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According to a recent Barna study, the vast majority of Christians are reluctant to talk about Christ. As a matter of fact, “Three-quarters of self-identiﬁed U.S. Christians… are having fewer than 10 spiritual conversations a year.” Because of this Christians are now being referred to as reluctant conversationalists when it comes to sharing their faith or simply discussing spiritual matters. If you’re like me, when you read that statistic, it doesn’t really surprise you. The Church’s willingness to engage the culture has been slowly waning for a very long time, and this Barna research is simply the latest indicator of that reality.
While I am concerned with what has been happening these last several decades in this regard, lately I’ve been more focused on why. Why are we reluctant conversationalists when it comes to talking about spiritual things? I’ve been asking Christians that question for a number of years and these are the answers I typically hear: “I’m too nervous.” “Things always lead to an argument.” “I just don’t know how to talk about my faith in today’s culture.” In other words, talking about Jesus to non-believers ain’t what it used to be! I think the best example of what I’m describing can be found on social media.
Have you ever been in a situation where your Facebook friend posts something about Christianity that’s inaccurate or misleading? You decide to write a comment under the original post essentially providing your opinion based on your Christian convictions. But, when you do, your friend gives you push back, and his friends (that you don’t even know) jump into the conversation and slam you with harsh, critical comments.
This scenario is a typical experience for Christians in the 21st century. Gone are the days when we could compel someone simply by giving our testimony or appealing to a shared sense of morality. Nowadays, people are not persuaded by testimonies and don’t consider Christians a source of authority to speak into their lives. To make matters worse, tribalism, whataboutism, and the outrage culture have strangled meaningful conversation on a whole host of issues, let alone Christianity. This is the new normal, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. More and more of us are struggling each and every day to navigate difﬁcult conversations for the Gospel.
Oftentimes our default response to receiving push back for our beliefs is to explain ourselves with a speech. In other words, we think that more words will bring clarity, and, with clarity, true understanding. And why not? It’s in our nature to make speeches. When we have something to say, we just say it; and for some of us, whatever happens to pop into our minds immediately falls out of our mouth. Everyone understands that this is the way to communicate. So, when conversations begin, we slip into our roles — speaker and listener. We are so comfortable with this paradigm of communicating that I think scientists will one day discover that it’s in our very DNA to want to make speeches. And while we lecture our friends and neighbors it’s understood that their job is to be quiet and listen.
The problem with this paradigm is: people aren’t listening all that much. While we’re talking they’re thinking about what they’re going to say, and then waiting for their turn to speak. The conversation quickly transforms into an endless tennis match where the topic gets lobbed back and forth over the net. We talk right past our friend, or vice versa, or we make them mad and get into an argument. Nobody is changing their minds in this kind of an interaction. There is one fundamental reason for why this is happening, and it’s not politics, the mainstream media, or liberalism. Sure, they play a part! But the primary reason it’s difﬁcult for us to talk about Jesus in the 21st century is because we have forgotten how to be in relationship with each other.
In order to give the Gospel or defend the faith, non-believers must be persuaded to change their minds and come along to the Christian way of thinking. Every believer who has attempted to make Christ clear to their friends understands this at some level. What we often don’t understand, however, is that there is a proper order of persuasion. Mortimer Adler, an American philosopher and author, unpacked this proper order in his book How to Speak How to Listen. Adler points out that our particular Gospel or apologetics message is not the ﬁrst step in the art of persuasion. The ﬁrst step involves overcoming prejudices:
“To persuade listeners to change their minds by adopting views contrary to ones they have persistently and, perhaps, obstinately held, it is necessary to undermine their prejudices in a manner that is as ﬁrm as it is gentle. Long-standing prejudices are barriers to persuasion. They must be removed before positive persuasion can begin.”
In other words, your listener needs to develop trust in you so that you can persuade them properly. Since the current culture has largely encouraged non-believers to adopt prejudices and suspicions about Christians, our ﬁrst goal in the proper order of persuasion is combatting those prejudices while simultaneously gaining their trust. Only after a person begins to trust you will they confer authority upon you to speak.
Once someone confers upon you the authority to speak into their lives, they’ll start listening but they may not care what you have to say. On this issue Adler explains further:
“For effectiveness in persuasion, it is not enough to be clear, cogent, and coherent, however desirable all these qualities are. The thinking you have done privately and are now publicly articulating in your speech must have emotional force as well as intellectual power. The minds of your audience must be moved as well as instructed, and their emotions, stirred by your own, are needed to do the moving.”
Indifference is the killer of ideas, especially when it’s your own indifference about what you’re communicating. As folks who possess the truth leading to everlasting life we must come alive in our tone and mannerisms. We must ﬁght the urge to communicate with a passion that mimics Ben Stein in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”! If we can communicate in a passionate manner, many non-believers will lean in to what we’re saying, even if they initially do not share our faith. It happens all the time.
After having developed trust and an emotional connection with your listener, then and only then can you get to the logical facts and arguments that undergird your evangelism and apologetics. Let me say that again. After trust and an emotional connection is established, then and only then can you get to your arguments! Adler agrees:
“[T]he opening should attempt to establish the speaker’s ethos [credibility] ﬁrst. That should be followed by bringing pathos [emotional connection] into play. Logos [message] should be left until the end.”
Why does he break persuasion down in this particular order? It’s very simple. If people don’t trust you, they won’t listen to you. If they trust you but don’t have an emotional connection, they won’t care what you say. If they trust you and care about you, they will listen to your message.
