This article is based on a handout given on the RML Romans evangelism weekend and was adapted from Mattias Media's excellent The Two Ways to Live Training Manual (Sydney: St Matthias Press, 1989).
Weekends like this often get people excited about proclaiming Jesus as Lord to their friends. ‘I really want to explain my faith to John.’ ‘Please God, give me the chance to talk about Jesus with my sister.’ A major impediment to any increasing optimism/confidence we have about sharing our faith is the nagging feeling about how the conversation will get started.
It might not be all that difficult (surprisingly) to walk up to a stranger and say, ‘Good morning, my name’s..... We’re doing a survey in the area about what people make of Jesus Christ—do you have a few minutes to answer a few questions?’, but you are quite sure that such an approach would not go down too well with your mum. Come to think of it, she has only once asked you a question about your faith, and that resulted in a stand-up row, so you are fairly sure that she will not ever again ask you to give a reason for the hope that you have! It is a problem that all Christians face.
Understanding the gospel, and being prepared with a concise, personable gospel presentation is one thing—but finding the opportunity to share it is another. How can we best turn the conversations that we have in Starbucks to give us an opportunity to share the gospel? The following comments do not offer foolproof ‘strategies’ to get a gospel conversation started, but they do discuss some of the attitude and behaviour changes that we can all work on to improve in this area.
It is a given that we are praying for opportunities to turn conversations to Christianity, but is there anything more that we can be doing? There is one very important area, but it is neither a technique nor a trick. It is an attitude and behaviour pattern that will reach into every area of our conversation with others. The conversation that needs to be turned to Christianity is our conversation! Our preoccupation is usually with getting our non-Christian friends to talk about Christianity—we would do better to get ourselves talking about Christianity first! What does this mean?
Feminists get it right
In almost every area of life, feminists have agitated for non-sexist language—‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ have changed to ‘Ms’; ‘chairmen’ have become ‘chair-persons’. The revision of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible at one point came to a standstill because of the committee’s conflict over the use of inclusive language—should ‘the Son of Man’ be changed to ‘the Child of Person’? The women’s movement is quite right in demanding these changes if you accept their general philosophy. The words we use in everyday speech really do reflect and reinforce our thought processes. The more unconsciously we use a particular phrase or word, the more profoundly it reveals our general mindset.
Furthermore, every time you are forced to change some part of your speech, the issue is raised in your consciousness. Whenever you stumble over a word because of its sexist connotations, or you hear someone reverse the traditional gender of a word, the women’s issue is again placed on the agenda. Feminists worked out that if you want to change the status and place of women, one of the first tasks is to change our everyday language. In recent years, homosexual campaigners, Muslims and many others have adopted the same strategy. Sadly, most Christians are not nearly as insistent about ‘God talk’.
What is God talk?
First, ‘God-talk’ is the manner of our speech. In the Bible, God gives us very clear guidelines about the kind of ‘talkers’ we should be. We should be truthful, loving, and have no guile or deceit. For us there should be no obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. And we are not to be grumblers. Our speech should be gracious, seasoned with salt, giving praise and thanks to God in everything. Many of our contemporaries would no doubt approve strongly of this kind of conversation, and might even aspire to it in their noble moments, but as Christians we have a unique motivation (the glory of Jesus himself) and a unique power (the power of the Holy Spirit himself) to help us.
Second, there are also particularly Christian words that in a sense ‘belong’ to us. Many of these words are names (God, Jesus, and so on), but they can also be jargon (Trinity, holiness, sin, glory, born-again, redemption). The important factor in using this jargon is communication—the person needs to know what you mean. On some occasions, you might mention words like sin or purity, depending on the person with whom you are talking. It is hard to talk about God without calling him ‘God’!
Third, sometimes God talk is conceptual. One of the privileges and problems of Western culture is the number of Christian concepts that continue to haunt modern thought and discussion. Truth, justice, integrity, the desirability of caring for the poor and outcast, the pursuit of peace and harmony—these all spring from the Christian worldview that has pervaded our thinking for nearly 2000 years. Our contemporaries continue to use these concepts, even though they have lost touch with their Author. They speak of ‘creation’ even though they have lost touch with the Creator. They uphold the values of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ even though they do not believe in absolute truth. They cherish their individuality and personhood, even though they believe we are little more than biological machines.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Christian conversation can speak of God taking action in the world. We can talk of God sending the rain and the good harvest, of God’s anger with human sin, of his fatherly provision for us. We can mention that we have asked him to meet our needs and can express in public our thankfulness for all that he has given us. We can actively try in our speech to acknowledge our dependence on God, our security in him, and our confidence in his rule and care for our lives.
All these things that we hold dear are often not reflected in our everyday conversation. We say we believe them, but seem afraid to let them show. This has serious consequences. Before we look at those consequences, we should consider why we fail to talk ‘God talk’.
Why we don't talk God talk
The chief reason for our failure to use God talk is our assumption that people do not want to hear it. Consciously or unconsciously, most of us adapt our conversation to the people with whom we are talking. We speak in their vocabulary, their language & their concepts. Because very few people in our society have any expectation of God coming up in the conversation, we are reluctant to mention him. We are afraid of appearing to be religious fanatics. Even more seriously, we ourselves, after a time, can begin to lose any sense of the relevance of God in everyday life.
