How to initiate spiritual conversations naturally.
"Don't talk to strangers!" These admonishing words from our mothers have shaped our attitude toward the people who share our world. But what if Mom was wrong? What if the action she warned against in our childhood is the very thing that our Lord encourages? We find an answer to this question in an unexpected place.
When the Apostle Paul wrote Timothy about the character traits that define a Christian leader, he placed hospitable in the center of the list (1 Tim. 3:2). A Bible dictionary explains that hospitable means "friend of strangers." A leader in Jesus' church must be a friend to strangers!
This places our relationship with strangers in a different light than Mom ever expected. Perhaps it's time we take a closer look at the everyday conversations of the friendly carpenter from Galilee.
When Jesus spoke to a stranger by a well, He gently confronted her about her multiple marriages and her current living situation, then offered her hope (John 4). When a wealthy and powerful yuppie sought to justify his lifestyle by claiming to have conquered the commandments, Jesus didn't snap back at him or walk away from the encounter. He quietly gave the stranger two more commands: "Sell your possessions, and come follow Me" (Mk. 10:17-22).
After Jesus returned to heaven, the church's leaders clearly modeled Jesus' willingness to interact with strangers. The book of Acts is rich with such encounters. Today we, too, are encouraged to follow His example of everyday evangelism.
But how can we interact more freely with our acquaintances without being abrasive? We can learn from Jesus' example of extending love to others, even when His dialogue required a certain directness.
Approach with the right attitude.
First, we must maintain an attitude that clearly shows we hold no malice toward those we encounter. Jesus was immensely popular with the crowds. As Mk. 12:37 tells us, "The large crowd listened to him with delight." Clearly, Jesus' attitude didn't turn people off. Indeed, they seemed to line up to square off with Him. Of course, not everyone received Jesus' words well, but we never get a hint that Jesus' attitude was the cause of people rejecting His message.
In the same way, we must pray that God will give us an attitude of cheerful questioning when we interact with others, rather than a defensive or combative tone. Some people may disagree with our points, but the results can be fascinating.
I overheard a woman in a convenience store vigorously defending Hillary Clinton's use of imaginary conversations with Eleanor Roosevelt. As I stood behind the woman in line, I asked, "Why do you think she chose to get her ideas from an imaginary conversation?"
"Everyone's got to get ideas somewhere; we're not just born with them!" she replied. This opening permitted me to share a few thoughts about how important it is for our leaders to get their ideas from the only source of unchanging truth. She walked out a few moments later still disagreeing with me, but we hadn't argued. I stirred her thinking without closing her mind to biblical truth.
Encourage whenever possible.
Jesus liked to encourage the people with whom He conversed. "You have answered correctly!" He told an expert in the law, who had expressed a good answer (Lk. 10:28). To another inquisitive teacher of the law, Jesus exclaimed, "You are not far from the kingdom of God" (Mk. 12:34). When a Greek woman gave a witty response to Jesus' gentle probing of her faith, He responded in Mt. 15:28, "Woman, you have great faith!" And Mark tells us that He added, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter" (Mk. 7:29).
When conversing with nonbelievers, never miss an opportunity to tell them you agree with them, or that they have given a thoughtful answer. If you get a chance to deliver a sincere compliment, take it!
Occasionally I have even told someone, "Wow, I like the way you said that. Let me jot that down!" Enjoy the things that people say well, and you will find a greater openness when you gently need to question mistaken viewpoints about the Lord.
Keep love and truth in balance.
Once when Jesus was sitting by a well, He quietly asked a woman to go find her husband. When she demurred with the half-truth that she didn't have a husband, Jesus responded with a gentle clarification. "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true" (Jn. 4:17-18). A closer look at this clever response by Jesus shows us that He began and ended by kindly telling the woman where she was right. Yet He still uncovered the complete truth she had tried to conceal.
Practice the art of correcting false ideas in a way that expresses kindness. We can't be so loving that we let error pass as truth. On the other hand, we must not be so impatient to correct error that others lose sight of our love as we insist on the truth.
Draw out others viewpoints.
Our Lord loved to ask questions, even in response to questions. To one man who asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus responded with two questions of His own. "What is written in the Law?... How do you read it?" (Lk. 10:26).
Sincere questions draw people out, rather than make them defensive. Recently, I failed to see a stop sign and caused a fender bender. As I backed out of the intersection, the other fellow jumped out of his car and began yelling, "What's the matter with you?"
I responded quietly with a question of my own, although my heart was racing. "First things first. Are you all right?" I said. "I know I was at fault, and I sure hope I didn't cause you to be hurt." When the other driver saw that I really cared whether he was all right, his anger melted away and he reassured me that he was fine.
As we waited for the police to take a report, I treated Benny to some ice cream from a passing ice cream truck. Soon we were laughing together, seated on the hood of my car. By the time the officer arrived, Benny had shared with me his life story, and we had prayed together about his difficult circumstances. The Lord used a gentle question about Benny's safety to help him get past his defensiveness and to eventually recommit his life to Christ and begin attending our church.
Be alert to the Holy Spirt's involvement.
A wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus was so intent on seeing Jesus that he abandoned his dignity and clambered up into a sycamore tree. When Jesus came by, He astonished everyone by inviting Himself to Zacchaeus' house for dinner! Jesus' cheerful interaction with this despised stranger so moved Zacchaeus that he publicly announced his repentance and promised restitution to everyone he had wronged. Jesus must have beamed as He exclaimed, "Today salvation has come to this house" (Lk. 19:9).
The Holy Spirit is at work among the strangers who surround us every day. If we want to follow Christ's example, we need to scan our own crowds as well, looking carefully for people who are hungry to meet Jesus. To hurting and lonely strangers, the warmth of a cheerful conversation and the power of public acceptance and love is often all that is needed to bring salvation home to them.
A few weeks ago, I had an early breakfast at a neighborhood restaurant. As I stood in line to pay, a well-dressed, middle-aged man walked up behind me and began talking. "I don't know why my wife doesn't want me to go to our office party," he exclaimed. "I've never given her any occasion to doubt my faithfulness, and she knows it's important to me. Why do you think she is so bent out of shape over this?"
I was so astonished by the man's abrupt words that I looked around to see whether he was speaking to someone behind me. But it was clear he was talking to me—a complete stranger! I said a quick, silent prayer and stumbled through a response to his unexpected outburst. I tried my best to inject my faith, but I didn't do too well.
That unplanned encounter affected me deeply. I began to realize that our world is full of people who are so starved for a listening ear that they will pour out their hearts to complete strangers. It became clear to me that we need to soak our day in prayer before it begins, so we will be ready for any conversation that the Holy Spirit schedules.
When I shared with some friends at church about my impromptu conversation at Denny's, we decided to begin a churchwide program of talking to strangers. We determined that if all 300 of us would speak to one person a day, we could contact virtually every person in our city with the love of Jesus in one year's time! Starting on New Year's Day, we made a commitment to chat with at least one stranger every day this year. While most of our conversations remain superficial and don't lead to spiritual discussions, we have received many reports of conversations that developed into tremendous opportunities to share our faith.
We've concluded that Jesus still wants to strike up conversations with strangers. The members of the body of Christ are now His eyes, His smile, and His mouth, so we must be alert for His leading. The Holy Spirit's command in Heb. 13:2 rings true across the centuries and across the cultures: "Do not forget to entertain strangers."
We live in a society increasingly darkened by isolation and loneliness. We will shine like beacons on a hill as we listen to the Holy Spirit and love the strangers around us by initiating conversations wherever we go.
– Discipleship Journal.
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