I want to offer some reflections on something that God zoomed in on in my own life a number of years ago. If you take these pieces of advice seriously, I honestly believe it could radically change the depth and enjoyment of your conversations about God and the fruitfulness that comes from them. That is what I have found personally and that is my prayer for you.
There are a couple of reasons why I want to focus in on conversation. Firstly, all of us will probably be more influential in our conversation than in any other type of communication. Secondly, we tend to spend almost no time on this, as we don’t see it as important. People often focus on improving professional skills or learning more about the Bible, but who can say that they are now a significantly better conversationalist than they were a few years ago?
Caring about Conversation
There’s a scene in Pride and Prejudice when Mr Darcy says, ‘I have not that talent which some possess of conversing easily with strangers’, to which Elizabeth responds, ‘I do not play [the piano] so well as I should wish to, but I have always supposed that to be my fault, because I would not take the trouble of practicing.’
Similarly, if we’re not good conversationalists, we tend to see it as just how we are and not as a weakness or something we ought to change. Yet you can find some advice for conversation – normally in secular writing – and it often revolves around being prepared. One recommendation, for example, is to read about different popular topics so that you can engage with the interests of people around you.
That might seem fake, prescriptive, or disingenuous to you, but why should it, when many of us spend a great deal of time finding out about professional sportspeople or celebrities? After all, we generally view research and study as good things, because we care about the end result. We praise people when they carefully plan for someone’s birthday or going on a date, as it shows that they value the other person. So why should it be any different with normal conversation? Why should we restrict serious personal investment just to special occasions?
If I know I’m going to see someone tonight, why shouldn’t I take some time to pray about them and to ask God for a good question to ask them or for a good answer to something they might ask me? I don’t see anything artificial or disingenuous about that; it means that I care enough about the person not to say just the first thing that happens to jump into my head. We would never just wing something that was important, like a work presentation, so why do we almost always just ‘wing’ conversation?
Crafting our Conversation
I’d like to share with you a few pieces of advice for investing more intentionally in conversation. I have eight short points that I think can be really practical and powerful, if put into practice.
1. BE MULTILINGUAL
Be able to speak competently about the different things that matter most to the people you care about and feel called to. Almost two decades ago, I became a Christian, and initially it was difficult for my family. I found myself struggling to know how to share my newfound faith with my father. What came next surprised me! I sensed God prompting me to learn the language of a New York Yankees fan. So I started watching the games regularly, and within weeks I was an even bigger fan than my dad! All of a sudden we had something to connect about pretty much every day of the year, and I’d say this was one of the single biggest factors in my dad becoming more comfortable having spiritual conversations with me and ultimately putting his trust in Christ.
What would it look like for us to learn to speak the language of the specific people God is calling us to? Is there someone you feel called to relationship with and to share God with whom you are struggling to connect with? What are they interested in? What do they enjoy? What do they care about?
2. BE A GOAL-SETTER
When I fly home to see my family, I set goals to have at least one specific conversation with each of my family members, and I try to let my wife or a friend know what those goals are so that they can help hold me accountable to them. While I can’t necessarily direct what the outcome of those conversations will be, I can take responsibility for whether or not they take place.
We don’t always like setting goals because it opens us up to the possibility of failing, but one of the greatest gifts of being a Christian is that Jesus’ sacrifice should free us to be willing and unafraid for things not to go as we’d hoped, because our identity and value is rooted in God’s grace alone and not in our achievements.
3. BE QUESTION READY
Good questions are so powerful, as Jesus himself showed many times, but most people are pretty terrible at asking them. Some of our most common questions, like “How are you doing?”, aren’t even real questions at all, because they’ve come to mean nothing more than “hello”.
The reason we so often find it so difficult to get from shooting the breeze to Jesus is because too often we are merely shooting the breeze. We wouldn’t find it so difficult to introduce Jesus into conversation if we were in the habit of regularly entering into meaningful conversations. I have a list of questions that I find help to open up and deepen conversations without being threatening. Jesus then finds his way into those meaningful conversations quite naturally. Here are a few questions that I like:
What was the best part of your week? What was the worst part of your week?
What’s been on your mind most recently?
When was the happiest time in your life? Why?
What are you good at?
What are your dreams for the future?
What were you like as a child? Are you different now? In what ways?
What is your best childhood memory?
Whom in your family are you most alike? Whom are you most different from? In what ways?
How would your best friends describe you?
Who has had the most significant influence in your life? Why?
If there was one law you could make, what would it be?
What would you change about yourself if you could change one thing?
What is the most frustrating thing about religion to you?
Did you grow up in a religious home? [This is sometimes less threatening than “Are you a Christian?”]
Have you had experiences in your life that have made you think there might be a God? [I love this one! The stories people will share in response are amazing!]
4. BE RESPONSE READY
While we can open up conversations by enquiring about others, questions asked to us are an absolute gift because they are an opportunity to share something about who God is and what he has done. Yet our responses can often be as bad as our questions, when we say something like “Okay”, “Can’t complain” or “Fine”.
What questions are you asked most often and how could you respond in ways that allow you to talk about meaningful things generally and Jesus Christ in particular? Here’s an example of one way of responding:
Person A: “How was your weekend?”
Person B: “Not bad, thanks.”
But if you’ve encountered the living God in church on Sunday, saying “Not bad, thanks” isn’t even an honest answer! There’s nothing weird about giving an honest, meaningful answer, which might be something like this:
Person A: “How was your weekend?”
Person B: “Really good actually. On Saturday, we went to the movies, and then, on Sunday, we went to church, which is always a highlight for us. Do you ever go to church?”
