Using common ground to reach secular people with the Gospel

Viola sororia, Common Blue Violet, Howard County, Md,

By Spencer D Gear PhD

Secular Aussies are reluctant to talk about religious things involving Christianity and seem to be unwilling to engage in discussion about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That’s my experience.

A. Introduction

clip_image001Social researcher, Hugh Mackay (b. 1938), in 2013. Photograph courtesy Wikipedia.

Chloe Brant (2016) wrote an article for ABC News, Brisbane, Qld., in which she highlighted some of the details in Hugh Mackay’s new book, Beyond Belief (2016), and interviewed him. She wrote:

In his new book Beyond Belief, Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay argues a growing number of people, particularly young people, are abandoning religion in favour of a different kind of spirituality — one not restricted by institutions or guidelines.

We still crave answers and seek happiness, Mackay says, but more of us are finding it in secular realms: yoga, meditation, music.

Here, Mackay discusses why young people are embracing the Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR) movement, why we still call upon God when luck fails us, and whether it is possible to find meaning without religion.

In her interview with Mackay she asked:

Where do you see faith, religion and spirituality in Australia venturing in the next decade? Mackay’s response was:

I think there will be ‘SBNR’ boxes on the census in the future. Twenty per cent of Australians tick “no religion”.

Of course, this is bad news for churches, but good news for society.

Although people are not as drawn to churches, they still believe there is a spiritual dimension out there … they are thinking of everyone as a whole. They are seeing us all as connected, as one.

Do you personally believe we can find meaning without religion? Mackay replied:

I believe we can find meaning without religion. When people say they are SBNR, almost always they say they care for others and not about “me” or “us”.

I believe we can all think beyond ourselves, where faith is no larger than self or some non-religious pathway.

So this social scientist is confident in affirming that meaning is possible without religion and that that this increasing consensus of ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ is ‘bad for churches, but good news for society’. Mackay was born in 1938. He’s moving towards older age and death one day. When he meets the Lord God almighty at death, he’ll be wishing he had pursued life after death issues as found in Christianity.

See my articles:

clip_image002 Ecclesiastes 9:5 and what happens at death

clip_image002[1] Is hell fair?

clip_image002[2]What is the nature of death according to the Bible?

clip_image002[3]2 Thessalonians 1:9: Eternal destruction;

clip_image002[4]Hell & Judgment;

clip_image002[5]Hell in the Bible;

clip_image002[6]Should we be punished for our sins?

clip_image002[7]Paul on eternal punishment;

clip_image002[8]Where will unbelievers go at death?

clip_image002[9]Torment in Old Testament hell? The meaning of Sheol in the OT;

clip_image002[10]Eternal torment for unbelievers when they die;

clip_image002[11]Will you be ready when your death comes?

clip_image002[12]What happens at death for believer and unbeliever?

clip_image002[13]Does eternal destruction mean annihilation for unbelievers at death?

clip_image002[14]Refutation of Seventh-Day Adventist doctrine of what happens at death;

clip_image002[15]Near-death experiences are not all light: What about the dark experiences?

clip_image004 See my article, “Evidence for the afterlife.”

Remember God’s assessment: ‘It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Heb 10:31 NASB).

Here we have a big, big challenge to the churches to present the Gospel, declare why religion without God is disastrous for the individual and society, and deal with the objections against Christianity and religion.

See also Joel Keep (2017), Australia with ‘no religion’: In the aftermath of God. Joel Keep cited the 2011 census where ‘over 22 per cent of the national population’ nominated ‘no religion’. That’s almost 5 million out of 23 million Aussies who were counted.

B. How do we reach those who don’t know the Gospel?

On the other side of the world in the USA, I encountered Mark, on a Christian forum, where the topic was, ‘If someone said to you they want to become a Christian’. He responded to this topic by writing:

I would tell them to read the Bible, understand, and live – in this day the scripture is fulfilled
Isaiah 29:18
In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.
This is that day.[1]

1. Go read the 1,500 pages of the Bible to understand the Gospel

That’s how many pages there are in my copy of the ESV (2001, Crossway). Therefore I responded:[2] In my very secular country, that advice would be one of the supreme ways to turn peole right off the Gospel.
I suggest that we approach a secular society like Paul did on the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-34 NLT). He found common ground with them:

‘Men of Athens, I notice that you are very religious in every way, 23 for as I was walking along I saw your many shrines. And one of your altars had this inscription on it: ‘To an Unknown God.’ This God, whom you worship without knowing, is the one I’m telling you about’.?

