The Conversation Gap

A few years ago, my family and I were holidaying in the English Lake District and over our week there we got to know another family, who we had met when we took our kids to play in the local park. (We’ve found that having small children is an easy way to meet other families because “I’m sorry my child hit your child with a stick-doing-duty-as-a-pirate-sword, please don’t sue” is a great opening line). During our week’s holiday, we spent lots of time with this other family, our kids played with their kids, we hiked and had a few meals together. Over various conversations, questions about our faith come up but on the last evening of the week, I was asked a question I had never before encountered. Midway through the curry, the wife of this other family looked at us and with a puzzled look on her face said: “I can’t work you two out. You’re clearly very into this Jesus thing, but you’re not … you’re not crunchy. What’s different about you?”

I paused, a forkful of chicken vindaloo halfway to my mouth. “Crunchy? What do you mean?”

“Oh you know, crunchy Christians?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about. What are Crunchy Christians? Some kind of cannibalistic appetiser?” (My wife kicked me under the table. Apparently this was not the time for Dad jokes.[1])

“Oh you know what I mean. The kind of religious people that you just can’t have normal conversations with. They’re always so deathly serious, or judging you, or tutting at things you say, or trying to press leaflets about something at their church into your hands. In the end you kind of give up and do your best to avoid them. They’re crunchy.”

As I paused and thought about this, the curry slowly dissolving the metal of my fork, it occurred to me that this is sadly not an unusual sentiment. Christians sometimes have a reputation for being awkward to talk to (perhaps because we’re so keen—or nervous—about trying to turn every conversation into an evangelistic opportunity that people sense our edginess and it puts them off); or perhaps because have a tendency to go deep too quickly (“Hello!” “Aha, I notice you began with ‘Hell’—can you be sure you’re not going?”); or maybe, if we’re honest, we’re not really interested in the other person, we just see them as evangelism fodder. All of these things our friends can detect and it turns people off talking to us. Or maybe we’re just afraid of talking to non-Christians—we have no idea what to say and we come across as frightening and skittish—and that can also make us appear crunchy.

To be fair, it’s not just Christians who are struggling with how to have conversations: we live in an age where many people are increasingly forgetting how to talk to each other. As Sherry Turkle points out in her helpful book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, many of us become accustomed to spending so much time staring into the black mirrors of our phones, tablets, and screens that we are losing the art of conversation:

We say we turn to our phones when we’re ‘bored’. And we often find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information, and entertainment … There is now a word in the dictionary called ‘phubbing’. It means maintaining eye contact while texting. My students me they do it all the time and it’s not that hard … [All this] adds up to a flight from conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.[2]

And to ‘fully present’ and ‘vulnerable’ we might add conversations where people can talk naturally and honestly about the big questions of life. During that week in the Lake District, we had many conversations about spiritual things (including a fascinating two-hour discussion about why Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead). But these questions arose naturally: people don’t want forced conversations but they do want spiritual conversations—survey after survey has shown this. And the pandemic has merely increased this desire for spiritual connection: back in April 2020, The Guardian, a left-leaning-not-especially-friendly-to-Christians newspaper reported that 25% of people were watching religious services online (rising to 33% for 18-34 year olds)[3] whilst a secular political magazine, New Statesman, even ran an article entitled ‘How Coronavirus is Leading to a Religious Revival’.[4] Meanwhile, the comedian Russell Brand, wildly popular with younger audiences, posted a video to his social media feeds called ‘Why are so many people Googling ‘how to pray’?’ and hundreds of thousands watched.[5]

So people are not averse to asking or considering spiritual questions. Yet at the same time, many Christians find it hard to talk naturally to their friends about faith. Some of us, if we’re honest, would rather share an ‘evangelistic video’ on Facebook and then sit back with a sigh of relief, our missional itch scratched, and think ‘Phew, I’ve done my bit’. (Don’t misunderstand me, we love evangelistic videos at Solas and have produced dozens of them with our popular Short Answers series, but like a bread roll or an onion bhaji, these are appetisers designed to get things going, they’re not intended to be the entire conversation).

So how can we begin to overcome that conversation gap that looms for many of us in the path to confident, natural spiritual conversations with our friends? How can we take the opportunity to talk to people about spirituality, about faith, about Jesus—yet avoid the pitfall of appearing crunchy and putting folks off from ever talking to another Christian? Thankfully it’s much easier than you think to overcome the conversation gap—here are ten practical suggestions you can try out.

