Springboards to spiritual conversations

"So, how do I get started talking to someone about Jesus Christ?"

"'Do you understand what you are reading?' Philip asked." -- Acts 8:30

In a little brochure, Lyle Pointer suggested several "spiritual conversation starters." His suggestions for transitioning from talking about the weather, politics, or sports to reflections on life's ultimate questions included:

Dr. Pointer gives some words of advice to those wanting to use his springboards to spiritual conversations:

Talking to people about God and forgiveness and salvation

If lost people matter to you the way they matter to God, what would your life look like?

How do we shift friendly conversations from sports and the weather to discussing spiritual matters? How do we springboard into conversations about inviting Jesus into one's life?

"We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard" -- Acts 4:20 — Peter and John to the Sanhedrin court)

What do you fear the most about inviting those in your life space to "come and see Jesus" at your church fellowship?

Half of the unchurched Americans surveyed by the Gallup polling organization said they intend to return to active church participation someday. Of that group, one in five said they would start back to church if someone would just talk to them about spiritual matters.

So, how do you shift a conversation from talking about sports, the weather, children, and news headlines to talking about a relationship with God and a redemptive, transformative relationship with Him? How do we turn the corner and move toward talking about spiritual things?

Look through the list of questions below. Think about how they can be used to test if there is an open door for you to talk about spiritual matters with the following people:

  1. Someone you just met
  2. A long-time acquaintance
  3. A good friend
  4. A family member or a "best" friend

Some of the questions will initiate conversations that could be labeled pre-evangelism.

This list is not meant to be put on a piece of paper that you pull out of your pocket or purse as you start talking to someone. These questions are given to demonstrate the variety of ways that a door can be opened and the conversation shifted to talking with friends and family on a deeper level.

When you ask a question like one of those below, listen carefully to the person's response. Don't be more concerned about what you are going to say next than you are about what the person is saying to you!

People sharing faith: Spiritual conversation openers

General issues

  1. What gives the most meaning to your life?
  2. What, or who, are your sources of strength in your day-to-day living?
  3. When you have problems or crises, how do you manage to get through them?
  4. Is religion or God important to you?

Relationship questions

  1. Does God (or a Higher Power) seem personal to you?
  2. Do you feel close to or far away from God?
  3. What do you imagine that God is like?
  4. Can you point to things that God has done for you?
  5. How is God working in your life right now?
  6. Are you comfortable with what you understand to be God's guidelines and laws for living?
  7. Do you feel there are barriers of some type separating you from God?
  8. Have you ever been mad or upset with God?
  9. Have you ever done something for which you feel God could not forgive you?
  10. Do you understand the way to forgiveness and what it means?
  11. Do you think God has a plan for each person's life?
  12. What would it take for you to live up to what God expects of you?

Devotional life and practice

  1. What kinds of religious material do you like to read? Examples? Favorites?
  2. Who are your favorite authors?
  3. Do you like religious music? Kinds? Favorites?
  4. Have you read much of the Bible?
  5. Do you understand the Bible when you read it?
  6. Has Bible reading been a help to you? How? Have you seen it be a help to other people?
  7. Is prayer a meaningful part of your devotional life?
  8. Do you feel there is spiritual growth going on right now in your life?

The Church

  1. Are you involved in a church?
  2. What do you get out of being involved in a church?
  3. Which teachings of your church resonate the most with you?
  4. Do you personally know anyone who is the pastor of a church?
  5. Are you a member of an accountability or nurturing group in your church?

Religion and illness, dying and death

  1. Has being ill made any difference in your thinking or feeling about God or your religious faith?
  2. How has being ill affected your devotional life?
  3. When you are ill, do you ever feel that God may be punishing you or that it is His will for you to be sick?
  4. How do you feel about suffering?
  5. Do you trust God with your future?

For information on ministry to the terminally ill, see "Six don'ts for ministry to the dying."

The above questions are based on a list compiled by Harvey Elder for mental health counselors to use in personal history-taking.

Wouldn't you like to have faith in something?

"Help me overcome my unbelief!" -- Mark 9:24

Leading a friend to faith in Christ

Brint Montgomery, former professor of philosophy at Southern Nazarene University, starts conversations with those struggling in their spiritual journey by asking the question: "Wouldn't you like to have faith in something?"

He then tries to lead a conversation through five steps:

  1. Admit to yourself that it is at least possible there is a God.
  2. Isn't daily life often an unsatisfactory affair?
  3. Ask yourself: "What would a meaningful life look like?"
  4. Commit yourself to becoming a new person.
  5. Evaluate whether the Church has something to offer [ more ].

This is usually not a journey that is completed in one conversation. It is more of a process than an event.

vicious circle

"Without God" graphic from a Church Ad Project poster.

