How can we encourage people to examine life and faith?

Tim Murray is one of the pastors at Amblecote Christian Centre in Dudley, West Midlands, and he has written a great book Life Examined: why I am a Christian exploring in an accessible way the reasons for faith. I asked him about why he wrote the book, his approach, and how it can be used well.

IP: You have had a mixed ministry, partly in academic study, and more recently in local church ministry. What made you want to write this book, and how have the different aspects of your ministry contributed to it? How important has been your extensive reading, which you point to at the end?

TM: The initial desire to write this book came from a conversation in a pub, but to set the scene a little bit…

I’ve always been provoked by something that Francis Schaeffer used to say—that no matter what someone says they believe, they have to live in God’s world and therefore, for those who aren’t Christians, there will always be some places where their worldview is incompatible with reality. Another way to put it is like this: there will always be a contradiction between a person’s stated beliefs and the way they actually live until they live as Christians. Schaeffer suggested that if we could gently point out to people where this contradiction was in their life, we would give them a problem that they could only resolve by conversion.

His point was that our worldviews do not just have to be intellectually coherent (although they do), but they have to be liveable in practice. That has always struck me as a brilliant insight and one that I’ve observed to be true in my experience. Most people that I know who have become Christians have done so when their current way of understanding the world no longer matches up with what they are experiencing, in one way or another.

For several years now I’ve been conscious of these kind of worldview issues both in the academic/intellectual arena and the day-to-day lives of the people around me. Those in these two environments may express themselves very differently (!) but in my view, the fundamental issues often amount to the same kind of thing. After all, in the really big questions of life, there are only a limited number of possible answers (another thing Schaeffer used to say). I’ve needed to read as widely as I can, in order to try to understand the issues as fully as I am able to—whilst also trying to observe where these worldview gaps are making their presence felt in our ordinary lives.

IP: The book has short, accessible chapters—but you cover a very wide range of issues! What made you want to take this approach?

TM: To experiment with the way of engaging people I’ve talked about, we launched a few pub nights pre-Covid, where people invited their friends along who were up for thinking about some of the big questions of life. Each evening included two short talks on various topics. The first talk attempted to describe something that we all experience (say, for example, an enjoyment of beauty, or a sense of purpose), and then the second talk tried to explore the options for how we might make sense of our common experience. The thrust of each evening was that the Christians worldview made better sense of our common experience than other competing worldviews.

The approach seemed to open up good conversations and some people asked for something to read. I gave them Tim Keller, but many people with whom I work are not big readers, and they found Keller too long. So I looked for something that would be appropriate, but broken into much smaller chunks; I couldn’t find what I was looking for so eventually decided to write it myself.

My hope is that the four-page focussed chapters make the book useful for those who may not read much… and the range of issues mean that most people should find at least a couple that they find interesting, relevant and thought-provoking, even if they discount the majority.

IP: From the outset, you make the case for ‘faith’ and ‘reason’ belonging together. What do you mean by this, and why do you think this is important in our current context?

TM: Most people I encounter have a worldview that is a blend of modern and post-modern presuppositions. Typically, modernism (focussed on rationality, science, reliable knowledge, progress, and so on) demands a faith that is intellectually coherent, evidence based and rational. The new atheists attack Christianity mainly along these kind of lines—and in ordinary people it is these presuppositions that lead many to contrast science and faith, or dismiss religious experience. Postmodernism (focussed on personal experience, the loss of absolutes, the rejection of authority, and the like) demands a faith that is personally meaningful, that has experiential ‘pay-out’, that can allow me to live in a satisfying and purposeful way. Most people I know have a worldview that blends both of these perspectives, even (sometimes) at the cost of substantial internal contradiction!

Therefore, I think we need to be able to articulate why Christianity both is a meaningful way of understanding life (one that is rational, intellectually robust, coherent) and provides a meaningful way to live (lived experience, personally satisfying, holistic). That’s what I tried to do in this book.

More specifically, if we defined ‘faith’ as ‘belief in something that we cannot completely prove’ (which is how many ordinary people seem to use the word), then I try to demonstrate right at the start of the book that faith is something that each of us hold, not just religious people. We all believe things we cannot completely prove—just as we all use our reason to evaluate our beliefs. I try to suggest that the goal is not ‘faith’ or ‘reason’, but a reasonable faith.

IP: You have grouped your explorations under three main headings—examining life, examining history, and examining experience. Why did you choose these headings, and why in this order?

