Review of ‘The Myth of the Non-Christian’

Myth_of_the_Non-Christian_350_coverLuke Cawley, The Myth of the Non-Christian: Engaging Atheists, Nominal Christians, and the Spiritual But Not Religious (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016).

Have you ever purchased a baseball cap labeled, “One Size Fits All”? I have. Inevitably, it’s too big for my son’s head but too small for mine. One size doesn’t fit all.

One size doesn’t fit all in outreach to non-Christians either. Unfortunately, our evangelistic programs and apologetics arguments often act as if they do. Based on long experience in campus ministry, Luke Cawley recognizes the need for what he calls “contextual apologetics”: the “art of formulating appropriate and diverse ways of sharing Jesus, based on a thorough understanding of those with whom we are interacting.” (Cawley doesn’t draw a sharp line between evangelism and apologetics but considers them overlapping activities.)

This concern for contextual apologetics explains why Cawley opposes the use of the term non-Christian. “There’s no such thing as a non-Christian,” he writes in the book’s opening sentence. By this, he doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Rather, he’s poking a hole in the way Christians categorize “non-Christians” in one-size-fits-all terms. “‘Non-Christian’ is a category so broad it is obsolete,” he writes. Atheists, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, nominal Christians, and the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd are very different from one another, after all.

Moreover, he goes on, “It’s not even something people call themselves.” In other words, the vast majority of people outside the Christian faith identify themselves in terms of what they do believe, not in terms of what they don’t believe. To effectively engage them with God for the gospel, we need to take into account what they believe, how they act, what makes them tick. This requires that we be flexible in our outreach to them. As Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

That said, Cawley identifies three broad characteristics of effective contextual apologetics: plausibility, desirability, and tangibility. Plausibility addresses the question, “Is it true?” and relies on “words and arguments.” Desirability addresses the question, “Is it attractive?” and relies on a “focus on Jesus” (whom everyone seems to find an attractive figure). Plausibility addresses the question, “Is it real?” and relies on “form, setting, and relationship.”

Though these three characteristics can be distinguished, they usually work together. One kind of question may rise to the fore, but the other kinds of questions still lurk in the background. Knowing this, the wise evangelist knows how to speak to a person in the place where they actually are (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, etc.).

With these broad characteristics in mind, the bulk of The Myth of the Non-Christian examines three kinds of people common in the post-Christian West: spiritual but not religious, atheists, and nominal Christians. For each group, Cawley outlines “stories” that help readers understand the particular contexts of these three groups, “questions” that members of each group typically raise, and “practices” that seem to help move people in these contexts closer to Jesus.

And at the end of the day, Jesus is what contextual apologetics is all about. Cawley urges the importance of “arguing from Jesus” and “arguing toward Jesus.” The former “involves, in conversations and in talks, highlighting how Jesus and/or the Easter event might be relevant to the question in hand.” (Notice that “arguing” does not mean “shouting at” or “offering a syllogism.” Rather, Cawley means something like “engaging in face-to-face dialogue.”) Arguing toward Jesus means “highlighting how the discussion can only be resolved through a fresh investigation of him. Jesus is the endpoint of the argument.”

This doesn’t mean that contextual apologists can skip their homework, by the way. Throughout the book, Cawley emphasizes the importance of research into atheism, science, psychology, other religions, spirituality, history, and the like. To establish plausibility, we must be able to demonstrate that Christianity, properly understood, is intellectually credible. On the other hand, keeping Jesus as the argument’s endpoint reminds us that our conversations serve an overarching spiritual purpose—to move people closer to God, who has revealed himself through Christ.

I recommend The Myth of the Non-Christian to any Christian interested in evangelism and apologetics. As a vocational minister, however, I would especially recommend it to other vocational ministers and church leaders. It will help us understand the challenges in reaching post-Christian Westerners for Christ as well as best practices for doing so.

P.S. This review first appeared at

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11 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Myth of the Non-Christian’

  1. There is another term commonly used by Christians that must be dropped from our vocabulary, such as: “post-Christian era.” According to scripture there will never be a so-called “post-Christian era.” For example, Isaiah 9:7 (NKJV)…
    “Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” If Jesus taught us anything, he taught the inexorable growth of his kingdom, such as: the little mustard seed that became the greatest bush of the field; the little leaven that ultimately leavens the whole lump, etc.

