This is the sixth in a series of posts regarding communicating the gospel. Each post will be a section from a booklet called "Gospel Conversations" that was printed in September at Northview Community Church. This post is an adaptation of the booklet's fourth chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.
Knowing Your Conversation Partners
Knowing Your Conversation Partners
I have been a lifelong hockey fan. I have participated in many hockey pools and have followed the NHL closely every year for as long as I can remember. There are definitely people who know a lot more about the intricacies of hockey in general and the NHL in particular, but I still think I know quite a bit about hockey. I, like many other Vancouver Canucks fans, look back on past draft years and marvel at the “could-have-been” situations if only the hometown team made different decisions. For example, if Vancouver decided to select, instead of pass up on, two local boys (Milan Lucic and Brendan Gallagher) in drafts separated by four years, the team would likely have a stronger team now and a more hopeful future. If you follow the NHL closely you will understand what I’m talking about, whether you agree with me or not. However, if you don’t follow the NHL, everything I just wrote was essentially worthless and a waste of time.
The point is that it’s possible to know something but be unable to communicate it effectively to others. This often happens when the communicator goes off on a topic that their conversation partner has no framework in place to resonate with or understand. When we desire to communicate well we need to do the hard work of knowing our conversation partner. The best way to get to know someone is to carefully listen to them.
One of the most valuable undergrad courses I took was Conflict Management with a professor named Janet Boldt. This course drilled into me the importance of listening well. Effective listening is hard work because it takes a lot of energy and intentionality. Listening is not synonymous with not speaking, and it’s not a passive activity. Listening is a skill that is developed and an art that is crafted. There are many important components to effective listening but we will focus on three here: (1) Be Attentive, (2) Be Empathetic, and (3) Be Patient.
First, when we listen well we are attentive. Attentiveness is essentially being intentional about your participation in the conversation. God created us to be holistic beings - our minds and our bodies are connected. Attentiveness involves our mind as we concentrate, but it also involves our body language. When we lean forward, keep our eyes looking in our conversation partner’s direction, and nod our head, we physically demonstrate our mental attentiveness. Now, of course, it’s best to be subtle in our body language rather than aggressive. It would be weird to be bent over, fixating on someones eyes, and nodding like a bobble-head doll. So don’t do that. But, be sure to do something with your body to show that you actually want to be involved in the conversation, and that you are paying attention.
Secondly, when we listen well we are empathetic. We should do our very best to put ourselves in our conversation partner’s shoes. When we hear their stories we should do our best to feel what they feel. When they are in a season of joy we should feel laughter brewing; when they are in a season of sorrow we should feel tears nearing. Empathy is hard because it opens us up to feeling something we may not want to feel. However, when we empathize with others we are communicating that what is being said matters to us.
Thirdly, when we listen well we are patient. Patience, in the context of listening well, essentially means that we let the conversation develop the way it needs to. Sometimes this means conversations will move quickly, more often it means the conversation will move slowly. If while your conversation partner is talking, you are trying to think what about what you should say next so you can move the conversation along, you aren’t practicing patience and probably aren’t listening well. Patience doesn’t mean, however, that you talk for three hours longer than you planned. Patience lets the conversation develop the way it needs to, and if you can’t get through everything you wanted to in the conversation before you need to pick up your kids from school or get to a doctor’s appointment, you try to find another time to meet and continue the conversation. Important conversations can’t be rushed.
Meeting People Where They’re At
When we have listened to where people are coming from, what they think, and what they have experienced in their lives, we have the opportunity to engage in a contextualized gospel conversation. Contextualize is a big word that basically means we are meeting people where they are at so things make sense, yet being careful not to cut off the parts of the gospel that might be hard to hear.
In Acts 17, the Apostle Paul is preaching the gospel in Athens. When Paul entered the Areopagus in Athens he found himself in one of his first non-Jewish contexts. He was talking to a group of Greek people who believed in the existence of many gods (polytheism) rather than the Jewish and Christian belief in One God (monotheism). In order for Paul to engage in an effective gospel conversation with the crowd in the Areopagus, he needed to be aware of what his audience thought and believed. When Paul met his audience where they were at with the gospel message, he approached the conversation in three ways: (1) Making Points of Connection, (2) Addressing Points of Contention, (3) Proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Person of Completion.
It is important to be able to find points of connection with your conversation partner. Even if it appears that two people are on polar opposites on an issue, there is going to be some point of connection that can be used to develop a good rapport. Even Paul, the committed follower and Apostle of Jesus Christ, when he entered the pagan-polytheistic Areopagus, was able to identify a point of connection: Paul saw that the people were very religious (verse 22), and even quoted from their own poets (verse 28). The Apostle Paul used the religiosity and culture of the men of Athens as ways to relate and contextualize his message.