TM: I wanted, as far as possible, to begin with discussing things that most readers would easily relate to and where we might find a lot of common ground. Thus, examining life, the biggest section of the book, explores what we can all know about our world, ourselves and common human behaviour. It is so often in these areas where I think we can find the ‘gap’ Schaeffer talks about.

However I couldn’t fully discard my interest in history—I am a New Testament scholar after all! Given that Christianity makes claims about God’s action in history and that the church has been attempting to demonstrate what Christianity looks like over two thousand years, it seemed important to include this in the scope of the book.

Having done so I turned explicitly to experience because that is simply where the decisive factors lie for so many people in our culture. As well as discussing classic ‘religious experience’ (that is, how do we best explain the fact that so many people claim to experience God?), there is also a section on change, asking the reader to examine the impact of Christianity on the individuals and communities that follow Jesus. Perhaps more unusually I decided to include a short section on desire (three chapters) describing ‘the view from the inside’, that is, some of the reasons why Christians find their worldview compelling that can’t really be known from without. I actually enjoyed writing these chapters more than any others and hope they are a helpful addition, as this angle is perhaps less often covered in apologetics books.

IP: I recognised a number of the arguments you make from the ’traditional’ proofs of God, though some others draw on more recent apologists like C S Lewis. Perhaps the most intriguing section of all was the challenge to make the reader sit in a room and do nothing! Why did you include this mix of issues?

TM: You can blame that one on the influence of Blaise Pascal! I have offered the same challenge a number of times in my preaching and it has produced some genuine pastoral fruit so maybe its not a crazy as it sounds!

The decision to cover such a range of issues essentially has two factors:

  1. Each person is different in the factors that interest them, or are particularly important to them, when it comes to evaluating worldviews. Therefore, to try and make the book as helpful as possible I wanted to cover a lot of angles! The aim is not to be comprehensive (what book could ever truly be comprehensive in this regard), but to demonstrate the breadth of reasons why the Christian worldview is considered plausible by those of us who hold it. If you browse the chapter titles you’ll get a flavour of the range.
  1. I think that most mature Christian do believe for a wide range of reasons. It is rare to find someone who has walked with Jesus for thirty years who is prepared to give only one or two reasons why they are a Christian—there are usually a range of pillars to their faith (varied in strength of course). So, it seemed to be a bit more honest to own that in the book. 

Of course, the choice of content is finally shaped by my own interests, experience and idiosyncrasies! I’m not too concerned with this, after all I wanted to book to have a personal tone. The key thing is that it communicates something of the rich complexity of why I follow Jesus.

IP: What response have you had to raising these kinds of questions in discussion and in the local church?

TM: I think the attempt not only to present the Christian worldview, but to draw people into critically evaluating other/their own worldviews has been both demanding and fruitful. It is demanding because sometimes we haven’t done the thinking and reading to engage other worldviews particularly well—and we need to. But if we can do this, and draw others into conversations along these lines, I think it can create space in which meaningful conversations about Jesus and Christianity can land. In my experience, it has been as Schaeffer said: when people start to see the problems in their own worldview, they become a bit more restless! Of course, my own experience is limited; I look forward to hearing whether others find the approach of the book helpful in their own contexts.

In the local church there is a mixed response, I think. There is still a strong desire for us to just ‘present the gospel’ whether that be through a presentation in a service, or a special event, or perhaps an alpha course, rather than to engage more discursively about worldview issues. I think this is partly because its more difficult to do that latter—but I don’t primarily mean difficult intellectually, I mean difficult relationally. To really understand someone else’s worldview and evaluate with others how we might best understand life requires serious time, attention and non-defensiveness—which many of us are reticent to give. Of course, its not just us; many of our non-Christian friends are unwilling to spend the time as well. But, in my view, this is what is necessary: to build relationships of depth and strength over significant time, in which the kind of conversations I’m advocating can take place. Some people in my church are really up for this; others would prefer me to “preach the gospel” and hope that does the trick.

IP: How would you want people to use this book? Is it something to read, or for group discussion—or what?

TM: I hope it is a resource for conversations. Can you read this book alongside somebody and talk about its contents with them?

I’ve primarily written for non-Christian readers who are willing to think about life but may not have read much and are relatively unfamiliar with Christianity. Of course, with this kind of book it will also hopefully be of service to Christians who want to think about how they talk to their friends about their faith or even for those who may want to revisit their own reasons for faith. My real hope is that people will use it as a starter for conversations as I described in the previous question – it’s most often in meaningful relationships that someone seriously explores following Jesus.

IP: Thanks for your time. It is a fascinating read, and very stimulating to think through these different issues. I hope and pray that the book will be widely used.