Then he moved towards proclamation of the true God, God’s creating human beings, and calling all people everywhere to repent for there is a day of judgment coming.
Paul did not say: Here’s a MSS of the Scripture; go away and read it. He engaged in proclamation, starting with establishing common ground. I’m convinced that is where we should begin also.

I find it quite bizarre that in a secular country of Australia where about 5 million of the 24 million people[3] chose ‘no religion’ at the 2011 census that any person in his or her right mind would hand people an entire Bible and say, ‘Go read it to understand the Gospel and then come back and we’ll discuss’.

C. It’s an evil generation

Mark’s comeback was complete with religious sloganeering:

Why would it turn people off? The premise is they want to be a Christian. Are you saying they want to be a Christian, but they don’t want to read the Bible? OK. Isa. predicted that too – Those who can read will say it can’t be read. Those who can’t read will say they can’t read. Isa. 29:11-12
Isa. 29:9
Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not with wine;
stagger, but not with strong drink!
10 For the Lord has poured out upon you
a spirit of deep sleep,
and has closed your eyes, the prophets,
and covered your heads, the seers.
11 And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”
13 And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote;
14 therefore, behold, I will again
do marvelous things with this people,
wonderful and marvelous;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.” Isa. 29:9-14
It’s an evil generation. But that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Prophecy doesn’t give us any choice in the matter. People are always going to come up with different ways, but prophecy tells us what will be, and if it comes from God, it will take place. Makes sense too because there are so many views and denominations. The prophecy is, ‘In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.’ Isa. 29:18 And it is so, and I believe reading the Bible is the only way.[4]

D. That was a red herring fallacy.

You didn’t address what I wrote[5] that Paul’s approach at the Areopagus is a better way to deal with secular unbelievers today. Use the common ground to proclaim the Gospel. See Acts 17:22-34.
Telling secular people to go read that extensive book, called Scripture, is like telling them to forget the discussion and go to hell.
As people who love the Lord, we have a biblical responsibility to move from common ground to the Gospel in our discussion and proclamation: ‘For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16 NLT).
I consider this is a better approach to non-Christians in my secular Australia, rather than your, ‘I would tell them to read the Bible, understand, and live’ (see #59).

E. This is the day of the book!

What would a fundamentalist do to promote evangelism?

What do you want me to say? My way is to follow the Lord, and what he said by the prophets. Sorry, but the Lord said the words of a book will open the eyes of the blind. Isa. 29:18 This is the day. We have the book. Read it! In Paul’s day people believed in the gods. They were very religious. Acts 17:22 Obviously they wanted to hear what Paul was teaching. So this is a very different time, a time of darkness. There’s never been anything like it.
This is the day of the book. You’re telling me your friends can’t read? I have no sympathy for that. Your secular friends are condemned already if they do not believe in the name of the only Son of God.

John 3:18, “He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”[6]

F. I also use THE BOOK.

I’m also following the Book.[7] Acts 17 is in The Book.
I did not say a word about my secular friends not being able to read. Not a word! That’s a straw man fallacy.

Asking secular people to read a book the length of the Bible is as unrealistic as my asking you to consider another approach to reaching non-Christians. I encourage you to use the Areopagus model of Acts 17 from THE BOOK.

G. We can assume they have heard the good news.

This is a response from someone who lives in a country as Christianised as the USA, but who doesn’t know how to interact with people in a very secular culture.

If they are not religious, if they deny God even exists, then what are you talking about common ground for? The Athenians were religious men, so Paul could talk to them about God. What are you going to say to those who deny God exists?
You say it’s unrealistic to ask them to read a book the length of the Bible. That’s a good one. But we can assume they have heard the good news. The premise is they want to be Christians. So I said, read the book, understand and live. But if they are not willing to read the book, then what can you do?
The Lord said it will happen, that in that day the words of a book will open their eyes. But before that can happen, I believe in confession, so that might work. Ask God for forgiveness. But there must be a believing heart in them.[8]

How should I reply to a number of false premises in this post?

H. Bunk! I don’t have religion.

I will use a few of your statements[9] to demonstrate that we can take the Areopagus common ground model, even with secular Aussies who deny the existence of God and don’t know the Gospel.

Mark: ‘If they are not religious, if they deny God even exists, then what are you talking about common ground for?’