The path to better, more effective communication lies in ﬂipping the typical paradigm of communication in today’s culture. Lecturing people with long-winded speeches and expecting them to be quiet and listen is ineffective precisely because it fails to follow the proper order of persuasion. So let’s resolve to stop lecturing people altogether! As a matter of fact, let’s treat our interactions with non-believers like we’re on a ﬁrst date.
If you’ve been on a ﬁrst date before then you know that there are some unspoken rules. That is, if you want to have a second date, there is a particular etiquette to follow. One of the unspoken rules of a ﬁrst date is: Don’t talk about yourself too much.
I remember having a particularly unspectacular blind date back in 1999. I was single then and a coworker had decided to play matchmaker. She wanted to set me up with a friend of hers that she thought would be an excellent partner for me. It sounded good on paper, except there was one problem: My coworker was actually horrible at matchmaking. So I met a nice, young lady named Rachel at an Italian restaurant on a Friday night. I smiled and said, “Hello,” and from the appetizer to the entrée to dessert Rachel talked about herself… and never stopped talking. Needless to say, there was not a second date with Rachel.
These are the unspoken rules of a ﬁrst date. Don’t talk about yourself too much. Instead, put the focus on the person you’re with. Ask them questions to get to know them, because they may become an important relationship in your life. This is also the basis for our method of sharing the Gospel or defending the faith at A Clear Lens. We call it First Date Evangelism.
First Date Evangelism consists of three very simple rules:
Don’t begin with an agenda where three steps later you’re asking someone to pray the sinner’s prayer with you. Just start off by getting to know the person you’re talking to. Here are some very easy conversation starters: Tell me about yourself! What’s your story? Where are you from? And then sit back and listen to what they have to say. Occasionally jump in with follow-up questions. When they talk about their hometown, ask them if they miss it. When they talk about past experiences, ask them what it was like to go through it. Since everyone loves to talk about themselves anyway, you’re simply asking someone to do what comes easily.
Here’s the best part, when you’re asking someone about themselves, you’re implicitly saying to them: I care about you. I’m asking questions and I’m really listening, because I want to know you. If you stop making speeches and sincerely begin by getting to know the person you’re talking to, they’ll begin to trust you. Remember, building trust is the ﬁrst step in the proper order of persuasion.
When someone is developing trust in you by opening up and talking about themselves, they’re going to reveal details about their beliefs. The more comfortable they become, the more they will reveal. At some point they’re going to tell you what they believe about the world; and if they are not Christian then their beliefs will be in error. Instead of lecturing someone about how wrong they are, ask them a leading question to reveal their error. A leading question is not any old question. We’re not asking about the weather or what time of day it is in London. A leading question is a precisely worded inquiry that is designed to expose someone’s error or advance our own agenda.
I was having coffee with a friend at Starbucks one Saturday when a lady named Lisa politely jumped into our conversation. She started sharing her life story, which turned tragic after she went to an oral surgeon for a routine surgery and the doctor mistakenly severed one of her nerves. As Lisa was speaking she confessed that she was frustrated because of the countless pills she had to take for her severe pain and because the surgeon would not admit his error. She kept admitting that she didn’t know why this was happening to her and that it was difﬁcult to put her trust in people who continued to disappoint her.
As I listened to Lisa, I reﬂected on several things that she had revealed about herself as well as what I knew as a Christian:
Each one of those big ideas can easily be ﬂipped into a leading question:
By using this process, I asked Lisa leading questions and got her engaged with what I wanted to tell her about God. This is the art of asking the right leading questions. It begins by waiting to hear someone’s beliefs (as they open up and talk about themselves), evaluating those beliefs through the lens of Christianity, and asking speciﬁc questions to expose a ﬂaw or advance your message.
Again, when you’re asking someone a question about themselves and listening to what they have to say, you’re implying that you care about them. If someone senses that you care about them, they will build a bond of trust with you.
Whenever people enter into initial conversations with others, they usually do so with their guard up. There are many reasons for this, but one of the primary factors is something we’ve already mentioned — people put up walls of defense when they interact with folks they don’t know. Everyone does this, whether they realize it or not. Building trust brings down those emotional barriers and walls of defense. Putting the focus on the person you’re talking to and asking them questions (i.e. Rule 1 and 2 of First Date Evangelism) is a great way to bring those defenses down and build their trust. Here’s another excellent way — respect and afﬁrm the person you’re talking to.
The American psychologist William James once said, “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” We all desire to be validated and afﬁrmed by others. This is the glue by which relationships develop and maintain over time. When we respect and afﬁrm the person we’re talking to, we don’t talk over them or get impatient or argumentative and lecture them. Instead, we validate them by expressing sympathy and understanding throughout our entire conversation. We also use a gentle tone of voice and seek permission before asking a question. As a matter of fact, I always begin my leading questions by asking this: “Do you mind if I ask you something?” No one ever tells me, “No.” All of these tips are simply great ways to communicate to folks that, not only do we care about them as revealed by our asking questions, we respect and afﬁrm them as valuable persons.
First Date Evangelism is deﬁnitely an art that must be developed through practice. But once you get the hang of it, you will discover that our method of communication is the way forward in today’s culture. The pressure is completely off you to give the right speech or say the right combination of words that will challenge others. Instead your challenges will actually engage your friends and neighbors in a way that will stick with them long after you’re gone. If the goal is to make Christ clear to the people in your lives, then First Date Evangelism is the means to achieve it.
Adler, Mortimer J. How to Speak How to Listen. (New York, NY: Touchstone, 2008).
Stone, Roxanne. “Introduction.” Spiritual Conversations in the Digital Age: How Christians’ Approach to Sharing Their Faith Has Changed in 25 Years. (Barna Group, 2018).