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Talking With Non-Christian Friends

 When Rebecca got to college she was put in a dorm room with three other women. They talked about everything; it seemed they never stopped.  Danielle said she was a “very spiritual person” but didn’t believe in organized religion. Abby was a new ager who burned incense and talked a lot about her “higher self.” Amy had been to church a few times and “guessed she was a Christian,” but she believed in reincarnation and listened raptly to everything Abby said. When Rebecca said Jesus Christ was the most important thing in her life, the others were all warmly supportive, so Rebecca thought their warmth was a response to the gospel message. But they turned out to be just as warmly supportive when Danielle said mountain biking was the most important thing in her life, Abby said her “inner godhood” was the most important thing in her life, and Amy said, “I think we’re all really saying the same thing.” Rebecca was baffled.

When Mike took a class in organic chemistry, he joined a study group organized by two of his classmates. Nobody kept order, and sometimes the discussion got off track. Every now and then it turned to religion. There was a guy named Nick who seemed to get all his religious ideas for Star Trek: The Next Generation and talked about the characters as though they were real people. Then there were Todd, the evolutionist; Dan, the agnostic; Lauren, who wouldn’t say what she believed. One day Mike mentioned that he was a Christian. The others just ignored him, so he never mentioned his faith again.

You’ll have many friends and acquaintances at college, and they won’t all be Christians. Naturally, you’ll want to share your faith with them. But how? In some ways it’s much easier now than it was in your parents’ day. Back then, people used to say “this is a Christian country,” and as a result the identity of the Christian faith was blurred. People tended to assume that everyone was a Christian- or at least that everyone who worked hard and stayed out of trouble was a Christian. One result was that a person could live his whole live without knowing that he wasn’t Christian, so you didn’t know who to evangelize. Another was that Christianity seemed part of the “Establishment,” so if people were angry about anything, they were angry with Christianity too. All that has changed. Nowadays, very few people say “this is a Christian country.” Perhaps who aren’t Christians usually know they aren’t Christians, so you know who to evangelize. Being a Christian no longer seems like the “Establishment” things to do; in fact, it even seems daring and countercultural. So in all these ways sharing your faith has become easier.

But in other ways, sharing your faith has become harder. In your parents’ day, even people who had never set foot in a church knew something about the Christian faith. They knew the Bible has an Old and New Testament. They knew it says there is only one God. They knew who Abraham and Moses were. They knew what the Ten Commandments were. They knew about heaven and hell. They knew Jesus was supposed to be God in human form. They knew that He was supposed to have been born among us as a baby and lived among us as a man. They knew He was supposed to have died on a cross for our sins and risen to life after three days. All that has changed too. You can’t take it for granted that people know anything about Christianity anymore. Even people who have gone to church all their lives (or say they have) may be completely ignorant about what Christians believe. Not only that, today Christianity is often treated with hostility.

This is a thoroughly practical chapter, written to help you speak with your college friends and acquaintances about Jesus Christ. First comes a short section with advice about getting started. Next comes a long section about how to deal with your friends’ questions. The reason it’s so long is handled differently: plain questions, questions that pose objections, and questions that are really smoke screens for other issues that remain hidden. We’ll also talk about how to deal with lifestyle conflicts- friction that results from the contrast between how you live and how some of your nonbelieving friends might live. Finally we’ll talk about who influences whom- that difficult problem of how to spend time with nonbelievers without letting their worldviews and lifestyles rub off on you. 


The best advice I can give about getting started is (1) pray, (2) pray, (3) pray, (4) pray, (5) pray, (6) pray, and (7) pray. That’s seven “prays.” Let me explain what I mean.

