I Don’t Know How to Bring it Up.
In this series of posts we are exploring various matters that hinder us from telling others about Christ (begins here). Today we will explore the barrier of not knowing how to bring up the subject. Feeling like we are too shy or that talking to others is out of comfort zone may be related, but I’ll focus on not knowing how to broach the subject of Christ. Knowing how to interject Christ into a conversation is not my strength in reaching out to others, but I am learning to do it better. I’ll share some of what I am doing as we all seek to grow in this area.
There are two preliminary matters we need to remember that will help us overcome this barrier. The first is that the initial and primary subject we ultimately want to share with people is Christ himself, just as the believers did in the New Testament. Other subjects, such as living a godly life, being involved in a healthy church, and healthy doctrinal beliefs, are important but should usually be deferred until later. Christ is primary. We’ll have more to say about what this entails in our next post, but for now it is helpful to remember that we want to talk about Christ himself.
The other matter we need to understand is that we are not alone as we speak about Christ. Jesus said, “I will be with you always,” and he always is. The context of the statement, however, is making disciples of others (Matthew 28:19-20). He knew we would need assurance of his presence with us as we speak to others about him. Similarly, Jesus told his first spokesmen to wait until they were clothed with power from the Holy Spirit before they served as his witnesses (Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:8). We have both the presence of Christ and power of his Spirit to help us as reach out to other people. We are not alone.
Because of the work of Christ and his Spirit, opportunities to speak to others will sometimes be dropped into our laps without our having to bring it up. The Scriptures indicate God sometimes opens doors for his spokespersons to speak (Acts 14:27; 2 Corinthians 2:12; Colossians 4:3). In Acts, Luke gives us a record of seven major presentations of the gospel, and God worked to create every one of these opportunities. In two of them, Paul was even given a direct invitation to speak (13:15; 17:19-21). Still today Christ will sometimes lead a person to ask us a question about him or make some other kind of statement where it will be clear that we can and should say something about him. In cases like this, bringing up the subject of Christ is much easier. I have occasionally experienced something like this when someone asked me some pretty direct questions about becoming a Christian, although in most cases there had been some spiritual conversation previously. Because we are fellow-workers with Christ and his Spirit, we should be praying regularly for him to open doors of opportunity and watch closely to see whether he may be opening a door for us.
On other occasions, both in Scripture and today, we may not see any indication that Christ is creating an opportunity so we will need to initiate, and this may be harder for us. It is important to remember on these occasions that the Lord is still with us and we are still dependent on his working, even if it is not obvious to us. We must not think we can or should engineer some sure-fire methodology for accomplishing God’s work by our own power and ingenuity. We initiate, certainly, but we do so humbly and with trust in God. I think of this as “probing” people’s spiritual interest. We are not forcing something to happen. We’re probing to see if the person is open and if God is opening a door.
Paul did something like this before he received the crystal clear opportunity to speak the word in Macedonia, sometimes referred to as “the Macedonian call” (Acts 16:6-10). Before receiving it, he and his companions were not just sitting around binging on Netflix. Rather, they were seeking places to speak the word. We don’t know exactly how they were doing this at that time, but other passages tell us some specific ways he initiated opportunities on other occasions. I’ll mention three of these, followed by how we might apply them today.
First, Paul sometimes established a place and time for regular discussions about Christ (Acts 19:9-10; 28:30-31). It sounds like others heard about these “Bible studies” and came to hear the word. We, too, can set up a regular time and place for teaching and discussions about Jesus, and it will provide us something we can invite people to if we think they may have spiritual interest. Some of us may find it easier to invite people to something like this than to initiate and guide conversations ourselves.
There is much to say about how to set up and conduct regular teaching about Jesus that will be appropriate for non-Christian guests, but the number one principle is to look at everything through their eyes. This will remind us to avoid many off-putting things, such as cliques, insider language, controversial or minute themes, pet peeves, faults of other churches or religions, assumptions about what newcomers know, complaints about the church and conducting church business. Ideally your text is one of the four Gospels, focusing primarily on who Jesus is, what he did, and what he said. Some good thought and discussion questions should be included. You may not want to call it a Bible “study,” which may sound about as exciting to outsiders as a study of a dictionary. It should be more like an exploration of Jesus. Cards could be printed that tell what the gathering is for (Exploration of the Life and Teaching of Jesus or Discovering Jesus), the time, and the place. Christians can use these when inviting people to come. There are pros and cons of having it at the church building, but wherever you have it, you need to have some signage to let people know exactly where to go and that they are in the right place. Having an ongoing opportunity like this makes it easier for believers to bring up the subject of Christ by simply asking people they interact with if they’d be interested in coming to An Exploration of Jesus.
