Category Archives: Engaging our Culture

Spiritual Conversation Killers

I got this article somewhere online and love it. wanted to share it with everyone in church.

 

In April of 2003, National Public Radio aired a story about a standoff between an angry mob of Iraqi Shiites and a heavily armored patrol from the American 101st Airborne Division. Fearing that the soldiers were preparing to desecrate their most holy shrine, hundreds of unarmed civilians pressed in toward the patrol waving their hands and shouting defiantly. Although the patrol’s intentions were peaceful, the standoff would probably have been disastrous if not for the quick thinking of US Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Hughes. Hughes, who was in command that day, picked up a loud speaker and barked out three simple commands to his men; the first was to take a knee, the second was to point their weapons toward the ground, the third and final order was to look up and give everyone in that hostile crowd a friendly smile. Astoundingly, in few brief moments after they obeyed his order, the troops saw the demeanor of the crowd begin to change. Hostility and defiance melted away as shaking fists and screaming voices were replaced with smiles and friendly pats on the back.

Though it may not be immediately apparent, this hopeful story from the war in Iraq has important implications for spiritual conversations in a world that is becoming increasingly hostile towards the traditional kinds of conversations Christians attempt to have. As Ravi Zacharias says, “We must learn to find the backdoor to people’s hearts because the front door is heavily guarded.” Many not-yet Christians react defensively much like the Shiites in the story above when the topic of conversation turns to spiritual matters. They anticipate and are amply prepared for any direct attack on the holy places and sacred shrines of their hearts. The conversations we have rarely penetrate the armor of their hearts because to them it just sounds like, “my worldview is better that your worldview, so let me tell you why I’m right and you’re wrong.” “And by the way if you don’t surrender to my point of view, I will launch the nuclear bomb called hell to bring you to repentance.” Instead of opening hearts to Jesus, many times we merely perpetuate the “us versus them” standoff. So how do we keep from becoming embroiled in these no-win, never-ending kind of spiritual conversation stalemates?

The Message version of Colossians 4:5,6 puts the answer this way: “Use your heads as you live and work among outsiders. Don’t miss a trick. Make the most of every opportunity. Be gracious in your speech. The goal is to bring out the best in others in a conversation, not put them down, not cut them out.”

The first sentence of this passage perfectly describes the approach Colonel Hughes took when he acted so decisively that day in Najaf. He was wise in the way he related to those who felt and believed differently than him. We need to be equally wise engaging people if we want the quality and quantity of our spiritual conversations to increase. If you truly believe as I do that real wisdom comes from above, could I encourage you to pause and invite the Holy Spirit to grant you this kind of wisdom as you start this book. (A Prayer to Offer) God, open my eyes to the ways I maybe hindering opportunities for spiritual conversations in my daily life.

Having said that, spiritual conversation school is now in session. As previously mentioned, I earned my masters degree at the school of hard knocks. So please make every effort to turn my failures into your successes. It would ease my pain and make all my failures seem worthwhile.

Killer #1 The Heart is the Heart of the Matter

After speaking with countless Christ followers all over the world, I am convinced that the number one killer of spiritual conversation is unbelief. Could I ask you to stop and prayerfully ponder a question that penetrates to the heart of my conviction? Do you really believe the people in your Monday thru Saturday world want to talk about spiritual things? If you don’t, could I urge you to stop reading right now and invite Christ to help you with your unbelieving heart? Nothing else in this book will help you a whole lot until you change your mind about this matter. In Matthew 12:34b, Jesus informs us that our lips reflect what is on our hearts. I have found that we will miss opportunity after opportunity if we’ve pre-determined that the people who cross our path have no interest in talking about spiritual matters. For those of you who are skeptical of my assertion due to the spiritual climate of your geographic location, please give me the benefit of the doubt. I’ve had spiritual conversations with people all over the world including the supposed “tough places”. I think it’s because the Holy Spirit has given me a conviction that if God has put eternity in people’s hearts, which is what Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us, then people were made for spiritual conversations. As I’ve learned how to naturally create “God Space” in my relational encounters and avoid the nine spiritual conversation killers that you are about to read, spiritual conversations have become the norm, not the exception. Thomas Jefferson once said, “When the heart is right, the feet are swift.” Maybe he picked this idea up from Jesus who said in Matthew 9:23b “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Your heart is the heart of the matter! Unbelief hampers the Holy Spirit’s desire to advance God’s Kingdom through you,one spiritual conversation at a time.

