A report recently released by the Barna Group about the way non-believers view conversations about faith is both encouraging and disappointing. It is encouraging because it shows that many non-believers do want to have conversations about faith. It is disappointing because it shows that most believers simply don’t have what it takes to hold those conversations. Let’s explore why.
What are non-believers looking for?
Non-believers (and those who are currently ‘away’ from a faith) are looking first and foremost for someone to talk to who will listen without being judgemental doesn’t try to force them into a pre-determined conclusion, and will allow them to reach their own conclusion. They are looking for a conversation partner who is genuinely interested in their story, good at asking questions and actually pays attention to the answers. Less than half the believers they know or might consider talking to are felt to have those qualities.
What do believers seem to have?
Looked at the other way, believers emphasize different qualities, such as being confident in sharing their own perspective, exhibiting a vibrant faith of their own and being able to help others have a spiritual experience of God for themselves. In fact, the Barna report suggests that however willing they may be to witness to non-believers, many either don’t have any relational connection points with non-believers or don’t have the conversational skills to engage in a meaningful exchange of ideas and debate with someone outside their own immediate faith context.
Always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:14).
How are we to acquire those skills in order to be ready? What characteristics should we be trying to develop so that we can help others share their interests or concerns about faith in a meaningful way that will help them to explore big questions without feeling threatened?
The first things we need to be able to do is to listen. People are always more prepared to talk than to listen, and most people’s favourite subject is themselves. Many conversations are not an exchange, but two people talking past each other, hoping that the other is listening. Listening takes time, and many people don’t have or won’t give that time. So to give someone time to talk and to listen quietly and carefully to them is a precious gift and shows that they are important to you.
When you are having a conversation with someone, it is important to concentrate on that person and the conversation. Not by staring fixedly at them, but by paying them attention. Sound and look interested; use appropriate body language or hand movements. Look at the other person and make frequent but not permanent eye contact. Reflect their conversation back to them to show that you have heard: “Do you mean to say that …” Ask meaningful open questions (an open question is one that cannot be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’) to keep the conversation going and to show that you are interested in them and their story.
Many non-believers think that believers are only interested in them as an object for conversion, that believers think of them simply as a ‘project’. It is important to be honest and authentic in all our conversations, but particularly with non-believers who already suspect our motives. Don’t pretend to be something that you are not, or to hold views and opinions that you don’t; non-believers are rarely fooled and it sours any relationship. Honestly admitting that you don’t do or care for something that they do, can be a good basis for a deep conversation about why they hold those positions; and can earn the respect of the non-believer that you were prepared to tell the truth.
Turn your mobile phone off or put it on silent while in a significant conversation. If this is ten, fifteen or twenty minutes that you are giving this person, make sure that they get it, without you being distracted by your phone or checking your watch. Don’t stare at something else over their shoulder or get distracted by other people walking past. Follow their tone and level of conversation, tracking their pitch and speed of talking. These indicators show how strongly they feel about the experience they are describing.
We should not be fixed upon the goal of every conversation we have leading to the question, “Are you saved, brother?” or “Can I introduce you to Yeshua now?” Trying to turn every conversation into an altar call makes us seem very boring people, very uninteresting to talk to. It suggests that we have nothing else to talk about. Whether you play cricket, build model railways or cook soufflé to die for, we need to learn to find out what other people are interested in and build relationship around common ground.
Advertising companies say that it takes, on average, seven positive touches to persuade someone to buy something. A positive touch moves them close to coming to faith; a negative touch may push them further away. We should be aware that the people with whom we have conversations about faith are not all at the same place. They are not all ready to become a believer if we just press the right buttons and ask the closing question. To treat everyone as if they were, is insulting and shows no real empathy with the other person’s life and situation.
Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person (Colossians 4:6).
Let’s try to change the way that non-believers see us, so that we will be considered suitable partners for conversations about life and living. If sharing our faith in Yeshua is part of that conversation, then let’s practice how we can do that smoothly and naturally without sounding like a deodorant advertisement. More importantly, we need to learn how to listen, how to show genuine concern for the other and how to give them our focus and undivided attention. We may be the only time they get it from one six-month to the next, and that alone might be enough to spark interest and provide an opening for the Spirit. If not, then we will have demonstrated care and love for other human beings and made the world a better place.