Article by Parks Edwards, a NWer studying at SEBTS.
The Biblical Basis for a Plan
Conversations are perhaps the central way in which we encounter others on a daily basis. Because of this, how we conduct our conversations and the subject matter they contain can both be powerful avenues for the gospel. There are two passages in Scripture that specifically bring this idea out and help us to think about the opportunity that we have to be Christ’s ambassadors in conversations with others. As Peter writes to suffering Christians, he encourages and exhorts them to recognize they are blessed by God in their suffering. He says, “in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you. Yet do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that when you are accused, those who disparage your good conduct in Christ will be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16). Peter’s admonition to his Christian audience is clear: they first must be living under Jesus’ Lordship, having hearts set on Him, and then out of this posture they are to be ready to explain why they believe they have such hope to those who ask. All of this is to be done with “gentleness and respect” and not out of arrogance.
In Colossians 4:5-6 Paul writes, “Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person.” He is encouraging his readers to be living their lives in such a way that they are mindful of the opportunity they have to spread the aroma of Christ to non-believers. Such people have an awareness of their mission in this world that is a part of God’s great story of redemption. Included in this is how our conversations with non-Christians can have a powerful influence for the gospel in their lives. So, like Peter, Paul exhorts his readers to be alert (act wisely, making the most of the time) and to be ready to engage in spiritual dialogue with others in a gracious manner. It is evident then, that having a plan for these conversations is a central aspect of the Christian life both as a matter of evangelism and discipleship to Christ.
Common Hindrances for Engaging in Spiritual Dialogue
So, are you prepared to engage others in spiritual dialogue? Think back to the last time you conversed with someone about yours or their beliefs. How did this go? How did you feel about it? Is engaging others in spiritual conversation something you get excited about? Or is it something you fear and avoid? It seems that for most Christians, having spiritual conversations with non-Christians is a very rare occurrence. Even when there is a clear opportunity to engage, most of us find ways to get out of it. Why is this? If conversing with others about our faith in Christ is central to our lives as Christians then why don’t we do it? There seem to be four common reasons that stand out.
The first is that most Christians simply do not have a plan for engaging in spiritual conversations with non-Christians. It is an aspect of our Christian lives that we are conscious of, but perhaps do not feel equipped in. This results in us “putting it on the shelf” so to speak and we end up practically abandoning this powerful avenue of witness to others. If you don’t have a plan, you generally won’t engage.
The second is that many of us lack this kind of intentionality in our lives. We read passages like those from 1 Peter and Colossians, but we do not carry those encouragements and exhortations into our daily lives. This is a matter of discipleship and love for Christ. If we love Him, we will be devoted to His purposes in this world. Our action in “giving a defense” to those who ask us about our hope in Christ flows out of us having hearts which are honoring Him as our Lord (1 Peter 3:15). A love for Christ means we will increasingly be possessed by His wisdom which will in turn lead us to live lives focused on impacting those around us, especially in the way we engage in spiritual dialogue with them (Colossians 4:5-6).
The third is that when most of us think about having a plan for engaging in spiritual dialogue, we tend to believe this means we need to do most of the talking. After all, isn’t the goal for non-Christians to come to know Christ? And how can they know unless someone tells them? Thus, we end up developing some sort of script or method to bring to every conversation with a non-Christian. What then can happen is that we do the majority of the talking, and we do not take the time to learn where our non-Christian friend is spiritually. We rightly see them as someone who needs Christ, but we fail to love them if we do not listen to them. The result of this kind of approach is that the Christian often feels pressured to “get it right” in every conversation. We get so focused on our script/method that we are not really listening to the person with whom we are speaking. The point here is not to denigrate evangelistic methods (they are useful tools), but rather to focus on loving people well by genuinely listening to them. Also, we must recognize that every conversation will be different because people are different.
The fourth is that many believers feel like they carry the burden of proof in spiritual dialogue with others. This feeling usually comes up when the conversation partner is more skeptically minded. For example, the skeptic makes the comment, “I don’t think that the gospels give us a true picture of Jesus. The church has corrupted what Jesus originally taught.” The usual response of the Christian is to either have no answer to this claim or to have an answer and immediately feel the need to respond. The dynamic in such conversations is that the skeptic does not have to support his own beliefs with reasons. He simply pokes holes in the Christian’s beliefs while the Christian is focused on plugging them up.