Walking away

A personal evangelism case study

What had gone wrong? Dereck thought the pre-evangelistic interviews he had prepared for his evangelism course would have equipped him for a profitable religious discussion with Roger. But the conversation hadn't turned out like he had hoped. Something had gone wrong.

It had begun early one wintry morning several days before. Dereck Smith had headed down Camelot Drive toward the Village Inn. Snow was falling and sand trucks were moving up and down the streets. Dereck, however, was too busy thinking about his interview with Roger Larson to be concerned about whatever dangers the wintry weather might pose.

Dereck was a very intelligent student with a for evangelism. His fellow students at the Logos Metropolitan Seminary enjoyed hearing Dereck talk about his encounters with non-Christians. He was always reading and researching to build the best arguments for validating Christian faith. Most students on campus knew that a conversation with Dereck involved lots of listening and very little talking.

Dereck was very concerned about Roger Larson's spiritual life. Dereck had worked for United Parcel Service for two years where Roger was his supervisor. Dereck knew that Roger was thirty-three years old, married, and the father of two children.

Roger was known around work for his deadly sarcasm. Roger's co-workers delighted in seeing him confuse new employees with his sarcastic remarks. Nevertheless, these same co-workers knew Roger was an honest person who loved his family and who cared for those around him.

Roger had agreed to meet Dereck for breakfast and to talk about religion and philosophy. That morning they drove into the parking lot at the same time. Together, they made their way through the slush under the dark gray sky into the heated, crowded restaurant. The waitress took them to a corner booth.

After ordering breakfast, Dereck pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket. Quickly, he glanced up and down the page trying to find a question with which to start the conversation.

Finally, he asked, "So, tell me, Roger, how do you think human beings came into existence?"

Before answering, Roger took a sip of coffee and a deep breath. Then he began, "I think something must have created us. We had to start somewhere."

Dereck was excited about Roger's response. He thought to himself, My first impression of Roger led me to think that he might be a naturalist, but though he's a skeptic, he's sounding more like a deist or even a theist.

To press Roger further about the logical implications of seeing human existence as a result of the work of a creator, Dereck asked: "Who do you think that 'something' could be?"

Then, before Roger could answer, Dereck proceeded to suggest that the something could well be God.

Dereck launched into an exposition of the arguments on the existence of God. He gave long and intricate elucidations on the cosmological, teleological, ontological, moral, and existential arguments for God's existence.

Summing up, he said, "It is quite obvious to me, Roger, that the 'something' you refer to is God. Such a God must be intelligent, personal, and transcendent." By this time, Dereck's pancakes were cold, but he wore a triumphant smile.

Looking directly at Dereck, Roger said, "I really don't feel that God is involved or that He affects our daily lives. I'd even venture to say that God doesn't answer prayers."

"What? What do you mean: God doesn't answer prayer'?" countered Dereck.

"Well," Roger replied, "God may answer prayer in one sense. But, in another, I don't believe He does. Look, it doesn't make sense to ask God for help when we can help ourselves. God answers prayers only when it is a collective need in contrast to personal needs. Why should I pray for money, for instance, when I can work for it?"

Dereck decided to return to the question of human origin to which Roger quickly responded: "I think we are the result of an evolutionary process."

"Why then do humans have a higher level of intelligence than animals?" asked Dereck.

Roger chuckled. With a grin, and exuding a bit of sarcasm, he said, "Well, we just evolved further!" He also added, "I don't think there is that much difference between humans and animals."

Dereck sensed a rising intensity to their discussion. He decided to break the tension by ordering a fresh stack of pancakes. He also decided to move to another subject. Glancing over his sheet of questions, he concluded that morality would be a good topic to discuss.

Roger said he believed that morals were learned through society and one's upbringing. He viewed morals as the result of an evolutionary process. "Moral values grow out of the human experience. They evolve, depending on people's needs and interests. This is why morality differs from culture to culture. Values are formed as people seek a harmonious adjustment with each other and with their environment," he said.

Dereck tried his best to present the Bible as historically accurate and reliable. He laid out evidence to demonstrate that Jesus was the Christ, citing fulfilled prophecies and miracles, especially the resurrection from the dead. As they talked, Dereck sensed that while Roger was casually interested, he did not seem willing to change his life or make a decision for Christ.

As they got ready to leave, Roger surprised Dereck by taking his hand, giving it a firm shake, and saying, "Thank you."

Surprised, but newly emboldened, Dereck placed a hand on Roger's shoulder and said, "What would happen if you died today?"

"I don't know," replied Roger, adding, "and that worries me." Putting on his hat, he walked away in the direction of his car.

Though Dereck and Roger saw each other three times a week at work, for several days neither of them ventured to bring up their breakfast meeting.

Then one morning, as they finished unloading the cargo off of an aircraft, Dereck approached his supervisor and asked: "Have you given any thought to our discussion?"