First, pray for the chance to share your faith. A few years after my own conversion, Christ strengthened in me the desire to tell others about Him. But how could I do it? The opportunity never seemed to arise. I prayed, “Lord, You’ve promised that Your power is made perfect in our weakness. I don’t even know how to begin a conversation about You. Please give me openings. And please, Lord, make them so obvious that even I can’t fail to see them.” That week, on three separate occasions, three different people asked me about God. Each time, the question was completely unexpected, as though it had dropped from a clear blue sky. I knew God was answering my prayer.

Second, pray to be ready to share your faith. If you pray for opportunities God will send them, but if you’re not ready you may not even notice them. Case: You and your racquetball partner are showering down after a game. He mentions some personal problems and says, “I wonder if God even knows I’m alive.” Case: You and your roommate are standing in the supermarket checkout line next to the magazine rack. He catches your eye, grins, and points to a tabloid with the headline “Scientists Report: Jesus a Space Alien.” Case: You’re sharing some burgers with a classmate from mainland China. She says, “Once in my country we were all supposed to believe in communism. Now young people like me wonder what to believe.”

Third, pray for discretion in sharing your faith. Just as there is a time and place to talk, there is a time and place not to talk. In the story of Rebecca and her roommates in the first section of this chapter, Rebecca might have gained more ground looking for an opportunity to speak to each friend in private rather than when they were all together. Being in one room seemed to put the girls in “warm fuzzy mode”- they wanted to “support” each other and were in no state of mind to consider whether any of the things that were being said were actually good or true. In the story of Mike and his study group, Mike was probably right to shut up when he did. You can’t make people listen when they don’t want to, and if you try, you may be asking for trouble (see Matthew 7:6). However, rather than having been discouraged, he should have stayed alert for another opportunity. Someone might have been interested in what he said but been afraid to let on, God might have opened a door for Mike to speak on a later occasion.

Fourth, pray for words to share your faith. There’s a sense in which you can prepare and another sense in which you can’t. you can prepare by walking with God, studying and memorizing Scripture, trading evangelism stories with Christian friends, and reading books like this. But you can’t prepare in the sense that you can’t know ahead of time exactly what issues might come up in a conversation, what factors might lie behind the issues, and what your friend may need most to hear. Pray not only before you speak but also as you are speaking, “for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:20). And remember what has to go along with your words. There’s a saying among Christians: “Don’t talk the talk unless you walk the walk.” This means that if you merely talk like a Christian and don’t live like a Christian, Christ can’t use you. Your life has to be like His. That should be included in your prayer.

Fifth, pray for patience to listen as you share your faith. Have you ever punched the print button to make a single photocopy, only to find that the machine was set to make a hundred copies and you didn’t know how to make it stop? You don’t want your friend to feel as though you’re that machine. If you can’t hear him, he won’t be able to hear you. It isn’t your job to “print out” everything you know.

Sixth, pray for God to prepare your friend’s heart and mind as you share your faith. You can’t reconcile someone with God; only God can do that. Only He can break down the inner barriers. We human beings need God’s help even to want His help, much less to accept it.
Seventh, pray to thank God for the opportunity to glorify His name. Don’t worry whether your friend received Christ or not; pray anyway. You may never know how God has used you. To explain this, the apostle Paul used the language of farming. One person may plant the seeds, another may water the seeds that someone else planted, and still another may harvest the crop. In the same way, God may use one person merely to get someone thinking, another to explain the gospel to him, and another to lead him to faith in Christ. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow” (1 Corinthians 3:7).

A final thought. The title of this section is “Getting Started.” That doesn’t just mean starting to share your faith. If a friend receives Christ, then it means starting out in a relationship with a new brother or sister in Christ! Introduce your friend to other Christians. Take him together, show him the ropes, and model the life of Christ. He’s part of the family now.


Plain Questions
A ‘plain question” is a simple request for information. If a friend raises a plain question, he isn’t objecting to Christianity- he’s just trying to find out something about it. You don’t need to be a genius to figure out what to do with a plain question. Just answer it! Here are some examples of plain questions, along with the answers I might give.