Second, Paul sometimes initiated conversations about Christ with people who were following him in some degree but were deficient or mistaken about some significant matter (18:24-28; 19:1-7). Though this does present an opportunity, there are also a number of pitfalls involved in doing this in our day, and so we need to proceed wisely, prayerfully, and carefully.
We don’t want to nitpick small matters of disagreement. We don’t want to get into a religious argument. And we don’t want to have a condescending attitude or think we are right about everything. Honesty, wisdom and maturity will help us interact in helpful ways instead of harmful ones. In spite of the pitfalls, however, when you hear someone say they are a part of a particular group or reveal some belief they have, we should be aware that it could lead to an opportunity. Perhaps a good first step is to ask a question or two to clarify what they actually believe instead of assuming you know. In these situations it is especially important to remember that our ultimate aim is not to argue about religion but to tell good news about Christ.
Third, Paul sometimes went to places where conversations happen (such as the ancient marketplace, Acts 16:13; 17:7) or where he thought he might be invited to speak (such as Rabbis visiting the ancient synagogues, 9:20-22; 13:14-16; etc.).
One possible contemporary parallel is not a physical setting but a social one, namely, conversations with friends. We will usually have more credibility and trust with friends than strangers and this may make them more inclined to listen to what we have to say. The same is sometimes also true with family members, though not always. Even with brand new acquaintances, conversations may create a similar opportunity, since the very act of conversing can create trust and rapport. It is significant that Paul’s instruction to make the most of every opportunity is surrounded by exhortations to be wise in how we live and also how we talk (“conversation,” NIV, Colossians 4:5-6).
Interestingly, in a recent research study, non-Christians reported that they felt more encouraged to explore Christianity after a casual, one-on-one conversation with a Christian than any other approach to reaching out to them. Group conversations were rated almost as high. In the same study, non-Christians also reported that the two qualities they most desired in a conversation partner were that they listened without judgment and did not force a conclusion (George Barna, Reviving Evangelism, 2019, p. 44). These qualities are strikingly similar to Peter’s exhortation for us to give an account “with gentleness (cf. not force a conclusion) and respect (cf. listening without judgment)” (1 Peter 3:15-16). Casual conversations may well be the best setting for us to talk to others about Christ.
There are many other ways we can probe for spiritual interest in our conversations or daily dealings with others. I am most likely to do this if something comes up about spiritual matters, such as the trouble in the world, death, the afterlife, or religion. The most common way I have “probed” people’s spiritual interest is simply to ask them if they’ve read the Bible very much or if they are interested in spiritual matters. Their response usually makes it clear whether I ought to share a little more about what I do or think or believe.
I also probe a bit in my daily routine. One way I often do this is to tell our waiter or waitress we are going to be praying for our food and ask them if there is anything going on with them they’d like us to pray about. Here in Texas I haven’t yet had a bad response this, and some people have shared much more personally than I expected. I am also now seeking to end my interactions with clerks or others by saying “peace” or “peace to you,” which sounds an awful lot like what Christ would sometimes say.
There are many other things a person could say to probe people’s spiritual interest. I’d encourage you to devote some prayer and thought to things you might say that fit you and seem appropriate. I don’t really like the concept of “using lines” on people and would encourage you to avoid that mentality. Still, thinking in advance about fitting things to say or ask is a way we can “be prepared,” and it will make it more likely that we will actually say something and say it appropriately.
If any of our probing reveals that a person definitely is not interested, I do not try to force something on them. If, and only if, I have a relationship or some trust with a person, I might respond with a gentle, “okay, but let me know if you ever do want to talk about any of this; it’s really important.” But I definitely would not push. You can’t push people into the kingdom.
On the other hand, if a person’s face or words indicate some spiritual interest, we certainly need to “make the most” of the opportunity. Based on their words or questions, it may be clear what to say next. Remembering that we are wanting to tell them about Christ may also guide us about how to respond. Another good thing to do in order to “be prepared” is to pray and think in advance about what you personally believe and can say about Christ and how he has affected you. This is parallel to the “testifying” that first century eye witnesses of Christ often did as a form of evidence for the truthfulness of the message.