The shallowness of false piety also makes us hesitant to use God talk. The ‘Alleluia, Praise the Lord, Smile God loves you’ Christian gets on our nerves—this talk seems superficial, sometimes hypocritical. Many of us have had the experience of hearing colleagues or friends denounce such demonstrative Christians. We do not want to be branded in the same way.
There is one legitimate reason, however, for not speaking of God taking action in the world—often we are ignorant of what God is doing or thinking about a particular subject or event. We need to be aware of speaking with prophetic authority about why something has happened, for very often we have no word from God to explain the details of his work in the world. Moses was able to speak with authority in explaining why the plagues struck the Egyptians. We do not have the same authority in explaining why a particular flood or fire happens today.
Given this one qualification, we must still recognise that the omission of God talk from our language has appalling consequences for our communication with each other and with society.
What happens when we don't use God talk
The first and most obvious consequence is that the secular view of the world becomes the accepted norm of society. When we do not refer to God, we imply that life can be understood quite well without him. At best, God becomes an ageing Founder—one who, having set up the world, now has very little involvement with it. He does not intervene; he does not cause anything to happen; he is not unhappy with how things are going; appealing to him to change anything is little better than a last resort. Eventually, inevitably, he dies. When there is no mention of God (and who is going to mention him, if we do not?), he is removed from the thinking of the community—and we develop a culture of de facto atheists.
We can see this happening in a striking way in our schools and universities, the places where tomorrow’s minds are being shaped. Christian thinking now has no part in our intellectual enquiry. In the Humanities’ departments of our universities, the problems and the needs of humanity are discussed without any reference to human sin and selfishness. Of course, the reality is that society is in a mess because people have rejected God. If there is one aspect of Christianity that is observably true, it is that people are selfish and sinful—that we are not basically good, but fundamentally flawed. But this is never addressed in the Humanities, for if sin is allowed into the room, God follows close on its heels—and that cannot be right! The Humanities will never understand men and women because they have omitted the one thing that is observably true of all people everywhere.
The same thing is happening in school classrooms. A generation is growing up with a world that does not make sense because there is no God to give it meaning. Recently, in a high school ancient history class, students were asked to explain the plagues of Egypt. The teacher was happy to receive answers about seasonal flooding, dam walls breaking and other purely naturalistic explanations, but rejected out of hand the idea that God might have been involved. The young people who introduced God into the story of Moses were ridiculed for being juvenile. With such responses, most young people learn to leave God out altogether.
As a result of God being omitted from our thinking in this way, it is becoming increasingly difficult to communicate the gospel to our society. Because God is simply not a relevant factor in the lives of most people living in Western society, Christians have to change language and thought completely to introduce God into a conversation. Starting to speak about the gospel is like changing into a foreign language halfway through a sentence. To use another metaphor, explicit mention of God feels like changing gears in your car without using a clutch—it grates. Christianity has become a taboo subject.
Even more serious than this are the consequences for our own thinking. If we remove God from our everyday conversation, we remove him from our everyday thoughts. We end up with two compartments in our minds—the ‘normal’ and the ‘religious’. How different we are from the godly man who meditates on the law of the Lord day and night and who teaches it to his children as he rises and as he goes to bed, who speaks of it on the road and in the fields, on the bus and in the classroom, in the office and over the back fence. This person interprets the whole of life through the lens of God’s word (Deuteronomy 6:6–9; 11:18–21).
Turning our conversation to Christianity
How can we create more opportunities to talk to our friends about the gospel? One great approach is to put God back on the agenda. If we begin to inject God talk back into our conversation, then the opportunities for discussing who God is, and how we can be right with him, will abound. If our dearly held beliefs about God are allowed to flow into our everyday conversation, then we cannot help but spark interest in the gospel. Certainly, we need to be careful. It is important that we are not ‘all talk’. And it is important that we are not ‘unnatural’. We must exhibit godly attitudes and behaviour as well. And it is important that we do not say what is untrue in the name of God, or say more than we know of him. We also need to be good listeners, if we are to answer the questions people are actually asking.
When we can speak accurately about God, however, and what he is doing in our lives and in the world, then we should do so. For the sake of our lost world, we must do so. It will mean swimming against the tide, but we cannot communicate in new ways of thinking without swimming against the tide. The gospel will always confront the sinful world. Why not start in a small way by developing God talk in safe and acceptable areas? When someone asks you about your plans for the future, say that you are praying about it and that, God willing, you hope you may..... Or when your friend asks what you did on the weekend, mention as first priority the sermon you heard that raised the interesting issue of..... Or when someone shares a difficulty in his or her life with you, offer to pray for him or her, perhaps right then.
Naturally, it is easier to start doing this with your Christian friends but work towards doing it with non-Christians too. Stop now and think of some situations in which you could begin to inject some God talk. Decide how you might make a start—what words you might use—and ask God to be with you, helping you.
As you start allowing your love for God to be expressed honestly and naturally in your everyday conversation, you might be surprised at how many opportunities you have to speak about Jesus with the people that matter most to you.