Some Suggestions on How to Engage in Spiritual Conversations Effectively
We have identified four common hindrances to believers engaging in spiritual conversations with non-believers. So what are some ways we can move past these hindrances while showing love for those far from Christ? Here are three suggestions.
The first suggestion goes back to the notion of intentionality in our lives for Christ. We must be those living with an eternal perspective, those who “act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time” (Colossians 4:5). We also must be dependent on Jesus in all things, for we can do nothing apart from Him (John 15:5). A very practical suggestion to live intentionally with regards to spiritual conversations with others is to ask Jesus to give you opportunities. Ask Him to send people across your path throughout the day who need Him. Ask Him to make you aware of these opportunities. You will begin to see these opportunities in little comments that people make which touch upon spiritual topics. Or perhaps someone will ask you directly something about your faith. The point is that you will begin to have a new spiritual awareness around the things people are saying and how these serve as open doors for conversation.
The second suggestion is that instead of approaching spiritual conversations feeling like you need to do most of the talking, try approaching them doing most of the listening. If your co-worker says he’s an atheist, ask him “how long have you been an atheist?” Find out what kind of atheist he is (what does he mean when he describes himself as an atheist?) What convinced him that atheism is true? Does he ever doubt his atheism? Focus on listening to what he believes and why he believes it. If people feel like you are genuinely trying to understand what they believe and where they are coming from, it creates a cordial and friendly tone to the dialogue. Usually, they are much more likely to ask you what you believe as well and then you can testify to your trust in Christ. On the contrary, if people feel like you are only interested in proving your own beliefs right and pointing out where they are wrong, they will be closed off to further dialogue. So, we must listen and ask questions. Not only does this approach make people feel more loved, but it takes you out from under the burden of proof. Many Christians fail to engage in spiritual conversations with others (especially skeptics) because they feel like they don’t know enough. They feel “outgunned”, so they just avoid it altogether. With this listening and questioning approach, the burden of proof is off your shoulders. Taking the posture of a learner, you will find that as people explain what they believe and why they believe it, more questions will come to mind to ask them. What often happens is that people come to a place of difficulty in their own beliefs, and then you can aid them in thinking about things they have never considered. To be sure, there is a place for us as Christians to bear the burden of proof for our beliefs. The point here is that we do not need to approach every conversation with a non-believer in this manner.
The third suggestion is that as you ask questions and learn about other people’s beliefs, focus on that one thing they need to think more about. This helps with another difficulty in spiritual dialogue where the non-Christian throws out so many things and the conversation ranges so widely that it lacks focus. Your goal is, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to identify that one idea or claim your non-Christian friend needs to think more about. You want them to move closer to the cross. This is often a slow process as God changes people’s hearts. Many times, people hold wrong ideas about Christianity that need to be challenged in a respectful and loving manner, so that they can see clearly the hope of the gospel. For example, the claim cited earlier was from an atheist who says, “I don’t think that the gospels give us a true picture of Jesus. The church has corrupted what Jesus originally taught.” As long as he thinks the gospels have been corrupted and do not tell us the truth about Jesus, he will feel justified in rejecting what they say. However, if the Christian responds by asking, “Oh I see, and can you help me understand what convinced you that that is true?” In this conversation, the atheist has made a claim about the nature of the gospels, and so he bears the burden of proof for explaining why this should be accepted by the Christian. Many times, people are used to simply making such claims about Christianity and never having them challenged. As a result, it may turn out they don’t have good reasons for believing their claims.
Following Jesus means that we will be concerned to advance His kingdom and purposes in this life. Our conversations with others serve a key part in this. With the Holy Spirit’s help and a life of abiding in Christ, we can engage others in spiritual conversations to move them closer to the cross. May we all take this privilege seriously and be intentional in our conversations, “acting wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time” and being “ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks” us for our hope in Christ (Colossians 4:5; 1 Peter 3:15).