      1. In fact there are many more Christ-followers in the Levant, Europe and Asia (including China with an estimated 80-100 million believers) than at any time in world history (look it up!). It’s a myth to suggest that Christianity is diminishing in numbers on Planet Earth. Even after 70 years of atheist rule in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, once the Berlin Wall was knocked down it was happily discovered that faith in Christ was alive and well in those communist countries (even Vladimir Putin (former KGB officer) professed to be a believer and is now a patron of the church in Russia.

        There is a problem with some Christians who embrace a pessimistic dispensational eschatology in that they refuse to recognize anyone to be a “genuine Christian” who has not jumped through certain hoops, such as: praying something religious, i.e. the prescribed sinner’s prayer, being baptized according to a certain church formula (my daughter and her husband relocated to Texas and began attending a church there (both are devout baptized by submersion Christians, but were refused permission to use the 5,000 member Evangelical Baptist church’s Fellowship Hall recreation facilities UNLESS they first agreed to be re-baptized by submersion).

        Please consider the following:

        WHO WON, WHO LOST?
        How many times have we heard the preacher or Sunday school teacher tell us about the billions of souls that are going to be eternally lost simply because they never heard of Christ so as to “accept” him as their “personal” Savior? I call it the ‘Theology of Gloom and Doom.’ But this raises a very sincere question: Who loses what? Given the fact that God is the Creator of all humanity, it only stands to reason that he (God in Christ) would then go down in the annuls of history as the greatest soul loser of all time and, consequently, Satan would go down in history as the greatest soul winner of all time. Take your choice. ~ Ivan A. Rogers //

      2. In absolute numbers, sure. As a percentage of the Levant and European populations, no, especially the Levant. We also need to factor in the nominally Christian component of those populations. And, of course, few of those Christians or the missions that converted them are universalists, as you are.

  2. George: I wish to go on record to assert that I am one of your greatest admirers. I sincerely respect your scholarship and try to follow your excellent writings the best I can. Yes, I do believe in the ultimate salvation of all humanity based solely on the love and grace of God. I especially appreciate that you permit participation of theological views (like mine) despite the fact that you and many of your readers may not agree. “Iron sharpens Iron.”

    That said, I ask a simple and sincere question: Is a “nominal Christian” any less saved by grace than, shall we say, a radical Christian?

    1. Here is what Jesus said about nominal Christians:

      ““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
      ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭7:21-23‬ ‭ESV‬‬

      ““Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.””
      ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭25:41-46‬ ‭ESV‬‬

      1. I’ve known several radical Christians (some prominent TV evangelists and pastors) who fit that description perfectly. By the way, the term “eternal” punishment is not in the Greek text.

  3. The Greek text speaks of kolasin aionion and zohn aionion. “Eternal” is one way of translating aionion; “everlasting” another. “Of the ages” is woodenly literal, but non-idiomatic. Regardless, the apposition of kolasin and zohn as aionion suggests that they endure the same period.

  4. Oh-oh. I don’t think I was supposed to read this review, or the book. I’m one of the non-non-Christians. So, apologetically, I leave this brief, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, comment (which, no doubt, may be lovingly deleted).
    As a former evangelical, this makes sense. Know your audience. But don’t listen too close, because you are right and all those others are wrong and you might slip into feeling some of their wrongness might be right. Be careful.
    As a former minister, I would just urge a little more sense of ministry–that is, service–rather than “mere Christianity” (sorry) I mean, merely preaching.
    As a former chaplain (who still practices some of that, as a–dreaded–secular), it still amazes me that so many dedicate their lives to endless attempts to convince others to “come to Jesus” (the Jesus they imagine). We live is such a wonderfully diverse world. How sad not to truly and honestly learn from others. And so fearfully small a view of deity.
    As a Freethinker who is happy being free of faith but also happy living with people of faith too. . .I will conclude by saying that “attractive Jesus” mentioned may just have little to do with the historical heretic rebel rabbi of Nazareth. Just a thought.
    Sorry for reading insider information. I will leave you now. . .in peace (since I have no desire to convince you to join me in the ever-growing non-non-believing community).

  5. Many “Non-Christians” who listen to heavy metal music, etc. think Christians are boring people who sit around listening to hymns. They certainly aren’t going to listen to hymns, and may never go into a church. But an ex-heavy metal listener who becomes a Christian and then witnesses through Christian heavy metal music has a good chance of reaching these people! My radio host friend who is a DJ on a Metal station does this every week!

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