Question: Is “Christ” a last name, like “Jones”?
Answer: No, it’s another word for Messiah. It’s a title. “Jesus Christ” means “Jesus, the chosen One of God.”

Question: Chosen for what?
Answer: Chosen to be the Path back to the Father- to be what we call “Savior.”

Question: What does that mean “Savior”?
Answer: “Savior” means “Rescuer.” We need to be rescued from our sin and separation from God because we can’t fix these problems just by trying.

Question: Somebody told me Jesus is “Savior and Lord.” Does “Lord” mean “God”?
Answer: It’s true that Jesus is God, but the title “Lord” just means “Boss.”

Question: I keep hearing Christians talk about the “gospel.” What’s that?
Answer: “Gospel” means “good news.” The gospel is the good news that even though we human beings have rebelled against God and messed ourselves up, He came and offered us a way back to Him though faith in Jesus Christ.

Question: Is that where all that stuff about Jesus “dying for our sins” comes in?
Answer: Yes, because the punishment for sin is death, and He took our punishment on our behalf. It’s like if you were desperate because you didn’t have any money to pay your debt, but I had money and paid it for you.

Question: He would do that for me?
Answer: Yes, because He loves you. He’d do it for anybody who is truly sorry for his sins and ready to trust Him as Rescuer and Boss forever.

Question: So why did you become a Christian?
Answer: I’m a Christian because at one point in my life I realized that I was separated from God and could only get back to Him through Jesus Christ.

Question: When you become a Christian, did you feel any different?
Answer: Well, I did, but not everybody does. The important thing isn’t how you fell but the reality of what God is actually doing.

Question: So what would happen if I became Christian?
Answer: The immediate change is that all your sins would be forgiven and you’d be accepted into God’s family forever- kind of like being adopted. The gradual change is that God would change you from within. That part takes a lot of work from you, but the real power to change comes from Him.

Keep your answers short and simple, avoid “churchy” words. Try to phrase your answers in a way that sparks further interest. If you don’t have the answer to your friend’s question, admit you don’t know and promise to get help to find it. Then remember to keep your promise!

An objection expresses a person’s deeper qualms about the Christian faith- perhaps uneasiness about puzzling ideas. These can often become a reason your friend gives not to trust Jesus as Lord and Savior. Because objections can take the form of questions, sometimes plain questions and objections are hard to tell apart. What difference does it make? If your friend asks you a plain question, you simply need to give him information but if he presents an objection, you need to try to solve his puzzle.

Let me illustrate. Matt Has shared his faith with two friends, Jenna and Amber. They were twin sisters and lived together. One day while he was walking to class with Jenna, she said, “Amber and I were talking about what you told us, and we have a question.

Why did Jesus have to pray?

Matt wasn’t sure what Jenna was getting at, so replied with a question of his own: “What is it about His praying that puzzles you?”

She answered, “Well, I guess I’m confused about prayer in general. Why did He do it? Why does anybody do it?

Because she seemed to be making a simple request for information, Matt provided it. “Jesus needed to pray for the same reason all people need to pray, Jenna- to stay in touch with God.”

Later that day, Matt bumped into Amber. “Oh, hi,” she said. “Did Jenna ask our question?”

“Do you mean why Jesus had to pray?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said. “What’s the answer?”

Assuming that the same thing was on both sisters’ minds, matt began to tell Amber the same thing he had told Jenna. To his surprise, she interrupted before he could finish.

“No,” she said, “you don’t get it. I know what prayer is for. What’s puzzling me is that if Jesus prayed, then you must have been wrong when you said Jesus was God. He couldn’t pray to Himself!” Only then did Matt realize that Amber wasn’t just asking for information, as Jenna had been- she was presenting a puzzle and demanding the solution!

So he changed coursed and provided it. “God had three persons, Amber- you could say He’s one What but three Whos. When Jesus prayed, that was God the Son talking with God the Father.” Amber seemed satisfied.

