Conversation Starter

conversation starter

One pastor’s coast-to-coast ride to listen to people’s stories.

Pastor Neil Tomba loves to take his road bike out to White Rock Lake near his house in Dallas. A beautiful 10-mile trail circles the lake, and almost without fail, somewhere along the way he’ll start a conversation with a stranger. He typically ends up praying for them. Recently, one such man riding next to him on the trail wept as he unburdened himself about a struggle he was going through with his wife and child. They stopped to pray together, and as they parted ways, the man said, “Thank you for your kindness today.” 

Tomba has had hundreds of these simple conversations wherever he goes, inspired by the idea that where God has you is where Jesus is. It’s the same idea that inspired him to take a coast-to-coast bike trip in 2019, peppered with divinely appointed conversations along the way.

The Seed of an Idea

In 2001, shortly after Tomba became senior pastor of Northwest Bible Church in Dallas, he was leading his church’s two-week adventure camp in Colorado. Riding his bike one afternoon, he saw a family and thought, I wonder what their story is. As he continued to reflect, an idea began to form: One day he would ride his bike across the country having conversations, hearing people’s stories and talking to them about things that matter.

Then, a few years ago, the leadership at Tomba’s church decided to poll the members to help guide their next season of ministry. The results showed that 90% of the attendees had been believers for 10 years or more, but most of them were not talking to people about Jesus. 

Faced with that sobering reality, church leaders spent a year in prayer, seeking the Lord and developing a vision. What emerged was a plan that by 2026, the church’s 75th anniversary, they would be having “thousands of surprisingly easy-to-start conversations about Jesus, all over our city,” says Tomba. “Because we are convinced, where God has us, is where Jesus is.” 

And what better way for that to begin than with their senior pastor mounting his bike and demonstrating the principle as he traveled across the country?

3,000 Miles in 33 Days

The date was set for Conversations Coast to Coast, a cross-country bike ride from Santa Monica, California, to Annapolis, Maryland, that would cover about 3,000 miles in 33 days. Tomba assembled a 10-person team, including two people who rode their bikes with him the entire way, and two vehicles with a support staff including a videography team and his wife, Vela. On May 27, 2019, the caravan left the Santa Monica Pier and headed east.

“We made our way across the country staying in different hotels or campgrounds every night, and just stopping along the way, having conversations with people,” Tomba says. In his book The Listening Road, Tomba writes that the purpose of the journey was to test his theory about a simple method of evangelism: “My job was to ask people to tell their stories and to listen. And then to be at peace with how God would finish the story of their faith.” 

A Right Wrong Turn

Tomba discovered that people are actually quite open to talk about deep, spiritual things. One such encounter was typical of so many that occurred. The team was in New Mexico crossing Native American lands. 

“We had taken a wrong turn, which we did a lot on that trip,” Tomba explains.

He saw a man working on a car about 50 feet off the road, so Tomba introduced himself and asked if he could have a conversation. The man, whose name was Jeffrey, said he didn’t have time. Tomba asked if they could refill their water bottles and stop to cool off in the shade of his trees. Jeffrey agreed and soon walked over and started talking. He unpacked some of his family history, and even showed them pictures from the early days of the town. The conversation was flowing, so Tomba decided to go a little deeper and ask him what he thought about Jesus. 

“Jeffrey tells me about how Jesus helped him with some alcoholism, but he’s also telling me about his Laguna Pueblo faith and spirit dolls and things like this,” Tomba says, adding that one of his primary principles was not to argue or disagree. “But I looked for opportunities where we could find ourselves side by side. Because that’s the great thing about cycling: I get to have so many conversations when we’re side by side. I said, ‘Jeffrey, what do you think Jesus thinks about these other spirits?’” 

The conversation became a little awkward as Jeffrey tried to evade the question. Tomba continued, “Jeffrey, you know that part of the Bible where Jesus says, ‘I’m the way, the truth and the life and no one comes the Father but through me’? And then the Ten Commandments say that you shall have no other gods before me? What do you think Jesus is thinking there?” 