Person A: “No, I’m not religious.”
Person B: “No, I never used to either, but a friend invited me along a few years ago and I’ve found it incredibly meaningful and a wonderful community to be a part of. It would be great to have you come along sometime.”
5. BE TESTIMONY READY:
Some of the deepest and most meaningful conversations happen when we personally relate to what others are saying. Sharing the faith is very often about finding Christ at the intersection between our own stories and those of others, but one reason why we often find evangelism so hard is that we don’t actually know our own stories very well. In churches, people are sometimes encouraged to share their testimony, but the truth is that each of us has innumerable testimonies of how God has worked in our lives.
I try to identify different themes within which I can understand my testimony, and then I pray and reflect about how that theme has played out in my life and how God has been at work through it. Here are some relevant themes:
Forgiveness, family, suffering, intellect, relationships, guilt, death, fear, dreams, purpose, loneliness, freedom, pride, worry and anxiety, shame, frustrations with the church, decisions about the future, image, identity…
The more themes we can articulate our testimony through the better, as it helps us to appreciate and understand the ways God has been at work in our lives, as well as helping us be more natural in connecting with the stories of others.
6. BE PRAYER READY
The Bible tells us that our prayers are “powerful and effective.” How gracious is our God to set things up so that even when we’re not with someone in person, we can actively bless them by praying for them? Prayer is action at a distance; it’s a superpower! How do you remind yourself to pray for others consistently and in a disciplined way? There are many ways to do this, but, whichever way you choose, every Christian should be able to answer that question.
7. BE GOOD STEWARDS OF CONVERSATIONS.
If we’ve had a good conversation with someone, they may have been vulnerable with us and trusted us with personal information. So we have to be trustworthy and care enough to retain that information, reflect on it, and pray about it. As long as you are very careful about issues of confidentiality, it can be helpful to write down the information somewhere safe, so you can remember to pray about it and to ask about it the next time you see the same person.
Being good stewards of conversation also requires looking for opportunities to extend the conversation. Just say something like, “I really enjoyed that; maybe we can talk more sometime? Do you have an email address I can reach you at?” or “Are you on Facebook?” People are usually very willing to give Facebook or email addresses. You can then set up a time to continue the conversation, which also gives the other person time to give the topic more thought.
8. BE INVITATIONAL
If you are throwing a party, it doesn’t matter how much you tell people about how great it is going to be and how excited you are. In general, they are not going to show up unless you have actually invited them. It is the same when we talk about God. We may have told a loved one how great God is, shared our testimony, and even answered their objections, but have we actually invited them to come to Christ? I always remember when a student called Natasha was asked why she didn’t become a Christian sooner, and she replied, “I think I just needed an invitation.”
Why do we so often not make invitations? I think sometimes we are fooled into thinking God is far from certain people and they would not be ready for such a decision. We’ve also been deceived into thinking that it is up to us to persuade people to make the most important decision of their life and that God is not involved. The reality is so different, as the Bible doesn’t just say that “[God] is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27), but that even to those who are not Christians yet “…what is known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:19-20) [emphases added]
That is an incredibly strong statement saying people don’t just know something about God, but deep down they know his divine nature. That is not to minimise legitimate questions and objections and doubts, but it is to say that God has already been revealing himself – through creation, through our conscience, through dreams, and in a million other ways.
Do you believe that about your friends and family? Do you believe that about the people you meet every day? Do you believe they already have a seed of the knowledge of God deep down? I think this is one of the most important questions for us to honestly ask ourselves. If you don’t believe this, then you won’t have the confidence to invite people to Jesus, but if you believe what the Bible says is true, then you start to think that in every single conversation, God could bring new life – and that’s when things start to get really exciting!
A former student of mine got invited to church by a friend who overslept. When he showed up, he heard the singing and slipped in at the back of the church, heard a sermon from John 15, was pierced to the heart, and walked forward to give his life to Christ. Can you imagine? By the time you call to apologise for oversleeping, your friend tells you he has already become a Christian! God will bless and use your invitations, if you are willing to trust him with them.
Do we have confidence in the power of the gospel? A while back I met a young man at church. He said he was not a Christian, and he asked a tough question about hell. I answered it as best as I was able, and I could see in his eyes that he thought my response made sense and that a shift was taking place. I hesitated, and he said “Thanks” and walked away. I thought to myself, “Man, I should have made an invitation”. So I ran after the guy, caught up with him, and I didn’t even get to finish my question, as he said “I really want to recommit my life to Jesus!” Those words were literally on the tip of his tongue! He just needed an invitation!
Trust God with those promptings – I call them Holy Spirit U-turns – and be invitational. Over time, as you build up evidence of God’s faithfulness in blessing your invitations, the feelings of nerves and discomfort will become excitement and expectation as you see God transform life after life after life.
Start with the assumption that God is near and he is known, because that’s what the Bible says, and be ready and excited to invite people to Jesus. Has God put someone on your heart? Will you trust Him? He wants to use you. Yes, you! Not because you have all the answers, but because he loves you and he delights in involving his children in his work. Will you accept that gift?
What would make this article a success? Wouldn’t it be a powerful result if everyone who reads this headed back home with an invitation to follow Christ for some person in their life? If we do that, you know what will happen? People will become Christians! You will be surprised at how many people will say “Yes” to your invitation. If we do that, we will have more brothers and sisters for all eternity. That’s what I am praying for.
Dr Vince Vitale (PhD, Oxford)
has taught Philosophy of Religion at Princeton and Oxford Universities.