We are to reach people from all walks of life including those who are highly educated, affluent or at the top of society. You may meet someone at work, or they may be your neighbor or perhaps they are sitting next to you on an international flight. These people may seem unapproachable, intimidating or to have little need for Christ but they have the same struggle with sin and the same need of a savior. So if the opportunity presents itself to have a conversation with such a person, here are some tips to help the conversation along.
When to Introduce Religion
Many Christians don’t bring up religion at all in such situations and thus the opportunities for witnessing are lost entirely. But those who do try to introduce religion into the conversation often do so prematurely. They either share their testimony, ask questions about the other person’s religious beliefs or they bring up some aspect of their own religion that they feel strongly about.
Instead, the focus during the early part of the conversation should be on finding out what serious secular topics this person is passionate about. Without appearing nosy, try to use questions to direct the conversation away from the typical small talk and unto something more substantial that your companion has an interest in. This shouldn’t be very difficult since people generally enjoy talking about those things that are most on their mind.
It is important to develop a certain level of trust first before switching over to religious topics. If people see that you have intelligent opinions about topics they are familiar with, that you think deeply and are of sound judgment, they are far more likely to listen to you regarding subjects they don’t know very much about. Secular people today don’t usually think very highly of religious people by default so having the chance to first know you as someone of a balanced mind and mature judgment will go a long way.
Of course, to be able to do this you will need to be familiar with a broad range of topics and with those issues that are of concern to the public at any given time. Many Christians, in order to avoid temptation, live in a bubble. They read only the Bible and other Christian books and surround themselves with only Christian friends. They tend to be unfamiliar with those things that are of interest to the public and are thus unable to relate when an opportunity to witness emerges. But many of these subjects are things that someone MUST think about and address or else our world would be in far worse shape than it currently is. And God’s angels are at the side of such people as they work through these difficult secular issues.
Some Christians make an even graver mistake while trying to remedy the above problem. In order to still be familiar with popular topics without having to think about them too much, they adopt what they perceive to be the ‘Corporate Opinion.’ They go along with what their church thinks or what Christians in general think about any given topic with very superficial reasoning behind it. And, not only is this a problem because that corporate opinion has a good chance of being wrong, but there are few things that secular people detest more than this ‘Group Think’ that many Christians buy into. There really is no substitute for thinking through issues for yourself, for giving a fair hearing to opposing points of view and for trying to gather as much pertinent data as possible before coming to your own conclusions. You avoid temptation by learning how to think critically and not by hiding from the world.
Of course, there are so many topics to think about that no one person will be able to become familiar with them all. So if it happens that the person you are talking to brings up something you don’t know too much about, you might be able to remedy the situation by asking intelligent questions. Use the opportunity to learn about the subject since this person is familiar with it and the information might come in handy at a later time. But, if you expect to talk to this person again, make sure you take some time and research the topic for yourself before the next meeting.
Also, it is not always necessary to be of the same opinion but make sure you know when to back off if there is risk of starting an argument. Remember that you can only have ONE gospel. If you let yourself get caught up in a political debate, for example, by the time you bring up religion, the person will realize which subject is really the more important one to you.
How Much to Share
Some Christians feel that if they have an opportunity to talk to someone they must bring them to a full understanding of truth then and there. After all, the person might die the next day or never have another chance to hear the gospel again. So they find ways to cram all kinds of information into the conversation regardless of whether that person is ready to hear it.
The pace at which the discussion progresses however, should be determined by the readiness of the individual and not by fear that this might be his only chance. God has not entrusted any of us with the full responsibility for someone else’s soul.
If it really is the person’s last opportunity the Holy Spirit would need to make that very clear; but this definitely isn’t the default assumption to work under whenever witnessing. In most cases each of us is simply a stepping stone God uses to bring others a little closer to Himself. If as a result of talking to you the person is better prepared to receive the next thing God has in plan for them, that conversation was a success.
In the world of marketing there is something called the Sales Funnel. It denotes the idea that a customer goes through several stages before being ready to buy a product. The stages could be broadly summarized as follows: Awareness, Interest, Comparative Analysis and Purchase.
If a person is unaware of the product, the purpose of marketing is to let them know the product exists. If they ARE aware, it is to educate them regarding why the product is something they need. Once this person becomes convinced they need the product, the next step is to help them sort through versions of the product that have different features and pricing. And lastly, they must be encouraged to make a decision and move forward with the purchase.
The reason understanding this Funnel is important in marketing is because skipping over steps in the funnel will significantly reduce the chances of making a sale. People perceive out-of-step marketing as pressure sales and become defensive or simply ignore future marketing efforts. In essence, their basic freedoms are being trampled when asked to make decisions with insufficient information or time to evaluate that information.
People go through a similar decision process when it comes to religion. Some people have just never really thought about religion seriously. Others don’t fully understand why the subject is important and why it applies to them personally. Still others see the importance of the topic but are confused by the plurality of competing worldviews. Such people need a systematic process for sorting through ideas. And lastly, there are people who are very close to making a decision and just need help taking those last few steps.
