The words of an honest critic: “I don’t mind Christians talking about their faith, but once they start, they don’t know when to stop.”
The Image Stuck in Our Heads
I grew up fishing—not in the simplistic straw-hat-and-overalls sense, but in the more serious pursuit of carefully selected tackle, and lure presentation.
I’ve been known to get frustrated with newbie fishermen whose only impulse is to mash a wad of bread on a hook and clip on an oversize bobber. That technique will work for catching bluegill in a Norman Rockwell painting. But no bass I know of would allow itself to be caught in such a dishonoring way. I can’t blame my novice fishermen friends, though. They tend toward the bread and hook combo because it’s the prevailing image they associate with fishing.
It works that way in the gospel, too, where the one image stuck in our minds has to do with delivering a monologue to someone. That approach might work splendidly for those who think door-to-door sales are fun. But not for the rest of us who correlate public speaking (or sustained private monologue) with fear-induced diarrhea.
And so we decide that until we excel at sales, we won’t be venturing into the world of evangelism. It doesn’t matter how many times Jesus said do it.
If you feel pressured or guilty because you can’t imagine yourself in gospel cage fights, it’s time for a paradigm change. God uses dialogue to preach His gospel, as demonstrated in Acts chapter 8:26-40.
Definitely pursue conversations, but make sure it’s a conversation you’re pursuing, and not a presentation in disguise.
There is a difference between the two.
A Presentation is a Monologue; A Conversation is Give-and-Take
You might not be aware of it, but when you’re pursuing a presentation, you’re actually hunting for a block of time to hold the floor. Most of the communication will be going one way.
On the other hand, with a conversation, you’re looking for give and take—talking and listening. When you talk, that is, “give,” limit the length of it. Don’t make the person regret they asked you a question. Consider how you feel when you ask someone a question and they respond with, “Do you want the long version or the short one?” Which did you opt for? I’d wager that unless you were hoping to learn brain surgery, you asked for the answer without all the rabbit trails.
During the course of a conversation, 45 seconds is a long “give.” Twenty seconds or less is better. I don’t expect you to watch a clock, but get used to “feeling” time when it’s your turn to talk. It’s an art, and you have to do it by practice. Usually people give signals that your turn is up (and has been for a while), when they get a glazed-over look, or start to shift their eyes, fidget, and yawn. A certain amount of attention deficit has affected this generation. If you hog the ball, it will worsen the problem. Learn to say what you want economically.
It ought to go without saying that when it’s your turn to listen—that is, “take”—you’re actually listening, not thinking about what you’re going to say. Don’t be the guy who has to ask someone’s name three times inside of five minutes. Besides, when they talk, people often unintentionally reveal valuable information about their interests, concerns, hopes, and dreams. During their “turn,” they will even expose areas of personal passion or pain. You could say they’re unraveling their heart map in front of you, a little at a time. These cues can show you where to apply the gospel.
A Presentation Requires a Firehose; A Conversation, an Eyedropper
If you try to conduct a presentation, you’ll be dragging out a firehose. That means extended theological explanations that tend to drench a listener. But in a conversation, we think in terms of eyedroppers—squeezing short, impactful points into dialogue, like, “How do I know Jesus loves you, Susan? Well, He died for you. When somebody dies for somebody else, that’s a pretty graphic way of proving their love for them.” Full stop. That’s a squirt. Even if Susan argues, or changes the subject altogether, she has definitely heard something of the gospel.
A Presentation Closes the Deal; A Conversation Assesses the Situation
A presenter expects a decision. He or she hasn’t been motoring on for nothing. At the end of a successful sales pitch, the customer is supposed to buy the product—no thinking about it, or shopping around. In evangelism, the sinner should repent, cry, and pray a prayer. Either way, it’s all about closing the deal.
But in a conversation, you’re assessing where you and your friend have arrived together. As your visit winds down, are there indications you should encourage the other person to repent and believe in Jesus now? Maybe they’ve signaled strong interest. Without a call to faith, you’ll leave them hanging. Lead them to Jesus, and help them confess Christ as Savior and Lord.
But it could be your friend is only mildly interested. You need to pray for them more, and perhaps converse with them a number of times before they become receptive to Christ. Of course your friend might have been completely unfazed by any eyedropper remarks, and has no interest in faith talk. In the latter two cases, if you try to close the deal, you may well close the relationship. Be wise and learn to evaluate your conversations.
My Eleventh Hour Eyedropper
After a lot of provocation from the Lord and a lot of procrastination from me, I finally walked down the street to my neighbor’s house. I hardly knew this elderly couple except from a distance, but I’d heard the wife was in the hospital dying.
On the way over, I had to remind myself that this encounter would not be a presentation. It wouldn’t be a Sunday morning sermon. It would be a conversation, and maybe a short one. I considered for a moment an eyedropper statement, something short, but impactful I could say that would capture why I was coming over, the urgency of the situation, and offer hope, as well. Yes, that’s a tall order.
The man came to the door, pleasant, but understandably pressured with his situation. I re-introduced myself, offered condolences and concern for his wife, and asked about his faith. He told me they were not religious at all.
“As a pastor, I would be more than happy to visit your wife,” I said. “Of course I wouldn’t force anything on her.” He got noticeably uncomfortable at my offer, showing it by a pronounced shift backwards and a half-turn away from me. His mouth said, “Thank you, that’s very nice,” but his body language said, “I want to get away from you.”
With my window rapidly closing, all I had left was my eyedropper. I used it.
“When your wife leaves this world, I’d like to see her leave it with Jesus, and not alone.”
This gave him pause, and our conversation re-ignited for a few minutes more, again pleasant, but still ending with polite refusal.
After a dialogue like this, all anyone can do is pray. In reflection, I suppose I should have built closer relationships, I should have acted earlier, I should have kept my schedule freer. I should have said and done a lot of things that would have made a clumsy, eleventh hour gesture unnecessary.
All of these failures notwithstanding, I still got to say something.
Get Ready to Rumble
As you pursue conversations with people, consider your own eyedropper. For instance in our current racially charged environment, perhaps someone will ask, “What do you think about all this unrest?” You might respond, “Well, I believe the problem of racial hatred and violence occurs because men and women refuse to let Jesus rule over their hearts.”
The other person might say, “Oh come on, a lot of racists say they’re Christians!”
To which you might reply, “Yes, but again, it’s about Christ ruling over the heart, and not simply what people call themselves.”
At that point your friend might dismiss you as being religiously idealistic, or a fool, or worse. On the other hand, they might ask for a clarification:
“What do you mean by ‘Christ ruling over a person’s heart’?”
And there’s your conversation.