 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.
So I’m not going to blast a fellow like China’s Zhao Qizheng, who gives me his hand and says, “Dr. Palau, welcome to China. I’m a Marxist. I’m an atheist. I’m a communist. But I’ve read the Bible three times.” Am I going to insult his intellect? He’s an atomic scientist, an architect, a brilliant man—and he showed signs of sincere humility.
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.
Q: Some Christians feel they are losing their grip on America’s shared values. They feel it’s “us against them.” The mainstream culture often feels the same way about the Church. We may be better known for what we are against than what we are for. The book models “a friendly dialogue.” Apply that to the church: How can we build bridges rather than barriers?
A: There’s no question that there is a great cultural shift—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 or course, continue to faithfully preach the Good News.
This interview is excerpted from the March/April 2009 issue of Outreach magazine. Learn more about this issue. Each issue of Outreach is designed to bring you the ideas, innovations and resources that will help you reach your community and change the world.