The famous eighteenth-century French writer Voltaire is widely believed to have suggested that one should “judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” I very much agree.
When it comes to evangelism, if we can learn to ask good questions, I believe we will find it much easier to have helpful, more relaxed, and more fruitful conversations about our faith in Jesus. That said, here are seven tips for asking really good questions:
My first piece of advice is to pray. Pray for opportunities for conversations. Pray that the Lord would create spaces in those conversations to ask questions (that way you won’t feel the need to force them). Pray that the Spirit would nudge and lead you to recognise opportunities when they turn up and inspire you when they do. You might also pray over previous conversations and questions you’ve asked. Ask the Lord to help you discern what worked, what didn’t, what you might learn for next time, and how to follow up on those that went well.
The best questions arise naturally out of what a friend has said, so the more carefully and attentively you listen, the more readily questions will occur to you. Sometimes because we are so passionate about Jesus and want to share him with our friends, we can talk too much and end up dominating the conversation. So remember what the Bible says. It advises us to be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak” (James 1:19). Asking questions helps us avoid twittering away and boring our friends to tears. And a great question to occasionally ask is “I think what you’re saying is . . . (and summarise what they’ve said). Did I hear you right?” The more people feel they are genuinely listened to, the more willing they may be to talk about deeper things.
- Show a real interest in what your friend is saying
Simply inquiring about somebody’s life, family, work, interests, and so forth can sometimes open up opportunities for much deeper things. My friend Richard is very gifted at this. A few years ago, after he and I had both spoken at a conference in Atlanta, we got a taxi to the airport, dog-tired after a really heavy day. All I wanted to do was close my eyes for twenty minutes, but Richard leapt straight into asking the taxi driver questions about his work and his family. Toward the end of the ride, the taxi driver mentioned how his son was struggling with an issue at school, and Richard was able to say how he found, when similar issues had happened with his kids, praying about it had made a big difference. That segue to spiritual issues wasn’t forced; it flowed out of the interest Richard had taken in the man’s life.
- Find points of connection
Over a hundred years ago, the Baptist minister F. W. Boreham wrote a wonderful little essay, “A Slice of Infinity,” in which he encourages Christians to aim at “sampling infinity” in our reading. After all, if you get chatting to somebody whilst waiting at the bus stop and it turns out they are a keen angler, you’ll be grateful you read Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley a year back, as it gives you some points of connection you can build a conversation from.
- Practice asking open rather than closed questions.
A closed question is one that requires only a one-word answer: “Is this your dinosaur in the lettuce?” “Did you enjoy that book?” “Do you believe in God?” The person you’re asking can simply say yes or no and then the conversation is over, or at least at an impasse. By contrast, open questions require the person to give a little more thought. For example, “What’s the most important thing in life for you?” “Why are humans so fascinated by spirituality?” “What does the word God mean to you?” Questions like that are far more likely to open a conversation, rather than reduce it to monosyllables.
- Always be ready with the next question.
It’s very easy in a conversation to ask a great question, see your friend really engage with it, and then suddenly find it’s your turn to say something and—doh!—you’re tongue-tied. So as your friend is answering and as you’re listening attentively and quietly praying, think of a follow-up question to ask. Don’t be worried about doing more of the asking and your friend doing more of the talking—the more you ask good questions and listen carefully, the more your friend will feel their opinion is valued and taken seriously and the readier they will be when the time comes for you to say something like “This is really interesting. You know, I’ve often thought . . .”
- Take your time and don’t feel the pressure to go too deep too quickly.
Consider the following exchange. Sally, a very keen Christian, is taking the trash out when she spies her next-door neighbour:
“Hello, neighbour, how are you today?”
“I’m doing well, Sally, thanks for asking. How are you?”
“Great. Just taking the trash out. And I’m so grateful that Jesus has taken the trash out of my life! Tell me, have you found Jesus?”
Arguably there were probably just a few more questions and a longer conversation needed between “hello” and “have you found Jesus?” as well as possibly a slightly less cheesy introduction to spiritual things. Rather than diving straight from the surface level of polite, everyday conversation to deeper spiritual things so rapidly that your friend’s ears pop, practice asking questions that go deeper by degrees. Perhaps, had her neighbour had the time, Sally could have asked about how work and family were going, and if Sally, in the course of that gentle conversation, had found out her neighbour’s child was unwell because they’d choked on a plastic dinosaur during the salad course at dinner last night, maybe there would have been an opportunity for Sally to offer to pray for her neighbour’s family. Don’t be afraid to slow down and learn to engage with people at the speed at which the Holy Spirit is working.
Questions are so powerful in evangelism because the gospel is itself all about a question:
Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” Mark 8:27
The question that Jesus put to his disciples—“Who do you say I am?”—is the gospel in a nutshell. When I’m talking with my non-Christian friends, that’s the question I want to get them to, to reach a point where they are willing to read the Gospels and consider the questions “Who does Jesus think he is?” and “Do I believe him?” By learning to have good conversations and to ask good questions, we can lead people towards considering that most crucial of all questions.
Adapted from How to Talk about Jesus without Looking like an Idiot: A Panic-Free Guide to Having Natural Conversations about Your Faith by Andy Bannister. Copyright © 2023. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a Division of Tyndale House Ministries. All rights reserved.