Do you see? The two sisters had said the same words- “Why did Jesus have to pray?”- But they were getting at different things. Jenna was posing a plain question, but Amber was posing an objection. Each friend had to be answered differently.

Sometimes it’s crystal clear that your friend is posing some objection, but the problem is to figure out what objection! This requires what the Bible calls discernment. Let me tell you a story.

Megan also had told two friends about Christ. One was named Reunen, the other Mark. She and Reuben shared a European history class. One day after hearing a lecture about the millions of deaths in World War I, Reuben asked her, “If God is as good and powerful as you say He is, then how can He permit suffering?”

Megan realized immediately that Reuben was starting an objection, and here’s the answer she gave him: “Reuben. I think you’re trying to say that a good and powerful God couldn’t permit suffering. But what if the only way to stop us from hurting each other was to take away our free will? God wouldn’t do that- He wants sons and daughters, not robots.”

Reuben was silent for a moment, then said, “That helps, I’ll think about it.”

Later the same day, Megan met her other friend, Mark, for a hamburger. The subject turned to religion, and guess what? Mark posed the same objection Reuben had posed. Or at least it seemed to be the same. “Megan, you say God is all-good and all-powerful. If that’s true, then how can He permit suffering?”

What a coincidence? Thought Megan, and she launched right into her little speech about free will. Mark heard her out, but by the time she finished, he seemed angry.

“Look, Megan,” he said, “My father ran off with his secretary, my mother’s got cancer, and we haven’t heard from my drug-addict brother in years. I ask you why your God permits suffering, and you give me a philosophy lecture? That stuff might get you an A on some term paper, but in real life it just doesn’t cut it.”

Stunned, Megan was silent for a long time. Then she looked him full in the face and said, “I’m sorry, Mark. I didn’t know about those things.” She paused. “Maybe what you’re really asking is how you can trust God who let them happen.” Mark just looked at her; he wasn’t going to make this easy. She went on anyway. “Look, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know everything about why God permits suffering, of it upon Himself. He died for you, Mark.”

Mark stared at her for a full thirty seconds. She couldn’t read his face at all. “Well, maybe,” he grunted. I’ll think about it.”

Do you see? On the surface, Reuben and Mark were expressing the same objection to Christianity, but their underlying concerns were completely different. Reuben’s was intellectual, and he needed an intellectual answer. Mark’s was personal, and he needed a personal answer. So be sure you understand what your friend is really asking before you answer. Look before you leap.

Smoke Screens
The hardest habit to break in talking with nonChristian friends is thinking that we have to take every question and objection seriously. But don’t we? In one sense, yes: You should never treat a friend with disrespect in another sense, no: Some questions and objections aren’t intended seriously. They’re not real questions or objections. They’re not ways of getting at the truth btu ways of hiding from it. They’re smoke screens.

When someone poses a real question, you answer it. If someone raises a real objection, you try to solve the puzzle. But if someone stirs up a cloud of smoke, you should blow it away- if you can. Let me show you what I mean.

One way to disperse a smoke screen is to toss the question right back at the questioner. “Morals are all relative anyway”, said Josh. “How do we even know that murder is wrong?” the question was a smoke screen, and Frank knew it was. Every human alive knows that murder is wrong; some just pretend they don’t.

So Frank asked, “Are you in real doubt that murder is wrong?”

Josh’s first response was evasive: “Many people might say it’s all right.”

“But I’m not asking other people,” pressed Frank. “Are you at this moment in any real doubt about murder being wrong for everyone?

There was a long silence. “No,” Josh admitted. “No, I’m not.”

“Good,” Frank answered. “Then we don’t have to waste time on morals being relative. Let’s talk about something you really are in doubt about.” A few moments passed as Josh realized that his smoke screen, his “cover”, has been blown away- then he agreed.
Another way to disperse a smoke screen is what I call “playback.”