This time, Roger did not even resort to his usual sarcasm to avoid the issue. He just walked away.

At that point, Dereck decided to . . .

The original of this case study was written by Lemuel Schaffer and Hugo Venegas of Denver Conservative Baptist Seminary. © Case Study Institute. This edited revision is used with permission.

What does Dereck do now?

Here are some questions to process this case study in which a seminary student tries to evangelize his supervisor at his part-time job.

  1. What positive things happened?
  2. What negative things happened?
  3. Have you been in a situation like this one? In the position of either Derek or his supervisor?
  4. Did Dereck miss some important cues? If so, which ones and how might he have responded differently if he had caught those cues?
  5. Are there any signs in Roger of openness to the gospel?
  6. Assume you are Dereck's friend. What would you advise him to do now?
  7. Assume for a moment that you are Roger. Why did you walk away at the end without responding? What are you thinking now?
  8. Suppose you are Dereck and you could turn back the clock. What would you do differently?
  9. Would you suggest a different way for Dereck to open the conversation in the restaurant?

General guidelines for discussing a case study

"The Sinner's Prayer" -- Some questions

One version of the sinner's prayer

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior.

Have people been genuinely saved through an encounter in which they pray a four-sentence prayer that someone has prompted them with each phrase? Yes, they have. Much good has come from outreach efforts in which that simple prayer is an element.

That being said, there are questions swirling around in my mind regarding the use of "The Sinner's Prayer":

  1. Can it come across as saying there is a magical formula for being reconciled to God? Simply reciting a prayer composed by someone else does not save anyone. Isn't it belief, repentance, and acceptance of God's grace that saves people?

    Still, the implication sometimes given to people is that all they need to do to be saved is recite the brief prayer. We must never give the impression that the recitation of a pre-formulated prayer has saving power in itself.

    That scenario of "formula salvation" is reminiscent of Roman Catholic missionaries to Asia in the 1200s who baptized huge numbers of people simply because those people learned to recite the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer in Latin. We have to be careful not to promote that kind of "formula salvation." Sadly, in both the 1200s in Asia and sometimes in today's use of The Sinner's Prayer, the invitation seems to be: "Repeat these words after me and you will be saved."
  2. Is there a possibility that coaching someone to say a few words composed by someone else may desensitize that person to the dreadfulness of sin, to the depth of depravity, and to the price Jesus paid to redeem us? The prayer is brief. An emphasis on "just say these few words and you will be saved" may sometimes smack of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." Don't people need to "count the cost" of what it will mean to become a Jesus follower?

    The way The Sinner's Prayer is sometimes used may open the door to trivializing the awfulness of sin, cheapening the process of repentance, overlooking the enormous paradigm shift one undergoes in conversion, and giving no attention to the marvelous witness of the Spirit within one's self. A de-sensitization to all of that could easily lead to shallow conversions which end with people who said the prayer never progressing toward a deep relationship with the Lord.
  3. Does how The Sinner's Prayer is often presented give the impression that we're here to punch people's tickets to heaven? What may come across is that we are only interested in "getting people saved" rather than the more long-term objective of "making Christlike disciples" as the Church of the Nazarene mission statement puts it. A very narrow focus on just the moment of conversion can lead to what has been called the "baptistification" of Nazarene theology.

    To move toward making Christlike disciples, Nazarene JESUS film teams in some areas of the world will show that film three or four times before asking people to respond. Having multiple showings of the film before asking people to respond gives them time to think, reflect, and even talk over the changes in worldview, lifestyle, and lordship that Christian conversion would mean for them.
  4. Can the use of The Sinner's Prayer give people a false assurance of salvation? Who are we to tell people they are saved because we heard them recite a prayer line by line as we gave it to them? Is it possible that people have been declared "saved" before they have really "prayed through" (as we used to say)? Only the Holy Spirit can give true assurance of salvation. Shouldn't people look to Him for that assurance?
  5. Can the way The Sinner's Prayer is used come off as a slick salesman's "close the deal" pitch? With a commendable goal of inviting people to enter the Kingdom, have we adopted a crassly commercial way of "closing the deal" or "cementing the decision"?

    Isn't there a danger that The Sinner's Prayer winds up being the conclusion to a rehearsed human sales pitch? Shouldn't our approach be that of boldly giving witness to the works of God and inviting people to respond to the leading of the Holy Spirit as He draws people to Himself?

Asking these questions does not mean we should avoid pointing people toward Jesus. It does not mean we should not show them "the way to be saved" (Acts 16:17).

It might mean, however, that we should be careful to use The Sinner's Prayer in ways that ensure it is a prayer coming from deep in the heart of the person saying the words.

    -- Howard Culbertson,

Pros and Cons of Using the "Sinner's Prayer"

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