Killer #2 Pre-Conversational History

The second greatest deterrent to having spiritual conversations occurs before most conversations have a chance to happen. Many un-believers have experienced some or all of the following eight spiritual conversation killers,

which are ranked in no particular order after numbers one and two. These experiences help to reinforce the age-old axiom that there are two things you don’t talk about in public, politics and religion. David Kinnaman in his book “UnChristian” quotes one outsider who described Christianity this way: “Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, anti-choice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe.” Like it or not our Christian jewelry, t-shirts, TV programs, tracts, and bumper stickers all serve to create a pre-conversational history that colors the perception of everyone you meet. This history greatly inhibits the possibility of having spiritual conversations with others. When you identify with Jesus, you automatically inherit all the perceptions created by His followers. Getting out of this Christian box as quickly as possible is essential if you are going to have real conversations.

This became quite clear to me on one of my speaking trips. I was in Columbus, Ohio speaking at the annual Summer Institute at Xenos, a church that is intentionally trying to live out much of what this book is about. I was having a problem with one of my slides in my Keynote presentation (Mac’s version of Powerpoint). So, I went to the Apple Store nearby to see if they could help me. The young lady assigned to work with me liked the challenging problem I presented to her. As she attempted to fix it, she was exposed to most of the content of my presentation on evangelism. I could not help wondering what was going through her mind. At that moment I realized that I wasn’t just in the box, “I was the box” to her. I sensed the atmosphere tighten up as she asked me to scroll through t
he clips and slides in my presentation. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit helped get me out of the box with the following question. “I was wondering if you would be willing to help me in another way. I’m here in town to speak to a large gathering of Christians who would like to learn how to talk to their friends about spiritual matters. Has anyone ever tried to do that with you?” She immediately went on n impassioned rant about the negative experiences she has had with her born again sister. As I began to reflectively listen to her, she began to calm down a little. I ask her the following question, which she was more than willing to answer. “If your sister were in the audience tomorrow when I speak, what would you like me to tell her so that your future conversations turn out a little better?” I had now climbed out of the box. She began to realize that I was not like her sister. Now that her pre-conversational history was out on the table, I was able to avoid the landmines that might blow up the opportunity to proceed talking about spiritual matters. We spent the rest of the time while she finished up my job doing just that. I walked away wishing there was some way her sister could be flown into the workshop I’d be doing the next day. I knew that was never going to happen, so I decided to share this story in hopes that someday she will read this book and connect the dots. Whether she does or not, this experience sure helped me to see that we can’t ignore ones pre-conversational history if we hope to increase the quality and quantity of our spiritual conversations.

Killer #3 Awkward Transitions

Several years ago, I found myself at home alone on a Sunday afternoon totally immersed in the last two minutes of a pro football game that would decide which team would make the playoff’s. I was annoyingly distracted from the gridiron drama by the sound of my doorbell. Somebody outside my house was obviously not in touch with what was going on inside my house. I prepared myself to quickly “stiff arm” (in Christian love of course) whoever was at the door so I could get back to my “Sunday football fix”. Unfortunately when I opened the door, two Mormons stood ready to greet me. They wanted to engage me in spiritual conversation. I found myself suspended in a spiritual time warp as they fumbled the ball early and often in there struggle to start up a conversation with me. As I listened to their awkward attempts to get a conversation started, pictures of bygone days began to flash through my mind of the times when I was the one attempting to start a spiritual conversation. All of a sudden I was filled with compassion for these two Mormons on their mission because they had reacquainted me with all those awkward feelings I had experienced when I was the one stammering through some awkward transition I had been taught to memorize. Awkward transitions create awkward feelings, which can leave people feeling pretty uptight. Most of the people I know, do not regularly sign up for conversations that leave them feeling “weirded out”. This raises the question I’m asked quite often, “So then, how do you transition into a spiritual conversation?”

As I’ve probed to better understand the nature of this question, I’ve discovered that most Christ followers are hoping for a sure fire transitional statement they can memorize which will produce great spiritual conversations every time they use it. Maybe we should take a cue from Jesus on this one. If He didn’t approach spiritual conversations this way, why should we? I am quite familiar with most of the different transitions Christian workers are taught to use. Even when practiced and delivered flawlessly, these transitions tend to create awkward feelings when the other person realizes you are trying to take the conversation somewhere. If their hearts are not prepared to go there, it might be the last spiritual conversation you will ever have with them. Later on in this book, I will discuss how we can move into spiritual conversations naturally and avoid awkward transitions.