Jeffrey considered this, and the conversation continued a bit longer, punctuated by his girlfriend Marcella bringing out freshly baked tortillas. It was hard to read his reactions until Jeffrey excused himself and went into his house.

He reemerged carrying a beautiful Native American pot and gave it to Tomba and the team, who were a bit shocked. 

Tomba asked, “Why did you give us this gift?” 

“Because you listened to my story,” Jeffrey replied. 

Tomba is convinced that many people are out there like Jeffrey, longing for someone who will simply listen.

When Jesus Was Angry

Tomba met a woman in a convenience store along the way. “She comes out from behind the counter and sits with me. You could tell she had some miles there, and there’d been some rough goes in her life.”

The woman talked about her town and her life. She told Tomba that her grandfather was a preacher. He asked, “So where are you with Jesus?” 

She said, “Frankly, I’m mad at Jesus.”

The woman explained that she had lost her son early one morning when he was driving back from a late shift and collided with an 18-wheeler and died. Tomba shared in her grief, let her talk and prayed with her. Just as he was about to walk away, he got a little inspiration. 

“You know the story of Lazarus, don’t you?” he asked, “It’s an interesting story that Jesus had a friend who died. Somebody who was really important to him. One of the things we often miss in that story [is that] when he realized Lazarus was dead, he was ‘troubled in spirit.’ I’ve studied that, and it’s a weak translation. In so many other places, that word means ‘angry.’ I want you to think about this. Jesus also got angry when his friend died.” 

Her eyes got wide. “I’ve never thought about that before.” 

“She made a real emotional connection to a real Jesus, and I wonder if she’d ever made that before,” Tomba says.

Conversations like these fill the pages of The Listening Road and are the subject of a soon-to-be-released, eight-episode documentary series on the team’s experiences. Often those who seemed the most closed-off to spiritual conversations became fast friends as Tomba and the team gave them space to talk.

“Someone would say ‘I don’t have time to talk to you,’ and then later [after they had opened up and shared some of their experiences] would say, ‘Do you have time for one more story?’ They became convinced that we were serious about listening to their story,” Tomba says. “I wanted to make sure I left every conversation with this relationship where I was convinced that I could have a second conversation.”

On June 28, 2019, the team completed their Conversations Coast to Coast journey. The trip might be over, but the conversations haven’t stopped. Tomba has stayed in touch through Instagram with many of the people he met during his ride and continues to have conversations with them about their thoughts on faith and the deeper things of life. 

Getting in the Well

Since returning to Dallas, Tomba has been more determined than ever to engage people where they are. He has found that it’s important not to get hung up on theological minutia, but instead to really listen and connect with people’s hearts and experiences. 

Recently he had a conversation with Nick, who is the manager of a local Vietnamese restaurant. The conversation started easily and soon became deep as Nick began to talk about his mother, who is a Buddhist. 

“You know what I don’t understand is why the righteous ones suffer?” Nick said. He revealed that some of his mother’s suffering came from a season when he was in jail. Then he brought up the book of Job and how he couldn’t understand why God would subject Job to so much suffering.

“I wanted to start defending God,” Tomba admits. “But here’s what I really think is true: God can use people much smarter than me to sort out Nick’s Buddhist theology.” 

Instead of disagreeing, Tomba said, “Nick, you know what makes that story worse? You know why Satan came after Job? Because God brought up his name. God painted the bull’s-eye on Job’s back.” 

Tomba calls this “getting in the well” with someone, identifying with their feelings. “I guarantee you, Nick and I can have more conversations,” which is his ultimate goal. “If you start [with a Buddhist] and say Jesus is the only way, they will shut down. You might not see it, but they will immediately shut down,” Tomba says. “I believe Nick can at least be open to a next step now.”

Being Present 

Tomba’s method is simple: Be curious, be present and be willing to take some risks to engage people by listening carefully, trying to identify with their feelings and bringing up Jesus and the Scriptures. 