Dr Tim Murray gained his PhD in New Testament from Nottingham University before becoming one of the pastors at Amblecote Christian Centre in Dudley. He continues his academic teaching and research alongside work in the local church, including being on the leadership team of the Tyndale New Testament Study Group.

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25 thoughts on “How can we encourage people to examine life and faith?”

  1. I like the emphasis placed on ‘relationships’ as platform for evangelism. I suspect for many people, coming to faith involves a period of walking alongside a Christian or group of Christians, and either watching them or conversing with them, before a decision is made.

    The change of external worldview may start to formulate in a person’s mind and inner being, but I would also add that I believe ‘repentance’ is a significant dynamic in precipitating faith: an inner discontent where God could come and dwell, degrees of emptiness, and a discontent or deeper regret about a person’s own life.

    I believe that discontent and regret – for the life a person has been leading, things done etc – is a driver for many, in the process of daring to believe in a new worldview. Of course, this is portrayed in the Bible as the work of the Holy Spirit, convicting a person’s conscience, and bringing about repentance, a turning to God in need, and new faith, deeper life and wholeness.

    • Repentance is a necessary step for conversion but after that the social options are still very limited (anyone raised in the culture won’t notice this).

      There are at least 10 churches within a mile of where I live and not one of them organizes events where adults can have these ‘open’ discussions. All of the advertised groups are either bible studies and prayer meetings for church members or some form of play group for mothers with young children.

    • Thanks Susannah – very well said – repentance & relationship are core to Christianity and this the work of the Holy Spirit. Often this occurs in tandem with an existential dissatisfaction with their current life, and perceived failure of their employed operating system view of the world, which may cause them to ask big questions and to look for answers. But I do get a tad twitchy when I see weight placed on people becoming christians through methodologically deconstructing false world-views.

      I have been in ministry 30years and most of those in a university church, and my observation is that it’s a deep desire unfulfilled, a mysterious wooing of the Spirit, the magnetism of Jesus that brings people to faith. Rarely is it compelling apologetic or eristic arguments targeting crumbling worldviews that bring people to Jesus. Indeed I would say it is often only after coming to Christ that their false-worldviews get reworked, rather than this being a presupposition to coming to faith. I rather think worldviews are worked out in discipleship not pre-evangelism.

      NB: I haven’t read the book, I have ordered it, I commend anything that seeks to bring people to faith, and maybe the Barthian in me will be made to rethink 😉

      • Hello Simon,
        This is only one example: mine.
        I was brought to an end of myself, asking existential questions, after family death , the meaning of life, before coming to Christ and being given Shaffer’s *apologetics* Trilogy and CS Lewis. It wasn’t either/or , but both/and. And the Alpha Course.which at the time recommended books to read after each topic, like Jackie Pullinger, Chasing the Dragon, like God’s Empowering Presence by Fee and Reading the. Bible for all its Worth, like Nine o -Clock in the Morning by ? Bennett.
        Looking now in my rear view mirror, I suppose the whole extended period of conversion could be described in a terminology of which I wasn’t aware of at the time- a deconstruction of my world- view – meaning of life, And coming to know God, intellectually, renewing the mind and relationally and experientially.

        • Thanks Geoff – yes indeed, I see that and I believe for many coming to faith there has been deep searching, questioning and deconstructing going on. But that I see as part of the work of the Spirit’s prevenient grace – I suppose I am wondering what the role is of trying to do this work of deconstruction

          • Thanks all for engaging with this blog post!

            Ian has prodded me to respond to the conversation… I guess I’d say that I agree with you all 🙂 Hopefully, Simon, reading the book that may allay your reservations a little (perhaps particularly chapter 26 – “called”) – I too think that for most people its a desire-driven experience of coming to know Jesus (and I hope that this is evident at several places in the book).

            However, I would still want to press for the importance of helping people to question and deconstruct their pre-Christian worldview. C.S. Lewis talked about it as ‘clearing the ground’ of barriers to make space for faith to emerge. He too knew that deconstructive work in itself doesn’t lead to conversion, but can be a critical part of the journey (as it was for him). But yes, I wouldn’t advocate a missional methodology that was about a purely rationalistic worldview-arguments! Although if you have Barthian sympathies you may find me leaning a touch too much towards Schleiermacher… 🙂

            Thanks for buying the book – I’d really value any feedback once you’ve had a chance to read it.

          • Apart from prevenient grace, which I’ll pass on, the Spirit works on and in and through thoughts, belief systems, does he not? He is after all the Spirit of Truth and of Adoption.