TEN TOOLS FOR CONVERSATIONS THAT COUNT

First, pray. This is obvious right? But sometimes it’s the obvious things that we overlook, like the sunglasses on our forehead whilst we tear the house apart looking for them.[6] What should we pray for? What about praying for opportunities to talk to people about your faith in Jesus. Don’t try and forceable extract ‘opportunities’ from every conversation, rather pray that the Lord would create them for you at the right time. Pray for the Spirit’s leading that you would recognise them when they turn up. You can also pray over previous conversations you have had and for those you talked with. (You might also want to make a little list of people you would love to talk more with about your faith—perhaps a friend or neighbour, a colleague or a classmate[7]—and put that list in the front of your Bible, to remind you each time you open it to pray for opportunities to speak to those people.

Second, learn to listen. Sometimes in conversations we can be so eager to share spiritual truths with our friends that we don’t shut up, but end up dominating the conversation so much so that our friend goes away feeling that haven’t had a conversation so much as a lecture. Take on board what the New Testament says, when it advises us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). Two rough-and-ready rules that can be helpful in conversations are first, aim to listen at least 60% of the time and, second, listen carefully enough that you can summarise what the other person said. (It can sometimes be helpful and appropriate to occasionally say things like “If I understand you correctly, what I think you’re saying is …”) The more people feel they are genuinely listened to, the more they will be willing to listen to what you have to say.

Third, take an interest. The more that we learn to take a genuine interest in people the more opportunities for spiritual conversations will present themselves. I have an old friend and colleague who is very gifted at this and is able to start conversations anywhere. A few years ago, after we’d both spoken at a conference in London we got a taxi to the train station, dog-tired after a really heavy day. All I wanted to do was close my eyes for twenty minutes, but my friend leapt straight into asking the taxi driver questions about his work and his family—within ten minutes they were chatting like old friends. Towards the end of the ride, the taxi driver mentioned how his son was struggling with an issue at school and very naturally, my friend was able to say how she found, when similar issues had happened with her kids, how praying about it had made a big difference. That segue to spiritual issues wasn’t forced, it flowed naturally out of the interest that my friend had taken in the man’s life.

Fourth, create points of connection. One of the most helpful things we can do in a conversation, especially with somebody new, is to find common ground, places we can build from to the gospel (read Acts 17:16-34 and see how the apostle Paul does this with the Athenians, complementing them on the religiosity shown by their buildings and temples, before he then bridges to the gospel). One way I have found to do this is to read (and watch) widely, taking opportunities to sample beyond my own (narrow) interests. Over a hundred years ago, the Baptist minister F. W. Boreham wrote a wonderful little essay, ‘A Slice of Infinity’, in which he encourages Christians to aim at ‘sampling infinity’ in our reading.[8] After all, if you get chatting to somebody at the bus stop and it turns out they are a keen angler, you’ll be grateful that you read Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley a year back, as it gives you some points of connection you can use to build a conversation from.

Fifth, take the conversation deeper by degrees. I think what partly lay behind the ‘crunchy Christians’ experiences of our Lake District friends was that they had often met Christians who would leap from ‘hello’ to ‘Have you found Jesus?’ within about ten seconds. Aside from the archaic language,[9] this is just too deep too quickly and just as changing depths too quickly when diving can result in narcosis and other nasty medical complications, so diving too fast into the spiritual depths can derail a conversation. A better approach is to carefully discern what topics, themes, and questions might encourage your friend to open up more about spiritual things (for leaping straight away with “Do you think Jesus rose from the dead?” may be a step too fast).

Tim Keller, the bestselling author and Presbyterian pastor, wrote a famous book back in 2008 called The Reason for God,[10] looking at a number of questions about the Christian faith. But he found that by 2016, the spiritual questions people were asking had changed, and so he wrote another book, Making Sense of God,[11] aimed at those who were beginning to consider spiritual things but were not yet in a place ready to consider the Christian faith. The former book is evangelistic; the second book is more pre-evangelistic. In the same way, begin where your friend is at—and wisely, warmly, and prayerfully engage them at a speed that draws them forward (for a biblical example of this, read John 3 sometime and watch how Jesus skilfully engages with Nicodemus, beginning with his questions and moving him slowly toward the subject of Jesus’s own identity).

