This is the ninth in a series of posts focusing on communicating the gospel. Each post is 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 fifth chapter. If you would like to download a free PDF of the entire booklet, you can do so here.
The third “D” of the 3D's of a gospel conversation (borrowed from Randy Newman's Questioning Evangelism) is - dialogue. It is to this element of the gospel conversation that Randy Newman has devoted his book Questioning Evangelism. It is a book that I think we would all benefit from reading, because it is the part of our gospel conversations that I think we most often forget to include. That we need to make declarative statements about God, Man, and Christ or Creation, Rebellion, Reconciliation, or Consummation isn’t hard to grasp. That we should be prepared to gently give reasons for what we believe (engaging in apologetics) has been encouraged by Christian leaders for years. However, the idea of incorporating asking genuine questions and letting the conversation have a real life of its own is something that isn’t talked about as often. Dialoguing through asking good questions is the essence of every good conversation in general, and every good gospel conversation in particular. When we engage in dialogue with people by asking good questions, we are following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus.
A friend of mine, Andrew, once asked me to help him with a sticky situation he found himself in with a colleague of his from work. Andrew said that almost every day his colleague would ask him something to the effect of: “As a Christian, do you think that non-Christians like me will go to hell?” Andrew said that he tried to answer him as gently as possible, that yes, indeed that is what he believes the Bible teaches. His answer would infuriate his colleague and the conversation would end abruptly. Andrew told me that this exchange happened often and he didn’t know what else to do. He didn’t want the conversation (and his relationship!) to be so full of hostility, but he also didn’t want to back down from what he believes the Bible to teach. I asked Andrew to respond to his colleagues question about hell with another question, “Do you believe hell exists?”
This question does a few things. The first thing is that is takes Andrew off the hot-seat. The second thing it does is it provides an opportunity for further conversation and thinking. If Andrew’s colleague responds by saying that he does indeed believe that some sort of hell exists and is populated, Andrew can ask him a question like, “Well, if hell exists and people go there, what do you think is the criteria for who is in hell and who is not?” If Andrew’s colleague responds by saying that he does not believe hell exists, Andrew can ask him a question like, “Well, then why are you fixated the issue? Why do you care what I think about a place you don’t even think exists?” Either way, answering a difficult question with a thoughtful question provides an opportunity for the conversation to continue in a more honest, open, and courteous way.
Answering a question with a question was a common tactic used in the 1st Century by Rabbis in general and Jesus in particular. One example of Jesus answering a question with a question is found in Mark 10:17-18.
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
If there was ever a time that I would launch into a declarative presentation of the gospel, it would be when someone asks me how to inherit eternal life. This seems like hitting a slow-pitch toss floating towards the plate, or shooting a soccer ball into a wide-open net from ten feet away. Jesus responds in a way that seems counterintuitive. He answers a question with a question. He engages the man in a dialogue.
The key to implementing dialogue within our gospel conversations is to ask good questions and listen intently. There are at least two reasons why we ask questions in our gospel conversations: We ask questions to discover the views and opinions of our conversation partner, and we ask questions to help us understand how to answer our conversation partner later in the conversation (or in a conversation that happens later).
When we are trying to understand where people are coming from we are wise to try to understand what people mean when they use certain terms and the basis for their opinions. We can ask people to define what they mean when they use certain terms by asking them, “What do you mean by ___?” In Andrew’s workplace situation about hell, he could ask his colleague what he means by hell, so he knows what his colleague believes hell is (or is not). Gospel conversations are always more effective when the tone of the conversation is calm, cool, and collected. Arguments tend to provide more heat than light. A lot of confusion and frustration can be avoided when we understand how people are understanding and using certain terms. Before we launch into a tirade when someone says something we think is ridiculous, we are wise to ask them to define their terms to see if our opinions are closer than they may first appear.
Another important step in understanding what people think and believe is to ask them what the basis is for understanding things the way they do. It is helpful to know how people arrive at certain conclusions. Have they heavily investigated something or is it just a gut feeling? To determine your conversation partners basis for their opinion you can simply ask them, “How did you arrive at that conclusion?”, or “How did you get there?” In Andrew’s workplace situation about hell, this question would help determine the life situations and experiences that have influenced his colleague’s opinion. People do not come to their beliefs in an experiential vacuum. Events in our lives, and relationships with other people significantly impact our views on issues in general, and our views on religious issues in particular.
When we ask questions to understand our conversation partner, we can then use our discernment to see how we should answer them. The book of Proverbs categorizes people into two groups: people who are wise and people who are fools. Wise people fear and love God. Foolish people do not fear or love God. Proverbs 26:4-5 are two of my favourite verses in the Old Testament:
4 Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5 Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.
These verses in Proverbs make it clear that we will obviously be in situations where we need to answer our conversation partner’s questions, and times when we ought not answer their questions. So how do we determine whether our non-Christian conversation partner is a fool that we should answer according to their folly or not? The way that I apply these verses into my conversations is by discerning whether my conversation partner is genuinely curious about something, or if they are merely antagonistic and uninterested in my actual opinion. Someone can ask me the question, “What do you think?” in a way that makes it clear that they do (or not) care about what I actually do think. When someone cares about the answer to their questions we are wise to answer them. When someone does not genuinely care about the answer we are wise not to answer them them.
Asking good questions helps turn our gospel conversations into a legitimate dialogue rather than a series of monologues that go back and forth.
The gospel is the best news we could possibly hear. We all have a role to play in communicating the gospel to those around us. For some of us, it will be a simple, easy, and natural process because God has gifted us in a particular way. For others, it will be a process full of nervousness and discomfort because God has gifted us in other ways. Just because the process is hard for some of us doesn’t mean we quit. Regardless of whether we find talking about the gospel easy or difficult, it is wise to use the 3-Ds (declare, defend, and dialogue) in our conversations for the good of others and the glory of God.