In my working with people on outreach, I have discovered one of the most difficult things for them to do is start “spiritual” conversations. I put the quotations on the word “spiritual” because that is how we typically refer to them.
When we talk about starting these “spiritual” conversations, we envision ourselves sitting at lunch with a co-worker talking about the weekend sports and then asking something like “If you were to die tonight, do you know where you would end up?” We know it doesn’t feel natural to go there, but we think we are supposed to steer the conversation there, so we ask what feel like awkward questions.
In most cases, we probably have this sense of awkwardness for a good reason. We may have missed the natural progression in our conversation. In our sense of pressure, we may have jumped several levels in that progression with the resulting awkwardness.
But these people who are asking this question about starting such “spiritual” conversations have not given up on outreach even with this awkwardness. That is why they are in the audience of a training I am doing or on the other side of the table as we discuss outreach over lunch asking, “How do I start a “spiritual” conversation?”
To answer that question and illustrate that progression, I focus on the way conversations typically go by using what I call the Triangle of Vulnerability. Most of our conversations begin with little or no vulnerability. The topics are about Impersonal facts, like the scores from the previous weekend, (Some fans may argue this isn’t impersonal!!!) or the weather.
If those conversations increase in vulnerability, they move to personal facts. These include items like where we live, what we do, how long we have been married, or how many kids we have.
The next step in vulnerability is to move to opinions. “What do you think about Harvey Weinstein?” “How did sexual harassment get to be so widespread?” “Why do you think this is such a problem?” “Why do you think those victims didn’t come forward sooner?”
Progressing further, our conversations go to feelings – our fears, our joys, or our struggles. Think about how few of your conversations get here and you see the depth of vulnerability expressing feelings is.
Last, and most vulnerable, are conversations about our identity. Who are we? How do we see ourselves? Others? Valuable? Competent? Beautiful? Belonging? Alone?
Think for a moment about two things
At what level of vulnerability do you have most of your conversations?
At what level is a conversation about the Gospel?
Honestly, the Gospel speaks to this deepest level of vulnerability – our identity. The gospel says, apart from Christ, people are:
Disconnected from God
A child of wrath
An object of displeasure, disdain
As a result, people apart from Christ feel alone, confused, rejected, hurt, and ashamed.
This contrast between the vulnerability of most of our conversations and one about the gospel shows why we get so awkward when we think about starting a “spiritual” conversation.
However, we can overcome much of this awkwardness if we guide our conversations to greater and greater vulnerability utilizing the insights from the Vulnerability triangle. The way I apply this insight is as follows:
First, I ask questions using the Triangle.
Then I ask questions about personal facts. These are usually “WHAT” and “WHERE” questions – What do you do? Where do you live? Etc.
I try to follow those up with “HOW” and “WHY” questions. “How did you get into real estate?” “Why did you pursue medicine as a career?” “Why did you move to that neighborhood or city?” These HOW and WHY questions accomplish several things.
First of all, I begin to hear someone’s story. I see the journey that got them to where they are as I interact with them.
Secondly, I begin to see what matters to them, what they value, their opinions and feelings. This takes the conversation into greater vulnerability.
I then lead in taking the conversation to an even deeper level by offering my opinion, feelings, and identity, “I really didn’t know what I was going to do. I was so confused about vocations.”
Then I invite the other person down to that level, “How about you? Were you clear from early on what you wanted to do?” If they say yes, I follow that up with a HOW question like, “How did you get that clarity?”
I ask, I listen, and I lead in vulnerability.
This eventually leads me to talking about my relationship with Christ. I might say something like, “I didn’t know what to do and in that place I pray. How about you what do you do when you don’t know what to do?” or I might share something of my spiritual journey and then ask them “Tell me about your spiritual journey?”
This understanding and practice leads me to deeper and deeper conversations that make it less awkward to talk about God and the Gospel. It flows best from a genuine desire to know people and to see them connect with the gospel.
Prayerfully use the vulnerability triangle concepts and you will find that “spiritual” conversations are the natural result of meaningful, deep conversations rather than from asking awkward questions.