By God’s grace, every person has things within their worldview that can be used as a point of connection with the Christian story. When we are in a conversation with a staunch atheist who is committed to the scientific process as the only means of finding truth, we can make a point of connection that we too desire to know what is true about our world. While the two disagree on many things, the search for truth is not one. Or, when we are in a conversation with a committed Sikh who worships the sovereign Creator, or Vahiguru, as the Ultimate Reality as described in their Holy Book (the Guru Granth Sahib), we can make a point of connection that we too worship the sovereign Creator as revealed in our Holy Book. The above examples will require further nuancing to make clear what we mean by what we say, but that is to be expected - the Apostle Paul had to nuance his language as well.
If we make points of connection without nuancing our language to demonstrate how our beliefs are different than our conversation partners, it can be safely assumed that we agree on everything. It is at this point that it is valuable to winsomely address our point(s) of contention or disagreement. The Apostle Paul does this in Acts 17 when he spoke to the people in the Areopagus about the nature of the ‘unknown god’ by describing the one true God (verses 23-27, 29-30). We ought not be contentious when we talk about our points of contention with our conversation partners. The only offense that should occur is the offense of the gospel itself, not by the demeanour and tone in which we speak. When we talk with our staunch atheist friend about our differences regarding how we understand truth, we do well to talk about how we understand truth primarily as the person of Jesus Christ (John 14:6). Jesus claimed many things about himself, including his own death and resurrection (e.g. Mark 10:33-34). When hundreds of people saw him resurrected three days after he was buried, Jesus’ claims about himself were all vindicated. Jesus was who he said he was, and therefore must be God. When we talk with our committed Sikh friend about our differences regarding who the one true God, that our Holy Book reveals, is we would do well to talk about how we believe that God himself was made known to us not only by the words written by prophets but because God himself came to earth as a person. We don’t know about God only from people who claim to have seen him, but we know about God because of the one who claimed to be him - and proved it by fulfilling his own claims of death and resurrection.
If we want our gospel conversations to meet people where they are, we need to find points of connection and contention. However, we must never leave the conversation there. We must do our best to point to Jesus Christ as the one who we trust, follow, and obey.
When we are trying to meet people where they are at, it is very helpful to follow the Apostle Paul’s example. We need to find points of connection with our conversation partner, winsomely identify the points of disagreement, and do it all with the intention that they would come to see, know, and love Jesus Christ as the person who has completed what was necessary to reconcile us to God.
Even when we follow the Apostle Paul’s model of contextualizing the gospel, it does not necessarily mean that people will repent and believe the good news of Jesus. There were three types of reactions to the Apostle Paul’s gospel proclamation in the Areopagus: sneering (verse 32a), further interest (verse 32b), and repentance and belief (verse 34). When we meet people where they are at in our gospel conversations, we too should expect that some people will mock us, some will be skeptical but willing to hear more, and some will be ready to repent and believe the gospel. The Apostle Paul experienced a myriad of responses to his faithful gospel proclamation, and we should expect to experience those same responses.
Belonging and Believing
When we love and engage with people in our sphere of influence with intentionality, we will be developing genuine friendships. Authentic mutual friendships are a powerful foundation for gospel conversations. It is important for us to recognize that allowing these friends to see what Christian community is like will help their understanding of Christianity. Following Jesus needs to be a personal choice, but the disciple of Jesus cannot walk out their faith in isolation. Disciples of Jesus need be involved in a Christian community. When we incorporate our gospel conversation partners into our Christian community, we not only demonstrate what Christian community looks like, we give them a sneak peek of what holistically following Jesus looks like.
When we consider how and when to incorporate people into Christian community, we are contemplating the relationship between belonging and believing. There is no doubt that belonging to Christian community and believing in Jesus Christ are connected. The question, however, is how involved should someone exploring the claims of Christ be in Christian community? Surely this person should be welcome to participate in Christian community, but what does that participation look like? Many local churches have a gathered community in the form of a worship service, and also a scattered community in the form of community groups. Both these gathered and scattered communities have leaders and participants. Leadership in these gathered and scattered communities look different depending on the context, but usually involve facilitation and teaching of some sort. In the church service context, leadership can look like people serving as greeters, ushers, musicians, speakers, sound technicians, children ministry volunteers, and many other valuable roles. In the community group setting, leadership can look teaching, leading prayer, leading times of singing, and facilitating discussion. We ought not allow the person who has yet to submit to Christ’s lordship be involved in leading within our communities, but they should nevertheless be encouraged to participate in our community.
When people feel they genuinely belong they are more willing to open up in sharing their thoughts, fears and questions. Inviting our friends into our homes and encouraging their participation in our communities provides a powerful relational foundation as they consider the claims of Christ.