“If you were to die tonight, do you know for certain you would go to heaven?”
While this question may be helpful in the course of a spiritual dialogue, it is a rather awkward way to begin such a dialogue. Tim Chester & Steve Timmis talk about this reality in their book Everyday Church: Gospel Communities on Mission.
Many of us know how to answer the question, “What must I do to be saved?” But we do not know how to begin a conversation about Jesus. Our only hope is a crass, awkward change of direction, like crunching the gears in your car.
If you are someone who has felt this awkwardness, you may wonder, “Does it have to be so awkward? Is there a way to go about starting a spiritual conversation in a more natural way?”
Spiritual conversations are like conversations in general. There is a natural progression of depth and intimacy. When we meet someone, we might ask questions like “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” This feels natural. It would be awkward to start that meeting off with questions like “How do you feel about the situation in Iraq?” or “Why did you marry the person you married?” It seems awkward because the conversation moved into a deeper level of intimacy and vulnerability too fast.
This natural progression can be outlined in the following list of areas of discussion and questions for those areas:
– Impersonal Facts – “How did the Panthers do this past week?” or “What happened yesterday in Iraq?”
– Personal Facts – “Where do you live?” or “What do you do for a vocation or in your free time?”
– Opinions – “Why do you think the Rams cut Michael Sams?” or “How do you think we should handle the situation in Iraq?”
– Feelings – “How did you feel when you heard another American had been beheaded?”
– Identity – “How do you view yourself at the core of your being?”
As you move down the list, the level of vulnerability and intimacy increases – from little or none to deep and complete. This progression normally takes time – lots of it – before the trust is built in the relationship and this depth seems natural.
Now think about that list and where the gospel speaks to people. It tells them they were made in the image of God, yet that image has been marred to the point that they are now sinners. Because of their sin, they are separated from God and there is nothing they can do about it. However, God, wanting to restore that broken and marred image, sent Jesus Christ, His Son, to die and redeem us so that restoration could take place.
These are deeply personal and intimate issues. Issues dealing with personal and deep feelings and that person’s identity. No wonder it seems so awkward if we abruptly bring up the gospel. We are jumping down many levels of vulnerability and intimacy.
So what do you do instead?
- I have found that you just go through the progression. Start with asking more HOW and WHY questions in your conversations. They will flow naturally after you start with the WHAT and the WHERE questions. For example, imagine you have just met someone and you ask, “Where do you work?” They tell you and you follow up with the question, “How did you get into that field?” Or if you talk about how long someone has lived in your town, you could ask, “Why did you move here?” The HOW and the WHY questions gives the person a chance to tell you something of their story.
- Drop a level first and then invite the person you are talking with to join you. For instance, you may be talking about the Iraq situation. You have asked them, “How do you think the USA should handle this situation?” They have given their answer. You could say something like, “I find myself really afraid or feeling insecure with all the conflict in the world today. How do you find yourself impacted by all this?”
- Talk about how you deal with your feelings, struggles, and problems. As you discuss these feelings, it is natural to say something like, “When I am afraid like I am about the world situation, I find great comfort in God’s overarching authority over all of life.” Tell them vulnerably where Christ and the gospel speak to you at the feelings and identity levels. As you share your individual stories and deeper vulnerability, you will find you have natural opportunities to talk about your relationship with Christ. You could also ask your friend, “How do you handle that insecurity or fear?”
While using the word natural to describe these conversations, I don’t mean to imply there isn’t some angst even when it happens like this. Any conversation at this level with the possibility of speaking about eternal things is very serious. There is a soberness about these kinds of conversations that reflects the significance of the truths being discussed no matter how long you have known the person and how much trust and vulnerability exist.
Also, while using the word natural, I don’t mean to imply that conversations like these aren’t supernatural. Only God can open the heart of a person to the truths of the gospel. It also takes God’s works to open the heart of someone to us.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” With this hope in mind, pray for open hearts and start the progression.