Sixth, learn to ask good questions. Questions are a powerful evangelistic tool in their own right but when it comes to conversations, they’re incredibly helpful. (Read through one of the gospels in one sitting some time and make a note in the margin of your Bible every time that Jesus either asks a question or responds to a question with a question). I regularly find that questions are helpful in three ways. First, you can use them inquisitively: to find out about the other person, their life, their story, and their concerns. Second, you can use them defensively: if the person you’re talking to says something critical about Christianity, you can ask why they think that or what they mean by what they have just said (e.g. “What do you mean by ‘crunchy Christians’?’) Finally, you can use questions informatively, to learn more about the worldview of the person you’re talking with. In my book Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? I show how the following four questions can be really helpful when your conversation has reached a point where you want to learn more about what your friend believes and why:[12]

  • Do you think there is some kind of god? (And if so, what do you think that god is like)
  • What do you think human beings are? Are we just matter and molecules, or more than that?
  • What do you think is wrong with the world?
  • Given what’s wrong, what do you think the solution could be?

Not only do those questions open up a chance for you to find out what your friend thinks and believes, they’re also an opportunity when, having listened, you can share what you think—and they give a great framework for explaining the gospel in a way your friend can understand.

Seventh, wonder out loud. I’ve found that it can be incredibly helpful, especially with friends who say they’re not interested in spiritual things (or give no outward sign of being) to “wonder out loud”. What do I mean? Well, suppose your friend mentions some injustice they’ve just read about in the newspaper and remarks how terrible the situation is. You might reply: “I wonder why we place such weight on justice? Why do you think justice is important?” Or you could say: “I often wonder about our passion for things like human rights—why do you think that human beings have dignity and value?” As somebody who loves the outdoors, I’ve learnt to ask Wondering Questions of fellow nature lovers: “I wonder why as humans we’re so drawn to natural beauty and landscapes?” (In each case—justice, dignity, and beauty—I think that Christianity makes much better sense of our longing for these things than does secularism. But don’t leap there immediately: head the conversation that way with Wondering Questions).

You can also use Wondering Questions with folks from other religions. In his helpful book God Space: Where Spiritual Conversations Happen Naturally, Doug Pollock tells of an encounter with two Mormon missionaries who were knocking on doors in his neighbourhood, offering people copies of The Book of Mormon.[13] Doug led with a Wondering Question:

“I wonder what good news you feel I’m missing out on that you think the Book of Mormon will supply?”

The two missionaries explained why they thought their scripture was important and Doug followed up with:

“I wonder, if I took your book and read it, and came to your place of worship, would that put me in a right relationship with God?”

The two missionaries thought for a moment and said: “We hope so!”

“Can you be sure of that?”

Again they said: “We hope so!”

And so Doug replied: “Now I’m very curious. Here you are, two young guys who have devoted two years of your life to spreading your beliefs, and the best you have is ‘I hope so’. I wonder—what more would you have to do to be sure of a right relationship with God?”

This really made the Mormon missionaries think and opened up the chance for Doug to share how, as a Christian, it wasn’t years of slaving away on a religious treadmill working harder and harder that put him in a right relationship with God, but rather what God had already done for us in Jesus. Doug’s careful use of Wondering Questions had given him a chance to share the gospel very naturally with these two young men who had knocked on his door. As Doug puts it:

The good news is you don’t have to force God into the picture. He is always there in the background, the foreground, or somewhere in between. You might have heard the old saying: “All roads lead to Rome”. Well, I like to say, “All good wondering questions eventually lead to God”. At the end of the day he is the answer.[14]

Eighth, the power of testimony. The great news is we live in an age where people have rediscovered the power of stories. From great TV shows and best-selling novels, to human interest stories in the news, people love a story. They love to tell stories about themselves and they love to hear the stories of others. So practice telling your story of faith—not just how you became a follower of Jesus, but what God is doing in your life right up to the present day. Don’t feel the need to polish and improve it—there’s a power in Christians being honest about the ups and downs, the highs and lows of following Jesus. If you’ve failed and messed up, don’t hide that—remember it is Jesus who is perfect, his followers are often flawed but the wonder of the gospel is he loves us despite our brokenness. Find ways, where appropriate, to tell your story.

Ninth, look for ways to connect the conversation naturally to Jesus. Remember that in all of this, it is Jesus we are looking to point people towards. The goal is not that your friends say “My word, Robert is such a witty conversationalist” or “Rebecca is such a good listener”—the end goal is for our friends to discover who Jesus is through us. So listen carefully and prayerfully, looking for opportunities, when the time is right (don’t force it, but don’t chicken out either!) to bring Jesus into the conversation. One way of doing this, when the conversation has moved into spiritual things, is to look for ways to say something like:

·         That reminds me of something Jesus once said

·         That reminds me of a story that Jesus once told

·         That reminds me of something Jesus once did

I remember once talking to a gentlemen who was perfectly happy to talk about spiritual things (he was convinced there was ‘some kind of higher power’ and that ‘this life isn’t all there is’) but had a very definite dislike of the church. After he had grumbled a few times about ‘organised religion’ I finally plucked up the nerve to say: “You know, your dislike of organised religion reminds me a little of Jesus—for he spent a lot of time critiquing the religious authorities of his day.” This was news to my friend and created the opportunity to open up the gospels and share some examples.