          • Thanks Tim – and I apologise if my comment appeared to throw shade – the book is ordered and I eagerly await receiving n reading. I certainly think the church has a massive task in its mission & discipleship confronting false worldviews – it always has from its first incursion into pagan Rome. I expect those ‘outside’ church to have a different worldview, but I am always shocked at how those ‘inside’ hold an un Christian worldview.

            I put my hands up and admit I have always believed apologetics of most forms, esp Sheaffer & Lewis have more traction in discipleship than evangelism – are read by and appreciated by keen intelligent Christians rather than non christians. I may be wrong.

            Tim, I commend your commitment to evangelism and I hope your book bears much fruit

  2. “More specifically, if we defined ‘faith’ as ‘belief in something that we cannot completely prove’ (which is how many ordinary people seem to use the word), then I try to demonstrate right at the start of the book that faith is something that each of us hold, not just religious people. We all believe things we cannot completely prove—just as we all use our reason to evaluate our beliefs.”

    This is exemplified by avowed atheists, like Carl Sagan, who used the famous Drake Equation to make the case for the US to invest millions of dollars in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (which included the added ‘golden record’ payload for the Voyager 1 mission).

    I find it strange that atheists can dismiss God’s existence as unfalsifiable, only to encourage governments to invest in a search that relies on an unfalsifiable proposition about the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence.

    • David, yours is a curious example. The Drake equation attempts to derive the probability of there being intelligent life out there by multiplying together a sequence of numbers, some of which are very large, and some of which are very small, and many of which are not known at all accurately, if at all. Some say “there must be intelligent life out there – because of all the large numbers” and others say “there probably is no intelligent life out there – because of all the small numbers”. Surely SETI was to see if the second hypothesis is false.

      A better case to make about faith in relation to atheists and science lies in the assumptions which scientists have make to do science, i.e. metaphysics rather than physics.

      • “Surely SETI was to see if the second hypothesis is false.”

        You might think so, but, as a 2009 editorial in Nature (the weekly international scientific journal) explained: “Seti … has always sat at the edge of mainstream astronomy. This is partly because, no matter how scientifically rigorous its practitioners try to be, SETI can’t escape an association with UFO believers and other such crackpots. But it is also because SETI is arguably not a falsifiable experiment. Regardless of how exhaustively the Galaxy is searched, the null result of radio silence doesn’t rule out the existence of alien civilizations. It means only that those civilizations might not be using radio to communicate.”

        Despite this, many atheists continue to support investment in SETI enthusiastically, despite the entire cause being marked (as the same editorial describes it) “by a hope, bordering on faith, that not only are there civilizations broadcasting out there, but that they are somehow intent on beaming their signals at Earth”.

        The alternative case that you describe may be similarly valid, but not necessarily better.

  3. Scripture must be allowed to interact with and speak to the reality of modern life, and by that I mean more than just the private moral sphere.

    Revelation 9:21 says that at the end of the age people fail to repent of their murders, pharmakeia, fornication and thieving. Revelation 18:23 says that the nations were deceived by the magnates who made money out of pharmakeia. ‘Sorcery’ is a possible, ancient-world translation, but the history of the last 100 years suggests another one.

    The best film ever made on the subject, The Real Dr Fauci, has just been released and is free to watch until the end of the month. I hope that readers will watch it. It is shocking even to me who have followed the off-stage story about covid and the ‘vaccines’ since its inception.

    • ‘‘Sorcery’ is a possible, ancient-world translation, but the history of the last 100 years suggests another one.’

      It does no such thing, unless you think words are empty vessels into which you can put whatever meaning you choose!

      • As PC1 notes, the common thread is the taking/selling of drugs. It is quite astonishing that you comment in the way you have.

      • Ian,
        What a splendid, sparkling summation of what seems to be today’s dominant Biblical hermeneutic, is your second paragraph. Thanks.

    • It likely refers to drug-taking during pagan rituals, to encourage ‘spiritual’ experiences. Still done in certain tribes today. It hardly refers to taking a medicine to help heal the body.

      As for the book, Oliver Stone has described it as a ‘strong, strong book’. The same Oliver Stone who loves conspiracy theories and spouted nonsense regarding the assassination of JFK. So no thanks.

  4. ‘there will always be a contradiction between a person’s stated beliefs and the way they actually live until they live as Christians. Schaeffer suggested that if we could gently point out to people where this contradiction was in their life, we would give them a problem that they could only resolve by conversion.’

    Except that that completely fails to recognise the hypocrisy in so many Christians’ lives, often highlighted by atheists. As many would say, I like Jesus but not Christians or the church. If Schaeffer believed ‘conversion’ was the answer he was seriously mistaken. Reality folks.