Killer #4 Our Language – Not Theirs

While I’m on the Mormons, I have to share a funny story that I hope will make Killer #4 seem quite obvious. My brother’s job required him to move to the greater Salt Lake City, Utah area a few years ago. After they had settled into the neighborhood, one of their neighbors came over one day to welcome them. As this lady began to engage my sister-in-law in conversation, she asked her the following question; “Are you LDS?” My sister-in-law looked at my brother and replied; “Well, neither one of us our ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), so we are probably not LDS either.” I still laugh hysterically when I recall this story. However when I realize the implications for having spiritual conversations, I’m quite sobered. When we lead with questions like; “Are you saved?” or “Have you been born again?” we leave outsiders feeling like . . . outsiders. When we speak in “Christianeze” we are unknowingly saying to others; “if you want to have a spiritual conversation with me you will have to do so on my terms.” Jesus modeled something quite to the contrary. He took the language of heaven and injected into the language of the day. In Colossians 4:4, the apostle Paul asked believers to pray that he would proclaim the message clearly. When we use our language and not theirs, we end up killing conversations with confusion and which can leave folks feeling dumb or stupid. Jesus used language that built bridges and opened doors. We can do the same by learning to translate spiritual truth into the every day vernacular of the people we are having conversations with.

Killer #5 Disrespectful Conversations

How many of you know that your spiritual gift is being quick to speak and slow to listen? Unfortunately, I find myself going there real easy. James 1:19 admonishes us to flip-flop the two. We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak. If this is not happening in our conversations, it’s quite easy for the other person to feel disrespected.

There is an overabundance of ways to unknowingly demonstrate disrespect in our conversations besides not listening. Condescending, or being parental in our conversations will do it every time. When we exceed the speed limit, run the stop signs, or hi-jack the conversation (the three most common evangelistic misdemeanors), we are not treating others, the way we would like to be treated. I don’t know about you but I do not regularly show up for conversations where I know I am going to be disrespected in these ways.

Killer #6 Agenda Driven Conversations

In the movie “The Big Kahuna” (A Movie to Watch) Larry (A character played by Kevin Spacey) asks Bob (A character portrayed as an evangelical Christian) how he ended up talking to Dick Fuller (a perspective business client) about religion in the first place? As Larry continues to probe, Bob eventually admits that the conversation got started due to a lead in. Larry astutely observes that Bob was looking for the opportunity to talk about what he believed. He went on to say that, “The conversation was not allowed to have a natural course because somebody was at the helm directing it.” Later in the movie, Phil (the character played by Danny DeVito) pulls Bob aside and shares the following advice with him. “If you want to talk to somebody honestly as a human being, ask him about his kids, find out what his dreams are, just to find out for no other reason because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore, it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being you’re a marketing rep.”’

When I finished this movie I realized that Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito not only had some advice for Bob, but for me as well. In my early years in the ministry, I had become known as one of the chief marketing reps for Jesus. Unfortunately, I was actually affirmed for steering conversations towards my sales pitch for

Jesus
.
(A Quote to Memorize) Spiritual conversations should be our ultimate motive, not our ulterior motive. For the record, if people are ready for the agenda you had in mind for the conversation, you will be warmly embraced. If they are not, you will be assigned a label that will kill most of your opportunities for spiritual conversations in the future. In the words of Forrest Gump “that’s all I have to say about that.”

Killer #7 Controlling Conversations

How long does it usually take for you to takeover a conversation and dominate it with your worldview? This is a question I wish someone had challenged me to think about early on in my spiritual journey. During the 1980’s, I started the ministry of Athletes in Action at the University of Tennessee. If you dropped in on one of my appointments with the athletes back then this is what you would have probably seen. I’d usually start by asking a couple of questions to break the ice. I rarely listened because I did not want their response to derail the direction of where I was planning to take the conversation. After I broke the ice, I usually followed with a transitional question that I had been taught to memorize to turn the conversation towards spiritual things. The rest of the hour long appointment consisted of me sharing something I believed they needed to hear. From beginning to end I was always in control of the conversation. Other ministries I’m acquainted with take this kind of control to the extreme. They teach their workers to treat questions as smoke screens. The question is deflected so the Christian worker can get back to his or her scripted presentation. Is it any wonder why more and more people are saying no thanks to these kinds of conversations? Being in control of the curriculum of a conversation is fine when someone has willingly signed up for your lecture. But when you live in a world with such diversity, it’s essential to give up control.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that many Christ followers are afraid to be in settings where they are not in control of the conversation. This is why churches and ministries die. When we insist on having conversations in settings where only are fans are present, during the times we pick, with the activities we are comfortable with, we’d better start digging a six foot hole and playing taps. It’s only a matter of time before a church or ministry that insists on playing home games begins to fade into oblivion. Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 10:19-20 not to worry about what to say or how to say it because the Holy Spirit would give them what they needed when they needed it. Nothing pre-packaged or scripted about that, just an admonition to go and be in the moment under the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

