By Summer Stevens
I’ve taken several personality inventories lately that have all given me the same general result: I’m a “people-person.” To me, people are fascinating. I count it a privilege to learn someone’s story or be trusted with someone’s heart, and it’s rare I come across a person I don’t find interesting. I’m almost always late to Sunday School because someone stops me to talk, and often I’m one of the last to leave the building after church. I used to think that all Christians liked people, but I’ve come to discover that not everyone easily connects to, empathizes with, or cares for people. But of course, we are all called to love others and share our faith, even if it doesn’t come naturally. So, here are my top 5 questions to initiate spiritual conversations for those days when you need a little extra help.
1. For the believer going through a hard time. Many Christians struggle to know what to say when someone experiences loss or trauma. Sadly, sometimes they’ll say nothing at all out of fear of saying the wrong thing. This can make the hurting person feel further isolated and even uncared for. I have made a personal decision to always address the issue directly and with compassion. Make sure you have adequate time to hear the answer and have a meaningful conversation (a two-minute church greeting period is not enough time!). Here are questions to show love and support to a believer, and open the door to further conversation—
“You have really been on my heart. How are you doing with the loss of your husband?”
“I know you are going through a hard time and I want you to know that I pray for you. What things can I pray specifically for this week?”
You can follow up with statements like—
“That sounds so painful. I can’t imagine what you are going through. What kinds of things are you doing to cope? Who is walking alongside you during this?”
If the person does not have a strong support network, offer to be a prayer partner, to exchange encouraging Bible verses via text message, or help connect the person with a grief support group or others who have experienced a similar situation. You may offer to drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, provide a meal or follow-up with a phone call after a tough conversation/appointment/funeral. The takeaway here is taking time to listen and offer help where it is most needed. When someone is suffering, the best way to show Jesus is to show up. Don’t offer a Bible verse (only) or a book; offer yourself. This is the Body of Christ in action.
2. For the believer in sin. It can feel intimidating to initiate a spiritual conversation with a believer in active rebellion against God. Many times the sinning Christian will isolate himself or herself from you out of guilt or a desire to avoid uncomfortable conversations. Your relationship with this person will, of course, dictate how or even if you approach a sensitive conversation. It’s important to consider your goals for the conversation. Are you attempting to win back the believer to fellowship? To convince him to repent from his behavior? Or to simply be a friend and hear things from his perspective?
I would suggest that the first conversation with a sinning believer would be one of listening and understanding. You are probably not going to lecture him to repentance, and you may only have one chance to earn his trust (and his ear). So, after praying for the Holy Spirit’s direction, lead the conversation to spiritual matters with a question like, “How’s your heart these days?” Your goal is to keep the lines of communication open and to reaffirm your love and concern. It’s the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance (Rom 2:4), so be kind as your fellow believer opens up to you. You probably don’t have to tell him what’s right; he already knows. When and if he comes back around, he will seek you out for friendship, counsel, and support.
3. For the friend you’ve known for years. Sometimes you may not know if someone is a believer or not. Perhaps she attended church in the past or as a child. Your relationship with her has not moved into spiritual matters, but you would like it; perhaps you can invite her to church or share the gospel.
Especially after many years of not broaching the topic of spirituality, you may feel uncomfortable, and many Christians don’t even know where to start. If it feels like the elephant in the room, just state the obvious. “I feel a little awkward that we’ve been friends for so many years, and yet I haven’t really shared the most significant thing in my life. Would it be okay if I told you how Jesus has changed my life?” And then share your testimony—how you came to believe in Jesus for eternal life and how your life is different as a result. Follow up with the question, “What has your spiritual journey looked like?”
If that method feels too direct, ease more naturally into the story of how you came to believe in Jesus, and end with, “I can’t believe I’ve never told you this story! We’ve been friends for so many years, and Jesus is the most important person in my life. I’m so sorry I didn’t share this with your earlier.”
4. For the seeker. A 2019 Barna Research study found that non-Christian millennials are more interested in spiritual conversations than older adults, and face-to-face conversations with a Christian are their favorite means of evangelism, (compared to tracts, street evangelism or even talking to someone at church). So don’t be afraid to bring up spiritual matters so long as it’s an actual conversation and not a monologue.
After you’re engaged in a meaningful conversation and dialogue is flowing, ask existential questions like, “Do you think God exists?” or “Do you ever wonder why we’re on this earth?” or “What do you think happens after we die?” These are the questions millennials themselves are asking; why not engage in the conversation? Remember, you are not asking questions to set yourself up for an easy lead-in to the “right answer.”
The goal should be a healthy dialogue that spans multiple conversations. Wouldn’t you want to be the person a seeker “seeks out” to think through spiritual matters?
As the term implies, you are dealing with seekers—people actively looking for answers, and they will probably be the most convinced when they arrive at conclusions on their own. Most definitely, when the time is right, share the gospel message, suggest a passage of Scripture to study, or offer to pray together, but respect the seeker’s own journey of spiritual discovery, and do so, as Peter says, with gentleness and respect (1 Pet 3:16).
5. For the hostile unbeliever. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I experienced many people who were not just disinterested in Christianity, but were downright hostile. There was such a bias against Christians that, without realizing it, I grew up understanding that I had to prove my legitimacy as a considerate person before I would reveal my faith. If God has placed a hostile unbeliever in your life, it’s important to take a different tactic when attempting to initiate spiritual conversations. If you’ve brought up your faith in subtle ways and been shot down or had the conversation ended abruptly, consider asking questions instead, without offering any solutions or suggestions. People like to talk about themselves, and so the key is asking thoughtful, conversation-inducing questions. Start with something like, “I know we don’t see things eye to eye when it comes to issues of faith. And I respect you as a person. But I’m really curious, if you’re willing to share, did anything ever happen to put a bad taste in your mouth about Christianity? Were there Christians in your life that treated you badly?” If your friend engages in the discussion, consider that a success! You’ve just had a spiritual conversation!
Listen really well, and don’t defend or respond at all. Just ask more questions and get the clearest picture you can of her spiritual background or baggage. Thank her for her honesty and tell her you understand. Hostility usually has a root, and a specific one. And sadly, it’s often a Christian who didn’t act like one.
As the Holy Spirit leads, revisit the conversation later, with something like this: “I’ve been thinking more about what you shared a few weeks ago about ______ . It’s really been on my heart, and I’m so sorry someone treated you that way. Some Christians behave really terribly. But I just want you to know that what you experienced isn’t the heart of Jesus.” You probably won’t share the gospel at that moment. But perhaps you’ve opened the door to pursuing more spiritual conversations in the future, and helping to heal a wound that your friend has been carrying that has hardened her heart toward God.
Summer Stevens lives outside of Pittsburgh with her husband Nathanael and their five children. She has a Masters in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary and enjoys running (but mostly talking) with friends and reading good books to her kids.