Breaking the Ice for an Initial Spiritual Conversation
I will never forget the time I missed the perfect moment to turn a conversation into an evangelistic opportunity. I was a seminary student and working part-time for a window cleaning company called “The King’s Window Cleaning Company.” The business was started by seminary students years earlier, and the “King” was King Jesus. One afternoon, I was washing windows with my boss, another seminary student. A man approached, and I could tell he was interested in hiring us to wash windows for his storefront. I can still hear his question years later: “Who is in charge here? Who is the King?” Without hesitation, I turned and pointed to my boss, cleaning the window 15 feet away, and said, “His name is Brian, and he’s in charge.” Unfortunately, my friend had heard the question AND my answer. He gave me a look I’ll never forget, as if to say “seriously”? I, like Peter, instantly knew I had betrayed Jesus with my response. I missed the opportunity, and it was gone.
Perhaps there has been no other verse about evangelism that has perplexed me more than 1 Peter 3:15: “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
The phrase “always be prepared” occasionally puts pressure on conversations I have had with college students and other non-Christians. Looking for just the right opening to inject spirituality into a conversation is not only exhausting, but it can also feel unnatural and awkward. For the unbeliever, it can be an unwanted change of topic or come across as sleight of hand that leads our non-Christian student, friend, or relative to wonder if we are going to turn every conversation into yet another opportunity to talk about Jesus.
I live in the United States where it is a cultural taboo to speak openly about politics and religion. In my twenty years of campus ministry, I can only recall two instances when a student has asked me, “How do I become a Christian?” Only two. Evangelism would be easy if people regularly asked me to explain the hope I have, or even what I think about the meaning of life or what happens after death! I don’t think I am alone in experiencing this lack of interest in spiritual conversation. I think, generally, most Christians in the US are not being asked by non-Christians for a resurrection-of-Jesus-hope-filled answer to help with their disappointments in life and anxieties about the future.
But I do think there is a way to follow Peter’s encouragement to be prepared to explain the hope we have in Christ. Instead of waiting for just the right moment to have a spiritual conversation with a non-Christian, we can be proactive and ask for permission to talk about faith. One way is to invite a student, your neighbor, or your relative into a spiritual conversation while setting some parameters. Setting parameters helps lower the hurdles of entering into a spiritual conversation for the non-Christian.
These hurdles might include:
Where is this conversation going to take place?
How long will this conversation be?
Are you going to make me feel terrible about myself?
Is this going to be an argument?
Will I end up feeling stupid because I don’t know very much about Christianity or spiritual things?
Instead of missing opportunities like I did in seminary or waiting for just the right time to interject a spiritual topic into a conversation, I have begun to ask people for permission to have a spiritual conversation with them. For example, I may ask a student I met at the gym on campus if they would allow me to buy them a coffee at the Starbucks on campus and sit with me for 30 minutes so I can share what it is that I do as a campus pastor and why I do it.
Asking students this question, allows them to decide if they would like to engage in a spiritual conversation or not. By asking permission, you are showing respect to the non-Christian. Which is the very thing Peter calls us to when he says “be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you: yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
By setting the time (30 minutes), the location (on campus), the direction of the conversation (sharing my story), and who is buying the coffee (I am), some of those previously mentioned hurdles have been removed and the student is more likely to be receptive to having a spiritual conversation.
If the student accepts the invitation, there are several guidelines I follow during the meeting.
Make sure you are on time and secure a table that is conducive for the conversation.
Buy coffee for the student (or your friend/relative).
Respect their time and make sure you don’t go past 30 minutes.
Share about your brokenness and how Jesus met you in a profound way with grace, changed your life, and is changing your life. (Most people will expect law or rules, not grace.)
Ask if they have any religious or spiritual background and whether they have viewed it (or the lack of it) as a negative or positive.
You can usually tell if the conversation is creating interest or not. If there is no interest, thank them for their time and let them know that if they ever want to talk with you again – for 30 minutes at a coffee shop on campus – you would love to do that. Thank them for honoring you by listening to your story.
If the conversation goes well, be prepared to invite them to something else. This could be another 30 minute meeting at the same coffee shop in two weeks. It could also be an invitation to come and “try out” your Thursday night meeting or a small group Bible study. I always make sure students know if they “try out” a meeting, there will be no expectation that they return. If they would like to meet again for coffee, I typically make a point to share something from Jesus’s teaching in the Gospels. My go-to passage is Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, where I highlight the always surprising good news of grace. (My two other favorite passages to point students to the surprising and amazing grace of God are Ephesians 2:1-10 and Genesis 3.) It’s the same grace that gave you and me new life, and it’s the same grace that has the power to give new life to the non-Christian God has put in your life. I have found freedom in asking permission to share my faith with someone that has set me free from the anxiety of pouncing on that perfect moment or feeling regret when I miss an opportunity to tell someone about King Jesus.