Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak
I live in Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World” and hotbed of independent and creative thinkers (thus our city’s motto: Keep Austin Weird).
Austin also has the distinction of being the original home of the American Atheists organization, founded by Madalyn Murray O’Hair in 1963. Last year, as the American Atheists got ready for their 50th anniversary celebration, a local pastor reached out to them with a unique idea.
My good friend, Pastor Ryan Rush, suggested moderating a dialogue—not a debate—between the American Atheists and several local pastors, while the atheists were in Austin for their conference at the end of March. David Silverman, president of the group, consented. And when Ryan asked me to be one of the three pastor panelists, I wrote back without hesitation: “I am in!”
The upcoming “Atheist–Pastor Dialogue” quickly gained media attention. The novelty and significance of such a conversation during Holy Week created a city-wide discussion. Even national news joined the bandwagon.
In the meantime, I was praying for a very specific opportunity. You see, almost 20 years earlier, I’d sensed that God wanted me to reach out to Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Sadly, I delayed, and less than a week later, she and two family members disappeared and were later found murdered.
So now, I fervently prayed that I might have the chance to speak the gospel truthfully and compassionately to this man who stands in O’Hair’s place.
On Wednesday, March 27—just days before Easter—I joined the other pastors for prayer right before our meeting. The previous days had been filled with expressions of support and prayer, but also some phone calls from people who told us “how to win the conversation against these pagans.”
As we gathered, we decided that our objective was not to “win” but to listen and truly dialogue for the purpose of understanding. We intentionally decided to not react to any of the hot issues or accusations against Christians or Christianity. Instead, our desire was to remain calm and loving, so that a more important issue would stand: the gospel of Jesus—that all of us are more broken than we can imagine because of our sin and that God is more gracious than we can imagine because of His kindness and love in providing a Savior.
We agreed on five axioms:
Listen long before speaking. As James says, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
Ask questions. We didn’t want to be sidetracked by controversial topics but look for the issue behind the issues.
Lower our expectations. We didn’t walk in with any assumptions of a panelist or audience member trusting Jesus that night. Rather, we hoped to be salt and light, so that God’s Spirit might start working.
Extend kindness and respect. No matter what was said to demean Christ or us, we wanted to value the other panelists’ personhood—made in the image of God.
When the door opens, courageously walk in. If there was an invitation at any moment to make eternal truths known, especially the gospel, we wanted to fearlessly walk into that moment.
“The atheists opened with: “What you Christians need to know is that we atheists have morals.”
“What you need to know… .”
We pastors began the discussion by bringing a six-pack gift of our local Shiner Bock Beer, which seemed to create some humor. Then we started.
The format was to simply ask, “What is something the other side doesn’t understand about you and your viewpoints?” Thus began one of the most fascinating dialogues I have ever experienced. I kept thinking, This is the kind of discussion Jesus enjoyed.
The conversation was lively, honest and eye-opening, with applause and outbursts of laughter following many of the comments. It was somehow surreal.
The atheists opened with: “What you Christians need to know is that we atheists have morals.”
“As God gives me strength, I will keep listening. I will be content not to close every “deal.”
Much discussion ensued. I have to admit that I was surprised by this assertion. I had indeed assumed that those who have no God must, logically, have no absolutes to live by. But the answer from British atheist professor Dr. A.C. Grayling changed my mind. In fact, his answer was so compelling that I said with a smile, “Sure wish we had you on our side!” The room laughed out loud, and I think Dr. Grayling was flattered.
When it was our turn, we offered: “What you atheists need to know is that we Christians don’t check our brains at the door.”
This assertion was readily accepted, but challenges to our logic flowed freely. After a litany of such challenges from David Silverman, there was an emotional surge inside all of us to respond defensively. But the Spirit of God prevailed, and we were able to remain calm in our replies.
And so it went. For almost two hours. (You can watch the entire event here).
And then, quite unexpectedly, David Silverman asked me directly, “Rob, of all the religions in the world, what makes you think that yours is the right one?”
For the next three minutes, God used me to speak the gospel of Jesus Christ to the head of the American Atheists. What I had missed almost 20 years ago, I was now being led by God to do.
His response was simple. “I want to believe this, but I can’t.”
At least he couldn’t at that moment. But I am praying for a day in the future where he can.
When the dialogue ended, all of us on the panel were inundated with a rush of people who wanted to give their impressions privately of what had just taken place. One man said to me, “Wow, that was really incredible. I mean really unusual.”
I learned that he was the mass-media producer for the American Atheists. “I must say,” he added, “I’ve never seen David Silverman be so engaging and kind as he was to you pastors. He’s always battling and fighting. Tonight, he enjoyed the discussion. Would you all like to come to our studios back East and continue the dialogue?”
Are you kidding? Wow, what an experience!
After the high of that evening, I’ve determined that as God gives me strength, I will keep listening. I will keep asking questions. I will be content not to close every “deal.” I will compliment and approach the “unconvinced” with respect. And when the door opens, I will courageously walk in.
Rob Harrell is senior pastor of First EFC in Austin, Texas. In the example of Jesus, he loves listening strategically to discover people’s objections, so that the unconvinced may feel respected and come to know the answer the gospel provides.