the shape of leadership

Engaging in Tough Faith Conversations

Five ways to help congregants discuss their faith with confidence and compassion

Jay Newland on August 30, 2019

As I listened to prayer requests at the conclusion of our small group meeting, I noticed a theme emerging. One person wanted God’s guidance in confronting a sibling about his lifestyle without sounding judgmental. Another requested prayer for wisdom on how to bow out of a bachelorette party without coming across as prudish or aloof.

Such dilemmas are common. In an increasingly secular culture, Christians often struggle to talk about faith-related issues with unbelieving friends and family members.

The apostle Paul faced similar challenges in the cultures he navigated. Some scholars have called Paul chameleon-like for his ability to adapt to his cultural surroundings. In 1 Corinthians 9:22, Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

For the sake of the gospel, Paul became “a servant to all” (1 Corinthians 9:19, ESV). Paul’s goal was always to reach people who did not know Jesus. He was willing to change his approach — but certainly not his Christian identity — to share the good news.

Facebook rants, Twitter debates and workplace arguments are not the way to win souls.

Perhaps Paul was simply applying Jesus’ charge to His disciples in Matthew 10:16–20:

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Jesus contrasted two sets of animals: predator and prey, fierce and gentle. The disciples knew they were surrounded by wolves. Many of the religious leaders hated Jesus, and the Romans who occupied Judea ruled with cruel severity. Jesus’ advice? Be smart and blameless. As the apostles later took the gospel into a number of hostile places, they must have thought a lot about these instructions.

Most Christians in the U.S. today don’t face threats of violence or imprisonment because of their faith, but there are still challenges. Boldly claiming allegiance to Christ can lead to uncomfortable conversations and accusations of intolerance. There may be questions at the water cooler at work or around the dinner table at a family gathering. Some people may simply want to argue. Others will have a sincere desire to discover spiritual truths. Either way, Scripture tells us not to be ashamed of our identity as Christ followers (Luke 9:26; Romans 1:16) and to be ready with an answer when people ask about our faith (1 Peter 3:15).

Still, many Christians wonder how to talk about things like sin and righteousness without coming across as judgmental or weird.

The bigger question is this: How do we allow God’s Spirit to lead us through challenging conversations? Here are five things to share with your congregation to help prepare them for faith-related discussions with non-Christians:

1. Prioritize the gospel. Our motives will shape the tone and direction of the conversation. Paul’s goal was to “save some” for Christ (1 Corinthians 9:22). And his strategy was expressing love via servanthood as he spread the good news of Jesus in Ephesus, Galatia, Corinth and beyond.

There were some heated debates, such as the fiery exchange with the Sanhedrin in Acts 23:1–4. But Paul’s tone in Acts 17:16–34 was not antagonistic. He “reasoned” with the people of Athens. His goal wasn’t to win a debate, but to win souls for Christ.

Paul’s example is fitting for the challenges believers face today. Facebook rants, Twitter debates and workplace arguments are not the way to win souls. Denigrating others while claiming the moral high ground will not advance the gospel. The Holy Spirit is stirring curious and confused hearts all around us. To connect with those hearts, we must make it clear that we are more concerned about someone knowing Jesus than someone knowing we’re right.

2. Answer with a question. Replying to an inquiry with a better question is not rude; it’s shrewd. Instead of falling into the trap of a one-sided question, follow the example of Jesus and offer a better one. There are numerous examples in Scripture of Jesus replying this way to critics and the curious (Matthew 19:16–17; 22:27–33; Mark 11:28–29; John 21:21–22).

There are underlying assumptions behind questions like, “Why is the church always asking for money?” Answering with a better question can be like handing the other person a shovel and offering to help uproot a painful weed from his or her heart.

A Christian facing such a question might say, “Can you help me understand where you’re coming from and share the last time you heard a church ask for money?” This quickly shifts the interaction from a potentially charged exchange to a personal dialogue that can open the door to life-giving conversation.

3. Find some common ground. During a recent doctor’s appointment, I had an interesting conversation with a nurse. Upon hearing that I was a minister, she shared with me why she had walked away from her church: disagreement with their biblical stance on homosexuality. Once she began to talk, I knew the shrewd move was to listen and wait for the right opportunity. In that moment, it was safe to assume we wouldn’t see eye to eye on this issue. But I kept listening.

Finally, she revealed that her anger arose from a belief that God is a loving God. With that statement, I found it: common ground. So, I interjected, “Well, I believe that too.”

This moment of agreement opened the door for more conversation and an invitation to our church. In this conversation, her comments were passionate and personal but also incomplete. I needed common ground to build a bridge. If we listen long enough, God will provide an opportunity to bridge the gap.

4. Offer compassion. Jesus consistently made time for questions. Although these Q&A sessions were ideal teaching moments, what motivated Jesus was His unwavering compassion (Matthew 9:36).

Our motivations should be no different. My wife recently observed a Christian friend responding to an unbeliever’s questions about abortion exceptions for the life of the mother. Her friend’s answer, though principled and biblically sound, was abrupt and tactless. This saddened my wife, who felt it was a missed opportunity to speak the truth in love.

Fair or unfair, Christians have a reputation as intolerant of outsiders — and of one another at times. In this challenging environment, compassion can change hearts and minds. When we react to one-sided or controversial questions with grace and compassion, it can have a disarming effect. A gentle response can open the door for meaningful dialogue. If peace leads the way, there may be an opening for truth to follow.

5. Rely on the Spirit. Everyone knows the feeling of saying the wrong thing in a conversation. We have all been there. After removing your foot from your mouth, the more compassionate and loving words you should have been said begin running through your mind. Cue the regrets.

There is a better way. When you pause during a difficult conversation and wait for the Spirit’s leading, the perfect response arrives. As Jesus promised, “it will not be you speaking.” Many times I have prayed, “God, give me the words.” And regardless of the situation, the words He provided rose to the challenge.

Once our faith is public, as it should be, a challenging conversation with an unbeliever may soon follow. It shouldn’t be surprising when people ask tough — and even unfair — questions. After all, it happened to Jesus.

As a leader, you can encourage your people that they are in good company and in great hands. Jesus left us instructions to be shrewd and gentle in these challenging times. With the guidance of God’s Word and reliance on the Spirit, we can adapt and respond to any situation.

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