“You’ve asked a lot of questions, “I said to one young friend. “Have you noticed a pattern in our conversation?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“I mean,” I returned, “that you interrupt each of my answers by asking another question from a different direction.”

He thought about that. “I guess I do,” he said. “Why do I do that?”

“Why do you think?” I countered.

“I guess because I don’t want to hear your answers,” he replied.

“Okay, then,” I said to him, “let’s talk about why you don’t.” Finally he supposed playing games, and our conversation began to get somewhere.

A third approach is to hold up a mirror. Jeff had dozens of objections to Rachel’s Christian views. Whenever Rachel shot one objection down, Jeff just deployed another. Before long, Rachel realized that Jeff was simply laying down a smoke barrage- that Jeff may have thought he cared about Rachel’s answers, but he didn’t really.

“Tell me something,” Rachel asked. “Suppose we took a few weeks and I answered every one of your objections to your complete intellectual satisfaction.”

“Okay,” said Jeff. “I’m supposing.”

‘Good,” said Rachel.  “Then would you become Christian?”

Jeff’s face registered shock as he realized that his answer was “no.” All of those beautiful objections- why, they weren’t his real reasons for rejecting Jesus Christ at all! He just didn’t want Jesus. Though he was still far from receiving Christ as Lord and Savior, he’d turned a corner he’d finally begun to be honest with himself.

Not every smoke screen can be dispersed. If your friend won’t stop blowing smoke, leave him alone. Give him time. Maybe he’ll come around someday, and maybe he won’t; leave him to God. I’m not saying you can’t be his friend, I’m saying you have to be realistic. For now stop talking to him about Jesus. This isn’t just my advice- it’s God’s command. Jesus said, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces” (Matthew 7:6). That’s shocking language- but smoke screens are a shocking problem.


So far in this chapter on talking with nonChristian friends we’ve been focusing on how they think. But it can also be tough to talk with them because of how they live can’t it? Lifestyle differences cause problems in at least four different ways.

1.    Scarcity of activities you can share. All friends have something in common. The deepest friendships are based on shared faith in the risen Lord. Because you don’t yet share faith with your nonChristian friends, your friendships probably will be based on activities you both enjoy. You may run with Jason, watch old movies with Kristin, and tinker with computers with Luis. The problem is that just as shared activities can bring you together, activities you can’t share can divide you. Liz likes to get drunk, Tony spends a lot of time on drugs, and Renaldo “cruises,” looking for women to have sex with him. You can’t share these activities because they grieve the Holy Spirit. So what do you do?            

One thing you can do is invite your acquaintances along on your activities. Getting together a Super Bowl party? Going to church? Got tickets to a concert or sporting match? Ask Liz, Tony, or Renaldo to join you. But you also need to accept the fact that your relationships with your nonChristian acquaintances may remain limited. Not everyone will be interested in your invitations. With some people, you may never share anything more than the activity that first brought you together- even if it’s just talking together during breaks at the place where you both work part-time. Do what you can what you’ve got.

2.    Demands you can’t meet. From time to time your nonChristian friends may demand things from you that no Christian can give. The most common are demands that you do something you can’t do, approve something you can’t approve, or allow something you can’t allow. For example, Keesha may be angry because you won’t sleep with her, Katie may call you a bigot because you won’t say that “gay is good,” and Brandon may give you a hard time because you won’t let him bring dope to your party.    

The basic guidelines for dealing with this problem are Don’t Argue, Don’t Apologize, Don’t Back Down, and Don’t Get Trapped.

Don’t Argue means don’t let yourself be drawn into a shouting match or debate.

Don’t Apologize means don’t feel guilty or make excuses about refusing what you know is wrong.

Don’t Back Down means stand your ground without wavering or changing your mind.

Don’t Get Trapped means avoid situations where you may be tempted to give in.