Oz: We can have common ground with secularists. To my Aussie secular mate, Johnny, I can say, ‘I observe that you are very religious. What is religion? Oxford dictionaries online gives one definition of religion as, ‘a pursuit or interest followed with great devotion’ (Oxford dictionaries online 2017. s v religion). What is one thing that you follow, Johnny, with great passion? (wait for an answer to which I will respond). I see that over the summer months you, Johnny, have followed cricket on TV with great interest. You loved the T20 Big Bash; the ODI (one day internationals) between Australia and Sri Lanka is what enthuses you right now. You plan to watch the Australia vs India tests and ODI on Fox Sports.

Johnny. Bunk! That’s not religion. That’s just a keen interest that I have in a sport that I love.

Oz. So you have a great love for cricket? That’s what the Oxford dictionary describes as religion. What say we discuss this further at a time convenient for you? I’d also like you to think about how God knows you cannot be an atheist. No people in the world are atheists, even though they claim to be. What do you think God’s view would be? (I’ll be heading to the content of Rom 1:18-32 NLT.) Johnny, does God believe in atheists? Next time we’ll get into that one.

Mark: He stated, ‘But we can assume they have heard the good news’.

Oz: It’s time you took a visit to a very secular country like mine and walked down the main street of Brisbane CBD, Queen St., and asked 10 people these two questions: ‘Would you please tell me the content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? What must happen for any person to gain eternal life and go to be with God at death?’ You will get an answer that is outside of your assumption. Many, many people in Australia have NOT heard the good news because it is not proclaimed publicly very often. About 5 million Aussies out of 23 million identify as having ‘no religion’ (Keep 2017).

Mark: ‘The premise is they want to be Christians. So I said, read the book, understand and live. But if they are not willing to read the book, then what can you do?’

Oz: Nobody will want to be Christians until they have had the bad news explained. Then the Good News, the Gospel, is proclaimed and they see their need. Asking a God-denying antagonist to the Christian faith to read this book of 1252 pp (that’s how many pages are in my ESV) is like asking a drowning man in the ocean to take another drink of salt water.

I do wish you would get out of your gold-fish bowl and encounter people who are secularists who don’t have a clue about the content of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I. Conclusion

There are reasons why Aussies are rejecting the Gospel and in our conversations with them, we had better listen to what is turning them off. Then use the Acts 17 (ERV) model of how to reach them.

Paul used a common point of contact to try to reach them:

Some of the Epicurean and some of the Stoic philosophers argued with him. Some of them said, “This man doesn’t really know what he is talking about. What is he trying to say?” Paul was telling them the Good News about Jesus and the resurrection. So they said, “He seems to be telling us about some other gods.”

19 They took Paul to a meeting of the Areopagus council. They said, “Please explain to us this new idea that you have been teaching. 20 The things you are saying are new to us. We have never heard this teaching before, and we want to know what it means.” 21 (The people of Athens and the foreigners who lived there spent all their time either telling or listening to all the latest ideas.)

22 Then Paul stood up before the meeting of the Areopagus council and said, “Men of Athens, everything I see here tells me you are very religious. 23 I was going through your city and I saw the things you worship. I found an altar that had these words written on it: ‘to an unknown god.’ You worship a god that you don’t know. This is the God I want to tell you about (Acts 17:18-23 ERV)

In talking to Aussies, I have not found them as overt as the Epicurean philosophers about their beliefs. Try these kinds of questions:

clip_image004[1] Where will you be 2 minutes after your last breath?
clip_image004[2] From where did you obtain that information?

clip_image004[3] How reliable is it?

clip_image004[4] What will it be like to be in heaven?

clip_image004[5] How could you avoid being damned in hell?

J. Works consulted

Brant, C 2016. Beyond Belief: Why Australians don’t go to church, but call upon God in times of crisis. ABC News (online), Brisbane, Qld., 22 May. Available at: (Accessed 21 February 2017).

Keep, J 2017. Australia with ‘no religion’: In the aftermath of God. SBS (online), 6 February. Available at: (Accessed 21 February 2017).

Mackay, H 2016. Beyond belief. Sydney, Australia: Macmillan.

K.  Notes

[1] Christian 2017. ‘If someone said to you they want to become a Christian’, 21 February, MarkT#59. Available at: (Accessed 21 February 2017).

[2] Ibid., OzSpen#60.

[3] See the Australian Bureau of Statistics ‘Population Clock’ at:[email protected]/0/1647509ef7e25faaca2568a900154b63?opendocument (Accessed 21 February 2017).

[4] Christian 2017. MarkT#61.

[5] Ibid., OzSpen#62.

[6] Ibid., MarkT#63.

[7] Ibid., OzSpen#64.

[8] Ibid., MarkT#65.

[9] Ibid., OzSpen#66.

Copyright © 2021 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 07 September 2021.