    • Peter, it is suggested that it goes beyond conversion to sanctification, to renewing the mind with the washing of the word living and active, not a dead letter.
      And while I can’t recall details, there’d be a need to look beyond to his Shaffer’s other writings such as,True Spirituality and maybe, How Then Shall We Now Live, which until a few minutes ago hadn’t realised it was made into a film available here:
      Maybe you are looking for perfection in Christian lives, that does exist that is reality.
      Simul Justus et pecator, as Luther knnew only too well.

    • Except that that completely fails to recognise the hypocrisy in so many Christians’ lives, often highlighted by atheists.,

      Because it’s so easy to fake most of it. Atheists have fewer incentives to be dishonest – as there is no communal atheist identity to defend. They are more individualistic.

      Churches today, particularly the more evangelical ones, tend to scare away individuals who are “open to experience” and this filtering process only increases the chance of encountering someone in a Christian setting who is maintaining some kind of façade.

      • Joe S,
        You are making some astonishing unsupported assertions, claims, generalisations, here. Look at secular society, look at political, justice systems for lying, dishonesty, self-serving systems and people. It seems that your extremely poor church experience has jaundiced your views..
        And we are all accountable to God’s judgment, none more so than the Body of Christ and those in leadership positions.
        Some of us may have more to be freed from, to turn from, renounce.
        And do we risk making an idol of experience as a replacement for God. There was a time that I wanted physical healing more than God Himself. Even while you mention Christian experience, if it is recalled correctly you are opposed to Holy Spirit experience that was a significant part of Alpha.
        That said, can we experiential know the presence of God? Is it true that where two or three are gathered in Jesus name, he is there?
        We all live our lives before an audience of One and we forget it to our folly and detriment.
        Our church midweek groups are currently working through, Love your Church, by Tony Merida. It could be something you would benefit from, be challenge by, disagree with.
        As one endorsment asks: ” Jesus is perfect – he will never let us down. The church however is full of people who are not perfect and will let us down. Why bother with them? Liz Cox, Minister for Women and Community, At Giles Church, Derby.
        There’s much more.
        I do hope you find a Church to which you can belong. Motivated by, fixing our eyes on Jesus, lifting our eyes to the vertical rather than horizonal level, as it were.

        • Motivated by, fixing our eyes on Jesus, lifting our eyes to the vertical rather than horizonal level, as it were.

          Geoff, I will say one other thing. That was the approach I took when I first started going to church (I felt Spirit lead to do it). I never expected to meet perfect people. I did how ever trust that Christians were slightly more kind and honest (or at least aware of the teaching on that subject) than the general population.

          It went well (or seemed to go well) for more than a decade – despite never really finding a ‘sense of belonging’ because Christian culture is so insular – and then my trust was betrayed by a Jonathan Fletcher type who bullied me to the brink of suicide. And because that abuse was all done one-on-one behind closed doors only a couple of people in his church were willing to listen when I spoke up about it. To this day most of them would rather discount my experience by finding fault in me than question a leader who had only ever shown them his more agreeable side.

          In some ways your response mirrors that approach. Without knowing any of the details you simply assumed any complaint made about somebody in a leadership position must be suspect.

          The good news is that I have since found the Surviving Church website aimed at supporting those who have had similar experiences.

      • Geoff: It seems that your extremely poor church experience has jaundiced your views.

        I’m learning to accept that my church experience has been normal for someone from an unchurched background and that there are clear and obvious reasons why the majority are no longer interested in religion (even if they continue to have values that contradict an atheist/agnostic outlook).

  5. I was reared in a Christian family and never really questioned the faith. In my early twentiesI began to read books on apologetics and world views mainly to help me evangelise better. Intellectually Ive always had three foundations for faith.

    1. The evidence of creation cries Creator.
    2. The biblical view of fallen humanity gels with reality.
    3. The uniqueness of Jesus. I doubt if he could be made up.

    At times in later life I have felt more temptation to doubt than in my youth. These three remain a bottom line now filled out much more than in youth.

    I appreciate apologetics and they have their place in both gospel defence and proclamation. That being said, I feel what is often missing from gospel proclamation is sufficient emphasis on human sin and divine wrath. Romans 1 needs more preaching.

  6. “That being said, I feel what is often missing from gospel proclamation is sufficient emphasis on human sin and divine wrath. Romans 1 needs more preaching.”

    I heartily agree. I would just add the doctrine of original sin as in Romans 5:12-21.

    Phil Almond


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