The last guideline may need some explanation. What kinds of situations might tempt you to give in? Let’s use Keesha as an example again. If you know she has the hots for you, then you shouldn’t be kissing her in the first place. Don’t tell yourself, “I’ll stop before I’ve gone too far”; just don’t start. In fact, you shouldn’t be alone with her at all. Who do you think you are, the Man of Steal? Another way of getting trapped is to think you can “play counselor” when she’s telling you her life story and sniffling tearfully about how nobody has ever liked her. In the first place you aren’t trained as a counselor. In the second place she belongs to the other sex. What you call “compassion” might just be your hormones in disguise.

3.    Your friend’s other friends. Sometimes problems arise not from lifestyle conflicts with your friend but from lifestyle conflicts with the people who hang around you friend. For example, maybe Brandon doesn’t do drugs, but his roommates are fried all the time. That problem os easy because you don’t have to go to Brandon’s place anyway. Go to a movie with him; shoot some hoops, find some other place to spend time together.

A harder case is when the “friends of the friends” want to tag along. Still harder is whn they try to cause divisions between you. Hardest of all is when they tag along and try to cause divisions. This makes your own friendship impossible, and you have to say so. If your friend is willing to talk about the problem, fine; if not, find another friend.

4.    Physical and spiritual danger. Some people are just plain dangerous. Your obligation to bear witness to Christ doesn’t mean you have to hang around with those who might physically or spiritually hurt you. Don’t imagine that dangerous types don’t exist on campus, don’t imagine that you can make them less dangerous, and don’t imagine that you’re somehow immune from harm- just stay away from them. Among the kinds to avoid are people prone to violence, people who might get you in trouble. If you already have relationships with them, break them off- now. You don’t have to explain; just bug out. It isn’t that Christ doesn’t want to reach them but you’re not uquipped for the job. Leave them to specially trained counselors and ministers.


My last piece of advice is Remember whose you are! Please notice that I didn’t say who you are; I said whose you are. You belong to Jesus Christ. God wants to use your nonChristian friends-but Satan wants to use your nonChristian friends to reach you. Don’t let him turn the tables.

Satan will try to turn the tables by making you feel embarrassed about your faith-by making you think that its childish, silly, or intolerant. Another way is to pull you away from your partners in faith- to make you feel that “your kind of people” aren’t the ones who worship the same Lord but are the ones who pledge the same club or have the same color of skin. Still another way is to weaken your discipline and suck you into sin- especially into an entwining, addicting sin like drunkenness, drugs, or sex. That strategy is one of the Enemy’s favorites because not many of us human beings doubt God and then start sinning. Most of us start sinning and then doubt God.

Satan can use your nonChristian friends in all of these ways to get to you. God wants you to rub off on them, but the Enemy wants them to rub off on you. So remember: you can have friends outside the faith, but your deepest comrades you should look to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Hang out with the holy. Get in with the godly. Spend time with the saved. Know who your real family is- the one where the Father is God.  

Used with permision of NavPress and J. Budziszewski, all rights reserved. 1-800-366-7788
How to Stay Christian In College by J. Budziszewski, (c) 2004

J. Budziszewski (Boojee-shefski) earned his doctorate from Yale University in 1981. He teaches at the University of Texas in Austin, in the Departments of Government and Philosophy where he specializes in the relations among ethical theory, political theory, and Christian theology. The focus of his current research is natural law and moral self deception. J. Budziszewski is a former atheist, former political radical, former shipyard welder, and former lots of other things, including former young and former thin. He's been married for more than thirty years to his high school sweetheart, Sandra, and has two daughters. He loves teaching. He says he also loves contemporary music, but it turns out that he means "the contemporaries of Johann Sebastian Bach." He deserted his faith during college but returned to Christ a dozen years later and entered the Catholic Church at Easter 2004. Among a number of other books, he is the author of How to Stay Christian in College, What We Can't Not Know: A Guide, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man, and Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law.
Copyright 2000 J. Budziszewski

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