I once remember spending time with a pastor who, it seemed, naturally flowed into conversation with everyone he met. He seemed to naturally move from the weather to talking to people about their deep hopes and fears and then sharing Jesus.
People laughed with him, teared up, and couldn’t leave without being impacted.
But I left totally discouraged because I was absolutely nothing like him.
I’m a pastor but I struggle to strike up conversations with people. Or I struggle to move beyond being just an acquaintance with people I cross paths with regularly.
I’m not particularly compelling in conversation and I don’t always think quickly on my feet. In fact, I’ve been told I have a higher capacity for awkwardness than most other humans I know.
And yet I have a conviction: That I’m sent on mission by Jesus. Jesus prayed to the Father “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (John 17:18).
Certainly, there are ways in which we’re not sent like Jesus (we’re not God incarnate, we can’t die for sins, etc.) But Jesus is saying that just as he was sent to a broken world with a specific mission, we too are sent into a broken world with a specific mission. Jesus brought salvation and now our task is proclaiming and pointing to this salvation.
So how do awkward people like me engage in this mission we’ve been sent on by Jesus?
This is where I was helped tremendously by Max Barnett, a longtime teacher on the topic of discipleship. I attended a seminar by him and was strangely encouraged that he was an older gentleman, and didn’t seem particularly cool, fast-talking, or with an utterly magnetic personality.
Rather he was kind and sincere. I’ve taken what I remember of his teaching a reworked it a little for our purposes.
Four Questions to Open Conversations
This is a framework to work from not a play by play. Think of them as four “phases” to work through with people.
1. Ask a General Question: Simply open up a conversation. Fumble it, make it awkward, but open up the conversation. Ask about the weather or holidays or work or whatever.
Look, the lack of connection in our world means this might get weird. Recently a friend of mine told me he’s trying to just engage more people in conversation so at the gym he said to the guy next to him, “So how was your Thanksgiving?” and the guy just stared back at him for a long time before answering, “Good I guess?”
But it’s okay. Most people are happily open to a friendly conversation, they just don’t know how to get started either.
2. Ask a specific question: Take an interest in them: “Oh do you enjoy the holidays?” or, “What are your favorite activities as a family around Christmas?” Or if they open up about something tough respond with, “That sounds tough, how long has that been going on?”
This can’t be just a formula. You have to really see them and desire to know more about their story. This isn’t perfunctory so you can move ahead, this is time getting to know something about the person made in the image of God in front of you.
3. Ask a general spiritual question: “Are you a religious person?” or “Do you think things happen for a reason?” or anything along those lines.
I remember Dr. Barnett saying that he often just asks people if they’ve ever been to church. Either they have or they haven’t and you can ask lots of follow-up questions.“Oh what was that like?” or, “What did you think?” In certain areas like college campuses, you may ask: “Are you a spiritual person? What does that look like?”
4. Ask a specific spiritual question: “Have you ever heard how Jesus helps people in suffering?” or, “Have you ever heard the reason behind Christmas?” or, “Can I share something from my life that has really helped me there?”
From all that you know about the person pray for God’s help and seek to share the gospel. This last bridge is often hard to cross but it gets easier if you treat it less like a packet of information you’re dropping off on their doorstep and more like a part of your conversation. Share your testimony and the gospel and ask, “What do you think about that?”
One Encouragement for the Long Haul
One last thing. Too many of us (myself included!) are like baseball players waiting for the perfect pitch. We want people to turn to us and say “What must I do to be saved? Can you tell me about God??”
And that rarely happens. But people do have questions and many are more than willing to discuss where they’re at spiritually.
So our task is less like baseball and more like soccer. In soccer the goal is simple: kick the ball a little closer to the goal every time. Of course, there’s lots of strategy but the concept is so simple.
Sharing our faith is like that. In every conversation we want to kick the ball a little further and a little further–getting to know people, understanding where they’re at spiritually, and sharing Jesus as God gives opportunity.
It’s a really simple formula but simple enough to remember. And the other thing to keep in mind is that you may not get to all four of these questions in just one conversation. Perhaps in talking to a co-worker or fellow student you’ll slowly progress through each “stage” as you get to know them. But it’s a good framework.
You are a sent one. Now go kick the ball down the field a little.