Tenth, be patient. I think one of the reasons why Christians can sometimes move into Crunchy Mode is that we’re so keen for our friends to discover Jesus that we want to drag them so quickly along the road toward Jesus that their feet scarcely touch the ground. But maybe we need to slow down and learn to engage with our friend, neighbour, or colleague at the speed at which the Holy Spirit is working.

My friend Randy Newman offers a helpful illustration here.[15] Imagine a scale from ‘A’ or ‘Z’, where ‘A’ represents a complete total pagan—as far from God as it is possible to be. At the other end of the scale, ‘Z’ is a person who has discovered who God is, realises that they are a sinner in need of rescue, and is ready to repent and believe. In our conversations with our friends, our goal is to move them along that scale. Maybe God will give us the privilege of helping somebody from ‘L’ to ‘Z’ in one giant leap. Or maybe God will use us to nudge lots of friends from ‘A’ to ‘C’ and other people, in other conversations§, will take them further. It often takes multiple conversations, with different Christians, for a person from a completely non-Christian background, to come to faith in Christ. Pray that the Lord will use you as part of your friend’s journey, but be content to let others be involved too. As the apostle Paul reminds us:

“What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7)

DON’T JUST STAND THERE, TALK TO SOMEBODY

As a writer, there can be temptation to so worry about getting a piece of writing perfect that it never gets finished. And so I have pinned to my desk a card with the motto: “Don’t get it right, get it written”. Something similar, I think, goes for evangelism and for conversations with our friends. Sometimes we can be so worried about getting it right, about saying the right thing in the right way at the right time, that we get evangelistic stage fright, or we become crunchy. But what about if we simply committed to talking to more people, more often, more naturally. And to praying over those conversations and trusting the Lord to use them. Here’s a prayer to get you started:

Lord, thank you that you don’t ask us to be experts but available. Please would you create opportunities among my friends, neighbours, and colleagues for spiritual conversations. Help me, Lord to listen, and to care for them with a love that reflects the love that you have for them. Please help me to be wise and bold—so as the scripture says, I can “make the most of every opportunity”. But thank you that my standing before you isn’t based on my evangelistic fervour or performance, but based on Jesus. Please help me to share the good news about him with those that you bring across my path. In Jesus’s name, Amen

[1]     Sadly, I am regularly informed by my family that no time is the time for Dad jokes.
[2]        Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (New York: Penguin Press, 2015) p. 4.
[3]        Harriet Sherwood, ‘British public turn to prayer as one in four tune in to religious services’, The Guardian, 3 May 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/03/british-public-turn-to-prayer-as-one-in-four-tune-in-to-religious-services.
[4]        Sebastian Shehadi and Miriam Partington, ‘How Coronavirus is Leading to a Religious Revival’, New Statesman, 27 April 2020, https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2020/04/how-coronavirus-leading-religious-revival.
[5]        See ‘People are googling prayer because they are looking for a “religious experience”, says Russell Brand’, Christian Today, 10 May 2020, https://www.christiantoday.com/article/people-are-googling-prayer-because-they-are-looking-for-a-sacred-experience-says-russell-brand/134824.htm.
[6]        One of the advantages of living in Scotland is the need to play hunt-for-the-sunglasses is so rarely necessary. Our summers here are legendary and I do mean legendary.
[7]        Or the vicar, if you go to a really liberal church.
[8]        F. W. Boreham, ‘A Slice of Infinity’ in F. W. Boreham, Mushrooms on the Moor (New York: Abingdon Press, 1919) p. 11-20.
[9]        An old friend of mine once plucked up the courage to invite a work colleague to church and was thrilled when his friend said “yes”. But the visit got off to a slightly odd start when the elder on door duty saw the visitor and greeted him enthusiastically with “Good morning! Welcome to Little Dribbling Baptist Church! Have you found Jesus?” To which my friend’s colleague, somewhat confused, responded with: “Er … no, have you lost him?”
[10]       Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Scepticism. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008).
[11]       Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: An Invitation to the Sceptical. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2016).
[12]       See chapter 3 of Andy Bannister, Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? (London: IVP, 2021).
[13]       Doug Pollock, God Space: Where Spiritual Conversations Happen Naturally (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2009) p.71-72.
[14]       Ibid.,  p.72.
[15]       Do check out Randy’s excellent book on conversational evangelism: Newman, Randy, Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did, 2nd Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2017).