Recently, I overheard a pastor as they were leaving a social setting consisting of very few church goers say this, “If you’d like to talk again some time you know where to find me on Sunday mornings”. I’m not sure what the pastor intended by this parting comment, but I thought to myself how different the outcome might be if the pastor had a go-to-them (road games) versus a come-to-me (home games) kind of a mindset.

Killer #8 Reactive Conversations

To many people in our culture, Christians have become known as the “disagreement people”. We’ve worked hard to earn this label one reaction at a time. Most of the time our body language, tone of voice, and verbal responses are a dead give away to the reality that we disagree with much of what people in culture are saying and doing. When we become self-designated spiritual umpires calling balls and strikes on the culture by writing letters to the editor, calling in on talk radio shows, and staging boycotts of one kind or another, our reactions speak for themselves. Essentially we are sending the culture this message: not only do we not endorse your point of view, we don’t accept you for where you are in your spiritual journey. This lack of acceptance crushes opportunities for spiritual conversations to happen. Acceptance does not mean endorsement. When we confuse these two words we destroy the very space God wants to work in. Many times not-yet Christians will say or do something just to see if we will react. This is many times a test to determine whether or not we are safe enough to have real conversations with. Reacting to things we hear or see comes naturally for most of us. We need supernatural responses that communicate a radical acceptance if we hope to create space for spiritual conversations to naturally happen.

Killer #9 Combative Conversations

It’s exhilarating to watch two good tennis players volley back and forth. Each tries to gain an advantage by causing the other to get out of position so they can hit a decisive shot called a “winner” which scores the point. Unfortunately, I use to view spiritual conversations in the same way. I viewed the person I was talking with as my opponent who must be won to my Christian point of view. I interned with Josh McDowell. I was trained by the best when it came to apologetics. On many occasions, I started my conversations with an overpowering serve. I then prepared myself to pepper “winners” at my opponent who in many cases had walked away from the conversation the moment the contest began. Even if my opponent was up for it, most of the time these worldview challenges led to heated debates, heated debates eventually gave way to arguments, and arguments always brought about conversions to Christ. Quite to the contrary, I never argued anyone into the Kingdom of God. As Dallas Williard says “It’s very difficult to be right about something without hurting someone with it.” When a conversation starts or turns combative, very rarely does anything of redemptive value occur. Even if we win the argument, we often lose the greater war when it turns into an us versus them show down. We need to remember that not-yet Christians are not the enemy, but victims of the enemy. This truth compels me to move out into culture with compassion and check my “onward Christian soldier” mindset at the door.

Killer #10 “It’s All About Me” Conversations

Have you ever been in a conversation where you felt like you couldn’t get a word in edge wise or the spot light never seems to shift off the person who is talking. If you have, I’m betting you just can’t wait for the next conversation with that person. I’ve come to believe that Christians fall into these “it’s all about me” kinds of conversations naturally. I believe . . . or I think . . . become over used introductions to the truth we dominate our conversations with. We are convinced that we have the absolute truth, which naturally leads us to believe that what we think is all that really matters. This kind of thinking quickly turns conversations into monologues where we eventually end up talking to ourselves. We need to realize that if people are not asking us what we believe, we might be wiser to keep the spotlight on what they believe and think. The secret to being interesting in a conversation is to be interested. This seems to be a great application of Philippians 2:4 which encourages us to not only look to our own interests but to the interests of others. At the end of the day, I’m not so sure what I believe really matters all that much any way. I want people to follow Jesus. I want to keep the spotlight on Him and what he said, not on what I think or believe. This requires us to bring the bible into our conversations. I will share more on how to do this later on in the book. Just one of these ten killers has the potential to close down your opportunities for spiritual conversation in a relationship for a lifetime. If you’re saying to your self “been there, and done that”. The good news is failure is usually never fatal or final, it’s just an opportunity to begin again more intelligently. Numerous people have applied the following assignment to help rebuild the bridges they have burnt along the way with great success.
If no previous conversation has come to mind as you read through this chapter, tuck this assignment away for another day. At some point I think you’ll find it helpful.

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