“As Cru taught me years ago, successful witnessing is just taking the initiative, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and leaving the results to God,” he says. “We create artificial pressure on ourselves to get to an end game. And that’s a theological problem. The Holy Spirit had to do a work in me [to bring me to faith in Christ]. If it’s true that it’s a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, I’m just there to say ‘Here it is’ and the Holy Spirit’s gotta do something. So that takes away the pressure.

 “Second—I learned this after the trip—I believe that most evangelism training is created by evangelists for evangelists.” He points out that there are some great tools and s

trategies for leading people to Christ. However, some people will be successful with certain methods, but others will fall short because “it was really more geared to people who had the gift of evangelism.”

He adds that Christians shouldn’t feel the need to get through a certain memorized script. Instead, we need to enter conversations and believe that “the presence of Jesus is in me. I’m going to see where God brings connection with us and what I can learn about their life. And, like Jesus did in so many situations, here’s where the good news or living water or living bread comes into this situation.”

Another issue is that in today’s hurried lifestyle, we’ve stopped really seeing people. “We are conditioned to see a lot of people as maybe just the decorations in our life,” Tomba says. “We see people as just a person who is there to serve us. We actually are not seeing people as real people. 

“I’ve tried to have a different approach to say, let’s open our eyes to the people we just come across during our daily life, whether it’s our neighbor next door physically or the person in our apartment or the person we ride bikes with.”

Tomba’s conversational approach has resonated with his church body since he returned from his epic bike trip and has inspired many to start conversations with people in their own spheres of influence.

For example, a man named Mark had been playing basketball at a local gym every Saturday for 10 years, and he would typically leave when the game ended. But recently, he’s been sticking around to talk with another player who is very anti-religion and pray for him. Another man had seven conversations in one week that he would not have had without Tomba’s example. Another leader is taking his junior high school youth group through the book. The kids are enjoying the story, and parents have reported that their teenagers are thinking through how to start deeper conversations with their friends.

Keep Conversations Going

Any leader can begin the process of encouraging these simple conversations. When we reframe evangelism as a conversation, that’s something we all can do. Tomba says pastors can get the ball rolling by modeling it and encouraging members in every conversation they have.

“It doesn’t matter how far you get. We’re gonna celebrate those [conversations],” he says. “We gotta get people telling their stories about how they’re having conversations—not [just] how they’re having conversions; how they’re having conversations.”

Even small conversations from the heart can make a world of impact. “It matters when you’re on your bike with people. It matters when you’re at the park, and it matters when you’re sitting in [a chair in your front yard] in your neighborhood,” he says. Connection is what is so needed in our world and people are hungry for it. 

“So much of what I’m doing is I just want to go out and bless people,” Tomba says. “And isn’t that what Jesus was doing with the woman at the well? He was just blessing this woman. Or when he was healing someone, he was just blessing them, giving them a taste of the kingdom. Maybe we’re just going out to bless people.”

Taste and See

When we think about starting conversations, we often feel like no one will want to talk about spiritual things, but his trip across the country taught Tomba that the opposite is usually true. People want to talk and will go deep if we really listen. Conversation might just be the key to reaching our fractured society.

“Everywhere you go, people have the opportunity to taste, touch, smell, experience Jesus in some kind of way,” Tomba says. “The Holy Spirit in you actually wants to do this. Even if you feel some reluctance, shine the spotlight on Jesus,” and then trust the Holy Spirit to do his work.

That’s what you’ll find Tomba doing these days as he pedals his bike around White Rock Lake. After all, if that’s where God has him, that’s where Jesus is.

Read more about Neil Tomba’s Conversations Coast to Coast bike trip in The Listening Road: One Man’s Ride Across America to Start Conversations About God (Thomas Nelson) and at NeilTomba.com.

Read more from Jeff Chaves »

From Outreach Magazine  What Are We Living For?