A lot of my time during a school year is spent doing research, preparing lessons/training/sermons, and reading an assortment of non-fiction works. But summer is different. During the summer, I read fiction.
A few summers ago I went on a Sherlock Holmes tear. Though not typically a crime drama kind of guy, Sherlock fascinated me. His ability to piece together a case and notice details and connections that everyone else overlooked kept me riveted. His character’s idiosyncrasies were amazing.
To his colleagues, Sherlock seemed crazy. In one scene in which Watson interacts with London’s Inspector, Watson opined, “I don’t think you need to alarm yourself… I have usually found that there was method in his madness.” Watson understood that Sherlock’s idiosyncrasies were actually the key to his brand of crime-solving. What appeared strange or atypical to the uninitiated was actually just part of the process.
I’m no Sherlock, but I have developed a philosophy for engaging in apologetic conversations that seems to work. By “work” I don’t mean that by following my method, you will always convince a person with whom you interact in one or even one hundred interactions to agree with you. I do mean that I have never had a conversation with a skeptic shut down out of anger or frustration. As a result, I have often had the opportunity to continue the conversation in later interactions.
- Be relational. Follow the adage, “People don’t care what you know unless they know that you care.” Learn as much about a person as possible from an initial conversation. Where are they from? What’s their family like? How did they come to question or struggle with whatever issue it is that we’re planning on talking about? Keep them talking about themselves, even if the talk the entire first interaction.
Why do this? Doesn’t it miss an opportunity to share the Gospel? Yes and no. Yes, you are potentially giving up an opportunity to share the Gospel on the front end (though if a door opens wide, don’t let it pass by). But you’re also setting yourself up for an extended conversation.
- Be patient. When I was a lowly campus minister intern, part of my job was to conduct some research assignments. One that I was particularly interested in was to interview the 40+ students on leadership in the ministry to determine who was influential in their growth in their faith and what that relationship looked like. Unintentionally, I stumbled across something insightful. When I talk about how I came to faith in Jesus, I talk a lot about one particular moment in which I came under conviction and how I was different from the moment I repented and trusted Christ on. Students described their conversion as more of a process. They were influenced by someone in the distant past, they were exposed to the Gospel over time, at some point they gave it serious personal consideration, and eventually, over time, they came to understand themselves as needing a Savior, saw Jesus as their Savior, and committed their lives to follow Him.
In I Once Was Lost, Don Everts and Doug Schaupp tracked the journeys of young atheists and agnostics who became Christians. In every case the process took years and multiple relationships with Christians. You might be an incredible apologist. You might be a great evangelist. God can certainly do the miraculous and call someone to faith in one interaction. But the evidence suggests that this is not normal. Plan for the natural progression but permit room for God to do the supernatural.
- The best answer is a good question. You’ll get peppered with a lot of questions. Young adults will want to know your views on evolution, the reliability of the Bible, the exclusivity of Christ, why you hate gay people as a Christian, why you believe in hell, and a host of other hot button issues. The temptation is to fire back a quick response. Resist. Most of the time, those questions aren’t questions. They’re accusations that are rooted in some kind of personal experience. Even if you give the best, most logical response you have in your arsenal, you’re unlikely to convince your interlocutor and may inadvertently provide more ammunition to be aimed back at you. Instead, in the spirit of seeking to understand the question and the person, respond with a question. For instance, when I’m asked about why I hate gay people, I’ll ask, “Why do you think I hate gay people?” Then, as the conversation progresses, we’ll move towards a follow-up question similar to, “Do you think it’s possible to disagree with someone and still care about them?” Questions keep a conversation going, allow you to understand the person’s viewpoint and background, and disarm a potentially adversarial conversation.
- Be prepared to take an “L.” Since you’re taking a long-term view, be ready to “lose” an argument. The overriding principle I teach students as I train them in evangelism is to remember that we are trying to win the person, not the argument. It’s entirely possible to win an argument and lose a person. As Christ-followers, winning the argument should never be the goal. We should be willing to endure scoffing, mocking, ridicule, name-calling, and a host of other derisive behaviors in order to introduce someone to Jesus. I will always allow a person I’m in conversation with to have the last word even if I feel like I have a perfect rebuttal.
- Always run to Jesus. I have no interest in convincing a non-Christian to adopt my views on the reliability of Scripture, the roles of women, the need to adopt my views on sexuality, or my political views. I’m certainly willing to talk about them and give the reasons for why I believe what I believe, but the point of my conversation is to persuade them to believe in and follow Jesus. As a result, I’m looking for every opportunity to take a conversation to what that person believes about Jesus.
We tend to inadvertently add a lot to the Gospel, but the New Testament gives a relatively low baseline for what a person must believe to become a Christian in Romans 8:9-10. Spoiler alert, it all centers on what someone believes about Jesus. If our intention is actually evangelistic, then our conversation needs to quickly get to a person’s viewpoint on Jesus.