Many Christians have a tendency to witness as if everyone must already be in that last stage of decision making. They present a message that is appropriate for that last stage and consider the message rejected if the person does not move forward with a decision. In reality, the person hasn’t really rejected anything except an attempt to circumvent the natural decision making process in order to obtain a premature conversion the Christian can take pride in. And, this person will now be a lot less receptive to someone else trying to witness to them in the future.
As you are making your way from a secular discussion to a religious one and from one stage to the next, do your best to find natural transitions in the conversation. This isn’t always easy, but it can be done and gets easier with practice. In essence, there are ways to shift the conversation abruptly giving the impression that you have some sort of personal agenda or it can be done smoothly such that the conversation just flows onward.
This is especially difficult when switching between secular and religious topics. What makes it a little easier however is that it is possible to have a secular conversation about a religious topic before transitioning to a fully religious conversation. The easiest way to explain this is with a couple of examples. This will allow me to illustrate some of the previous points as well.
Some time ago I was traveling to Romania and took a shuttle for several hours from Hungary across the border to my wife’s home town. I began talking to the man sitting next to me who had lived in Spain for several years but had decided he could help his country more by moving back to Romania. We talked for some time regarding the political and economic situation in the country (secular topics) and it seemed he enjoyed listening to my perspective on things. So I decided it was time to redirect the conversation and asked him the following question:
“I left the country when I was about 10 years old, back when the communists were still in power, and the impression I had back then was that many people in Romania were atheist. Now, when I visit the country, I get the impression that most people are religious. Has something happened to change public opinion on the subject or were people always religious and the government just wasn’t painting an accurate picture?”
This question, while bringing up the topic of religion, isn’t itself necessarily religious. The same question could have been asked by an atheist. It provided a sort of middle ground allowing me, based on the man’s reaction, to determine how to proceed.
As an alternative example, this is a question I asked of a young software engineer from India:
“Since most people in India are Hindu and as Hinduism contains many incredible miraculous stories, how do young educated professionals today relate to those stories? Do they consider them events that actually took place or parables intended to teach spiritual or moral lessons?”
Again, this is a question about religion that could be purely anthropological; just an attempt to get a feel for how modern intellectuals relate to the traditional culture. Depending on how comfortable the person is with the question, I can then decide to move forward with the religious theme or go back to the previous discussion and try something different at a later time.
These types of questions are also an excellent diagnostic tool helping to determine where the person is at spiritually. One evidence that the person is open to a religious discussion is that they don’t limit their answers to only the bare minimum needed to answer your question. They might give a fairly detailed answer and even share additional insights beyond what you asked. A brief, limited answer on the other hand, might mean the person is not comfortable with where the conversation is going but it could also mean that they just haven’t thought very much about the subject before.
Coming back to the man I met on my way to Romania, after asking him the question above, the man not only answered it but completely delved into a religious discussion all on his own. He told me not only that Romanians in general had been pretty religious even during the communist era, but that he himself also believed in God, though he wouldn’t quite describe himself as religious person.
The fact that this man continued the conversation told me not only that he was comfortable with a religious discussion but that he had already thought quite a bit about the subject on his own. He pointed out several things church representatives were doing which did not correspond with his understanding of who God was. And, this gave me the opportunity to share some thoughts about how to take his religious education into his own hands.
Throughout this whole time there was a young lady sitting next to us that seemed to be listening attentively to the conversation, so we asked if she had anything to contribute. It turned out that she was a Pentecostal Christian and told us that while she enjoyed our conversation, what really mattered was that a person needed to be born again. She then proceeded with a mini-sermonette on the topic.
Immediately, the man’s demeanor changed. While up to that point he had been actively contributing to the conversation, he now began to just shake his head in agreement. He entered what I call the “shake your head and pretend you’re listening” phase and then soon found something else to busy himself with while the girl continued talking to me.
Of course, the young lady was right. This man did need to be born again as does every other human being. She was also right that unless the man understood this, all his other insights about religion would not have helped him obtain salvation. But she was wrong in thinking that the man needed to understand this then and there. She skipped over several necessary steps in the conversation and as a result the man felt he was the subject of a proselytization attempt and lost interest. The appropriate time to introduce the subject of the new birth would have been once the man had begun to have a sense of his need.
In essence, we must respect people’s God-given right to decide if and how much they want to be witnessed to. We’ve all had telemarketers and pushy salespeople trying to coerce us into buying something and hated the experience, so now, we need to afford others the same courtesy. I have called this an article about witnessing to intelligent people because while some people might be willing to put up with some of the missteps mentioned above, in my experience, the more intelligent, educated or affluent a person is, the less likely it is that they will do so. To reach such people, Christians will benefit from learning to respect the natural decision cycle and from broadening their knowledge base.