Having a conversation with someone who strongly disagrees with you is difficult. I have been privileged to do mission work on five continents, yet some of the most difficult conversations have been right here at home in America. Over the years I have learned some biblical guidelines that have helped me speak with skeptics about the Christian faith.
Almost instinctively, I have the tendency to look at people and overanalyze them. Even after many years of walking with the LORD, I still struggle in this area. This is rooted in the natural tendency to weigh everything the eyes see and can be traced all the way back to the garden temptation (Gen. 3:6). Only God can judge properly and He evaluates the heart rather than the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:7).
In Mark 10, a rich man approached Jesus to learn of eternal life. Verse 21 specifically says that Jesus looked at him and felt love for him. Since God is all-knowing, he knew the rich man and how he would respond. Jesus loved the man despite the pending rejection.
As Christians, we are called to model that same demeanor–seeing people and loving them without judgment and regardless of how they respond to the Christian message. Without this first and foundational tip, any defense for Christ is rendered inappropriate in representing him.
Early on, I had always read 1 Peter 3:15 and emphasized the “always ready to respond” aspect of this Scriptural directive. Through practice, I found the real challenge for me resided in the second half of the command–“with gentleness and respect.” The first tip, seeing and loving people, is the foundation for being able to speak properly with gentleness and respect.
The second tip succeeds when it is built upon the first.
How does the Holy Spirit speak to you? When I am in a Gospel conversation, or sometimes even in conversations with Christians, the Spirit communicates to me through (don’t laugh at me) my stomach. I’ll be in a conversation and then all of a sudden, I’ll feel either full or empty. When a rush comes over me and I feel full, I know that God is encouraging me to open my mouth and speak boldly. At those times, the Scriptures flow from me.
There are moments in other conversations when my stomach feels empty. That sensation alerts me to stay quiet and allow the other person to speak for a while. At those times I’ll try to ask some good questions and build up the relationship by being a good listener.
When you are in conversation with someone, you can probably tell fairly quickly if you are actually communicating or if the other person simply wants to win an argument. If you remain in one of those conversations, they can be extremely disheartening.
When I see a conversation going that way, I’m like a pilot pulling the ejection handle in a plummeting airplane.
In Acts 17, Paul spoke to the men of Athens. He allowed his knowledge of the audience to influence his presentation of the Gospel. The message of the Gospel did not change, but his presentation style did.
In the same way, when Jesus spoke to fishermen, he used fishing analogies. He taught them how to cast the net of the kingdom of heaven. To a seamstress, Jesus might say, “No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment” (Matt. 9:16).
Jesus stepped out of heaven and into a culture to communicate effectively to them. “And the Word became flesh” (Jn. 1:14). In the same way, be sure to step into the culture of your audience. The effective communicator, Jesus Christ, spoke to people through their culture. Charles Kraft would say, to be an effective communicator of God and His word, you must “love people for Christ by respecting the only way of life that makes sense to them” (Charles Kraft, Culture, Communication, and Christianity, 2).
This does not mean that you endorse everything that a culture supports. But you have to have an understanding of culture to effectively communicate.