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The scary dynamics of effective mission 5: Gospel conversations that work

by on April 30, 2015

conversation-300x240Often when Christians have a gospel conversation with someone, it’s for the first and last time. That suggests that we aren’t doing it too well. Here are some things we’ve learned in Canterbury about sharing Jesus through respectful, laid-back dialogue – gospel conversation that opens doors to further gospel conversations.

1. Going at the other person’s pace requires time.          You want to tell them now. But if they’re not ready to listen, you’re not helping by talking. People usually open up slowly. Creating a friendship of openness and trust is more important than finishing your whole point about the historicity of the gospels. Whetting their appetite to explore Jesus is more important than answering all their questions now. In fact, they can’t cope with all the answers at once. You need to be patient and give it time. Think long term. And therefore…

2. When you talk about God-stuff, if you can stop before they want you to, that’s a win.

Have you ever heard of leaving people wanting more? We normally leave them wishing they’d heard much, much less. In fact, it’s a case of ‘less is more’. Most Aussies are not up for a long chat about Jesus, much less a sermon. By stopping talking before they become conscious of wishing you would stop, you are being a respectful friend. You are also creating an easy path for further dialogue later.

In fact, the impression you make overall speaks much louder than the actual words you say. If the only thing they take away is, “I can talk to you about faith stuff and it goes ok,” then that’s a massive breakthrough. Also, one sentence spoken in the right setting can sink in deep and provoke a great deal of thought and inquiry. Where five minutes of sermon will probably only provoke rolled eyes.

So it’s good if you can relax a bit about this particular conversation, and not worry about getting everything across today, not worry about tying it up with a tidy conclusion, about getting to the end of your point. Remember, you’re going to have other conversations with this person, right? So it’s OK if it cuts cut short, and left unresolved. Unresolved can be good for the other person – gives them something to keep thinking and wondering about.

3. Most people want to talk a lot more than they want to listen.              Just like you do! People are desperate to be heard. That means attempts to ‘take charge of the conversation’ aren’t going to get you very far. If you’re doing most of the talking, they are probably not listening or appreciating your wisdom. What they want to hear from you is mainly that you’ve heard and understood them. And there doesn’t usually come a time when they say, “Now it’s your turn, I’m ready to listen!”

That means effective gospel input is often going to be disjointed, incidental, along-the-way type input while talking about their stuff. In other words, drip-feed rather than large banquet. Of course that may change when they get really interested…

4. Questions work better than answers.        I don’t mean you questioning them as a kind of technique to take control of the conversation. I mean their questions. Their questions are more helpful than your answers.

Sounds dodgy I know, but think a bit. Questions open things up. They are dynamic things. They lead you in directions. They set you off on journeys of discovery. Questions empower people to think new thoughts. An unanswered question is full of potential. Questions are about exploring, about movement. That’s what you’re wanting for this person, right? You want them to move forward and learn more and more about Jesus, and move towards trusting him.

The best way to shut all that down is to give a definitive answer. Answers tend to be the opposite: they close things off. They are static. Answers don’t lead anywhere or invite exploration.

Even worse, as you answer you tend to put on the ‘expert’ hat. Without realising it you are actually pushing the relationship towards the teacher-student model that you need to avoid like the plague. By the end of your answer, the other person is likely sensing that something is going wrong here.

To put it another way, working with their question feels like you’re on their turf, pursuing their interest. As long as you can stay there, they will be engaged. Supplying your answer is a way of dragging the conversation back onto your turf, expecting them to be interested in your stuff. You’ve got about 4 seconds!

In fact, people who study counselling and relationship dynamics tell us that usually when someone raises a question, they are not wanting you to answer it! When you leap straight to answer-mode, you’ve probably misunderstood what was going on.

So their questions are gold. Your answers are likely to be lead.

The best answer they can get is one they find themself, in their time, and which leads to two further questions. If you can help facilitate that, then you’ve been a true friend.

So good listening often means you shut up with the answers, already.

5. Witness works better than fact-claims.               The worst sort of answer for promoting dialogue is our favourite sort: the fact-claim. “Jesus is totally unique,” is a fact-claim, or proposition. When we answer people’s questions, we tend to make a lot of fact-claims.

Though the claim may be good in terms of accuracy, it does some negative things to your dialogue. For one thing, it tends to box the other person into giving an agree/disagree response. In doing so it invites conflict or submission. Fact-claims say “I want you to accept the truth of what I say.” They push the relationship into an extreme place of either refusal and entrenched disagreement, or towards the old teacher-student model where they accept your words uncritically. Either extreme makes real dialogue impossible.

A good way to avoid fact-claims and definitive answers is to adopt a mode popular in the New Testament: use witness. Witness includes human personality and experiences in the message. It says “What I have found is…” or “What they say happened was…”.  Examples would be “What I love about Jesus is…”, or “Having Jesus as my Lord means…”, or “The first Christians said they’d seen Jesus alive from the dead.”

Why does witness work better than fact-claims? Witness tells a bit of someone’s story, which always comes across more interesting and personal than spouting propositions. It is non-coercive, it makes no demands, and so and gives the other person freedom as to how they respond. Witness invites further exploration:  “Do you really think Jesus is so different from other leaders?”, “Were they telling the truth?” etc.

Witness also invites the other person to respond with their own experiences, so that the conversation is actually deepening your friendship, you’re getting to know each other as you talk about faith issues. Fact-statements rarely lead to this outcome.

In short, witness can convey gospel truth while preserving the friendship and keeping open channels for dialogue to continue.


These are some of the dynamics of the dialogue-approach to evangelism. We have found this to be a much more effective way to share Jesus with ordinary people, rather than the horn-blowing approach I was taught as a youngster.

From → General

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