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We kind of knew each other. We worked in the same coffee shop several times a week. I was a pastor, and he was the kind of coffee-shop customer who drank multiple espressos in front of a laptop while taking brief calls on a headset, conversations that led him to gesture wildly and use vocabulary that led me to believe that he was not a Christian. On this day, we happened to be in line next to one another, both waiting to get our next refill. I introduced myself, and he did the same. Then I started, in a very casual way, to mention something related to Christianity that I hoped would lead to an opportunity to share the gospel. As soon as he realized I was about to share the gospel with him, he yelled, “No,” left his place in line, and stomped out of the coffee shop. He didn’t yell like it was an emergency, and he didn’t yell like he was angry; he yelled like a magnetic force repulsed him.

That is the oddest conversation I’ve had with someone in the hopes of sharing the gospel. I never saw him again. And though you can’t control how someone may respond, you can do some things to improve the conversations you begin with gospel intent.

I’ll add that most of the improvements you can make in sharing the gospel with others in conversation fall under the theme of general revelation. Certainly, the Holy Spirit is at work in all our conversations. And certainly, it is important to have a working knowledge of the gospel. But as far as the conversation goes, most people need help with basic conversation skills, how God designed spoken language to work between two people made in His image—regardless of the content of the conversation.

listen, don’t link

In my work as a leadership coach, I have conversations in which I try to help leaders solve their challenges. You’d think that it would be difficult to get to the actual issue. It isn’t at all—if I’m listening. A critical insight into all human conversation is that in almost every conversation, the person you’re talking to will tell you precisely what is on his mind and what he is concerned about. Our problem is that we don’t listen. If you leave this article with only one insight, make it this: people’s concerns and worries aren’t buried; they are right there on the surface of what they are saying. When someone talks to you, pay attention to the topics that the person talks about and what anxieties or problems he mentions. Don’t assume that it is just small talk. Most of the time, even in what we think is casual conversation, we are all mentioning our deepest concerns and floating our biggest fears. So why don’t we all recognize this and engage deeply in conversation? It’s because we usually link rather than listen.

A listening response gives the person you’re talking to a chance to elaborate.

Linking happens most in casual conversation. Honestly, it happens because we’re all aggressively selfish. Linking happens when someone shares with you something that is going on in his life. When he is finished sharing, instead of asking a simple and thoughtful follow-up question, you link what the person talked about to something in your life and start talking about yourself. An example of self-centered linking could go like this:

Friend: “We’re about to have our first child, and I’m already not getting much sleep.”

You: “Oh, you just wait; when we had our first child, we didn’t get any sleep. It was horrible, and then we . . . right before this crazy thing happened that . . .”

If you were listening rather than linking, the conversation could’ve gone like this:

Friend: “We’re about to have our first child, and I’m already not getting much sleep.”

You: “I’m sorry. It sounds like you might be a little worried about your child’s birth and being a parent.”

Friend: “Yeah, being a dad now has me really thinking about all my failures and weaknesses. I’m not sure if I can do this. I’m not sure if I’ll be the kind of dad that my child needs. I had a pretty awful childhood, and my dad wasn’t a good example.”

A listening response gives the person you’re talking to a chance to elaborate and gives you a chance to figure out where he may be asking questions that the gospel answers.

the when of why, how, and what

You also need to be very strategic in your use of interrogative pronouns. Because of how our culture is wired and because of how the English language works, different types of questions create different responses in people. For example, why and how will typically put the person you are talking to into a defensive posture. Questions that start with why demand a reasoned response. Questions that start with how need a descriptive process. But what questions typically invite your conversation partner to a more casual response in which you can use the listening skills we discussed. Compare the following questions:

Why aren’t you a Christian?

How did you decide to become an atheist?

What past experiences led to your current ideas about God?

I must emphasize that none of these questions is wrong or better than the others. There are times and places for all three of them. But each elicits a different response based on the interrogative pronoun you use. Know how to ask good questions based on your goals for the conversation.

These are just two ways that you can significantly improve any conversation you have, especially conversations in which you want to share the gospel with folks who aren’t Christians yet. We have been saved by and serve a speaking God. Theologically speaking, as Christians, we are compelled to be the best conversation partners we can be.

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Persecution in the Early Church

Keep Reading Commonly Tolerated Sins

From the May 2023 Issue
May 2023 Issue