‘What I experienced woke me up’

Ahead of Unbelievable? the Conference 2019, Justin Brierley, presenter of Unbelievable? – a radio debate show which brings people of faith and no faith together – talks about his experience of being a Christian, and of sitting in the hot seat of debate for 10 years.

I grew up in a Christian family. Both my parents became Christians when they were at Oxford University together. However, I wouldn’t say that I really owned that faith myself until I was about 15 years old. We went to church every Sunday, and I had friends in the youth group, but I went because my parents did. The turning point for me came at a church youth camp. As a teenager, l wasn’t sure about Christianity, I didn’t have the conviction that others seemed to have. However, on that youth camp, faith really came alive for me. Looking back, I would call that an encounter with the Holy Spirit, and it was something that was quite life-changing.

I was only 15, but what I experienced was God’s presence in an incredibly new and almost tangible way. It sort of woke me up, like a light being switched on inside. I realised that this is true. Then things inside me started to change too. I started going to church, not just because my family and friends went, but because I wanted to be there. I wanted to worship God, I wanted to read my Bible, pray and be baptized. This passion began burning inside me. So really, that experience was a turning point. God in his grace reached me then, and while my faith has obviously developed and changed since then, I still look back to that moment as a 15 year-old as a key moment when suddenly things came alive. It was almost like the world turned technicolour.

Of course, every Christian has a different story. My wife’s path to faith is very different. While she grew up in a Christian environment, she just says she knew God was always there. For her there was a natural progression in her faith and she doesn’t point to a single moment of conversion. For me there was a moment, where something happened.

I took that faith with me through my 6th form years and to Oxford University, where I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics and got very involved in drama and the arts. We did Christian mime and drama both on campus and out on the streets too. Looking back on it, using street theatre and drama in evangelism was a bit ‘out there’ and daring. What was driving it was my desire to express the gospel in ways that were creative, intelligent and engaging. It all turned out to be remarkably good preparation for what I would later end up doing in radio.

I got married shortly after university, then while my wife trained for church ministry, I started to work at Premier Christian Radio and we’ve been together on this journey together for the last 18 years. I have been blessed to have this ministry that’s developed through my Unbelievable? radio show. The radio work has really developed over time. I began on the breakfast show, just with the thought of resourcing Christians with Bible teaching, music and interviews, and that was great. I really learnt the art of radio broadcasting during those early years.

A few years after I had started, I went to the managing director said I’d really love to start a show of my own, to create a space for discussion between Christians and non-Christians. The idea was to model for the Christian audience how to have good conversations and to defend the faith. We wanted to help Christians to talk about Jesus and about the Bible in ways that people understand. It started as a bit of an experiment, and that’s how the show was born back in late 2005. The first show simply featured me sitting down with an Anglican priest and his atheist neighbour talking about faith. All those shows had a Christian guest alongside someone of another faith (or no faith). We had Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, agnostics and atheists.

The heart of the show is Christian/non-Christian dialogue, and it became surprisingly popular, first as a live show, then as a pre-recorded segment, and now as a podcast too. Actually the podcast has grown to become a large segment of our audience. The radio audience is essentially Christian, but the podcast listeners are really diverse. Lots of atheists and agnostics listen and join in the discussion and have told me they appreciate the way we give both sides of an argument a fair hearing.

We now have over 3.5 million downloads of the show each year, and we have branched out into video as well, putting debates and discussions on YouTube.

By 2017 I had been in weekly dialogue with atheists for over a decade, and put a book together which detailed some of what I had learnt. It’s called Unbelievable? and has the subtitle: Why, after ten years of talking with atheists, I’m still a Christian.

In the course of all that thinking, reading and debating, some of the things that I believe as a Christian have shifted and changed. Critically, though, while I’ve heard every objection to God going, my faith is actually stronger. I’ve seen that there are actually good answers. Even though there are still plenty of mysteries and things I don’t claim to know (and probably never will) there is actually a really solid intellectual core to Christian belief that is surprisingly strong, when you look into the evidence. Also, when you look at the other worldviews out there, whether it be other religions such as Islam, or indeed atheism, you begin to see some pretty big deficiencies. So my book basically says, ‘Come with me on this journey, I’ve heard the objections, and here is why I think Christianity still makes extraordinarily compelling intellectual sense.’

There is of course a danger in an over-emphasis on apologetics. It can be dangerous to reduce faith to just ideas and academic arguments. The problem is that these arguments can be prioritised ahead of the experience of knowing God. So I would stress both inviting people to understand with their heads and experiencing with the heart. My hope is that people will really hear the intellectual case for Christianity by listening to the show, or reading the book. However, I don’t want that to replace having a living relationship with Jesus Christ.

I know some people who have come to faith through the show, and others who tell me that they have listened but still aren’t convinced. My role is to give Christian faith a good hearing, and the rest I leave to God. I’m grateful to God for allowing me to use Unbelievable? as a way of engaging with so many people.

So that’s my testimony, that’s where I stand now, having had over 10 years of conversations with all kinds of sceptics and opponents. I’m not claiming to know it all, but I have discovered that there’s a really strong foundation to this faith. The heart of the Christian faith is about trusting and following Christ. This message has changed me, it’s changed so many people I know, and it has changed the world, so I can recommend nothing greater than to trust and follow Jesus.

Justin Brierley presents Premier Christian Radio’s flagship apologetics and theology debate programme Unbelievable? every Saturday at 2.30pm, bringing Christians and non-Christians together for dialogue. He is also the author of Unbelievable? the book

Unbelievable? the Conference 2019 takes place at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, on Saturday 20 July 2019

This article was originally published by Solas and is reposted with the kind permission of Solas and Gavin Williams. It was adapted from an interview with Social Church