God Talk: The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversations

“Building a bridge with those outside the church and getting good at spiritual conversations takes practice.”

We love the big stuff: the grandiose Olympic opening ceremony; the game-winning, last-second shot to win the championship; the glamorous, opulent royal wedding. We can’t help ourselves. We eat it up.

We carry this perspective into our approach to evangelism. We like the big outreach event, the dramatic conversion, and closing the deal with the all-important sinner’s prayer. The little stuff doesn’t seem to matter as much to us.

In order to reach church outsiders intentionally today, we may have to consider a new perspective. What if we focused on the little things instead?

Consider an example from a book called The Tipping Point, in which author Malcom Gladwell suggests why crime in New York City in the 1980s took a precipitous decline in the 1990s.  To explain this drop in crime, Gladwell introduces the Broken Window theory of criminology, which argues that if a window is broken and left unrepaired in a neighborhood, people will slowly conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. The result invites more frequent and serious crimes. To reverse the crime trend, NYPD focused on the little things—like graffiti, panhandling, subway turnstile jumping—and it reduced overall crime quantity and severity. Many NY cops couldn’t understand why they were fixing windows and chasing vandals when they had more serious crimes to address. But it was the little stuff that really mattered—and had the biggest effect on reducing crime.

Interestingly, the little things seemed to matter to Jesus too: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42).

In today’s evangelistic economy, little things don’t seem to count for much. But one could argue that small, simple steps—modern-day “cups of cold water” like paying attention to someone, listening to them, praying for them—should count as evangelism.

In the book Crazy Love, author Francis Chan helps us understand what counts: “God’s definition of what matters is pretty straightforward. He measures our lives by how we love.” We may have unintentionally made evangelism more complicated by separating the Great Commission from the Great Commandment. We need to return to the basics of loving others.

Our mandate from Jesus in Mt. 22:36-39 is simple and clear: Love God, love people. Could it be that simple? Loving God and loving others is the foundation of the Great Commission. You make disciples by loving others, building authentic friendships based on trust with the people outside of our churches, and earning the right to engage in spiritual conversations.

So, my job is to love people? Listening to and praying for people counts? This is liberating. I am free to build loving relationships, without the pressure of following the right steps or formula. I don’t have to be the one to convict, convince, or convert anyone. Thankfully, it’s God’s job to change hearts and minds and produce fruit that lasts. But here is the big question:  How do we love others so that they come to know Jesus?

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It all starts with our ability to engage people outside the church in meaningful conversations. Generally speaking, we are not good conversationalists. We talk way too much. We listen very little. We formulate our response while others are speaking. We offer unsolicited opinions. We make hasty generalizations and jump to conclusions. We talk over people and talk for them. We cast quick judgments. We have short attention spans. We are generally not curious about others. We want to talk about ourselves.

If we are not good at loving people through simple interactions and ordinary conversations, how can we meaningfully talk about spiritual matters, which are often emotionally charged? We must be honest with ourselves. And even if we are good at small talk, most of us still are not good at “God talk” with our family, friends, neighbors, classmates or co-workers.  To be Great-Commission Christians, we all need to improve in our conversational ability, to engage the spiritually curious, and to begin a journey of discovery with them about God and the Bible.

Maybe what we need is not apologetic arguments, but simple conversational “arts.”

When it comes to spiritual conversations, we are talking more about art than science, a craft that you can cultivate and practice over time. Moving from a lifestyle of few, if any, spiritual conversations with people who believe differently to a life of ongoing spiritual conversations is a big leap for a lot of people.

If evangelism is going to become a normal part of our lives, it will have to be something we enjoy doing and can truly envision doing tomorrow, next month, and five years from now. That’s why we need simple, memorable activities that can be done by ordinary people as part of their normal routine, providing a pathway to spiritual conversations. No special training or unusual courage required.

Like learning a musical instrument, building a bridge with those outside the church and getting good at spiritual conversations takes practice. Learning how to relate to people, especially with those who are different from you, calls for a change in your perspective.  You need to experience it by incorporating new practices at a deep heart level. We at Q Place call these the Arts of Spiritual Conversations™:

1.    Art of Noticing
2.    Art of Praying
3.    Art of Listening
4.    Art of Asking Questions
5.    Art of Welcoming
6.    Art of Loving
7.    Art of Facilitating
8.    Art of Serving Together
9.    Art of Sharing

With practice, the Arts become building blocks of trust in relating to almost anyone, no matter what they believe about God. They are doable for an average Christian. In fact, it’s likely you are already doing some of these naturally, so you’re already on your way! Whether you are introverted or extroverted, gifted in evangelism or not, you can put these Arts into practice.

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As an example, let’s look at the Art of Noticing. This art is as simple as taking attention off yourself and paying attention to another person. By taking the time to intentionally pay attention to someone, you take your eyes off yourself and create an opportunity to get to know them and recognize them as a treasured creation of our God.

I used the Art of Noticing in my commute to work for a previous job. The drive often required that I enter the highway at the same toll onramp each day. As I waited in a line of cars to pay my toll, I noticed the toll attendant. My guess is that most people saw her as part of the machinery—a means to an end. For some reason, probably prompted by God, I decided to pay attention to her. She was there every day. I noticed her nameplate and greeted her using her name. We engaged in pleasant small talk each time I pulled up to her booth.

Over time, I learned the names of her children, her family life, her weekend plans. In fact, we even exchanged Christmas gifts! This all happened in a matter of a few seconds—depending on the honking of the cars behind me! Noticing her did not add much time or activity to my day. It was the simple, intentional turning of my attention that made the difference. Anyone could do this. You could do this.

Notice that the Art of Sharing is the last Art in the list.  Christians have historically considered this to be the exclusive practice of evangelism and have often bypassed normal conversational decorum to leap to the action of telling the gospel. However, the other eight Arts not only count, they lay a significant relational foundation and create a safe environment for sharing the good news. By following the Holy Spirit’s lead in noticing, praying, listening, asking questions, welcoming, loving, facilitating, and serving together, we can be respectful of the process and we will earn the trust to share our story and God’s story.

Ordinary folks like you and me can purposefully practice these simple arts, which are small incremental steps to building relationships with unchurched people—relationships that could eventually lead to ongoing spiritual conversations resulting in a life changing decision to follow Jesus.

This article was provided by Q Place, an organization that mobilizes churches and ordinary Christians to invite spiritual seekers into small group discussions, in which seekers explore their own questions and discover what they believe at their own pace.