by Matthew Erickson
I crossed the threshold into the hospital room where Jim waited for me. My visit was at the request of a family member and Jim wanted me to know from the moment that I walked into the room that he was definitely not a Christian. He declared, “I’m an agnostic, so don’t expect me to believe anything you say about God.”
I thought to myself, That’s quite a way to introduce yourself. Let’s jump right into the deep end. Then, I tried to figure out how to meaningfully engage with Jim.
In conversations like this, I’ve have found two vital practices for engaging people with the gospel: 1) asking focused questions of people and 2) maintaining an inner dialogue with God throughout our conversations.
When Jesus encountered people, whether current or prospective disciples, He usually engaged them in conversation by asking focused questions. We often remember Jesus’ question of the closest disciples at a pivotal moment in His ministry: “What about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:19).
However, Jesus made it His regular practice in most situations to engage people through questions:
- “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matt. 6:27)
- “Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’?” (Matt. 9:5)
- “What do you want me to do for you?” (Matt. 20:21)
Questions generate disequilibrium as people engage with familiar or unfamiliar issues from different angles or through uncertainty. Questions open opportunities for people to creatively share deep things with one another. Questions nurture a sense of relationship and community as we huddle inside the intimate atmosphere of searching and suggesting.
When Jim opened with his shocking introduction mentioned above, I simply asked question after question to get to know Jim better. I asked questions like, “Tell me what you mean by that?” or “How did you develop that idea?” or “What is happening with you right now?”
At key moments, I would ask more probing questions related to the gospel, such as, “Is it possible that what you think about when you hear the word ‘god’ is shaped more by your experience than reality?” or “Have you ever considered really reading one of the Gospel accounts in the New Testament in search of truth?”
Some of those questions opened deeper conversation, some led down what felt like rabbit trails, and others seemed to close doors. Yet focused questions often become the stepping stones down the pathway of gospel engagement with others.
One of our main difficulties in these situations is that we often do not know where to take a conversation or how to remain authentic as a conversation partner and not a gospel manipulator.
This leads me to the second vital practice: maintaining an inner dialogue with God as we talk with others.
At one point, Jesus described His ministry as primarily responsive: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). Jesus maintained a prayerful dialogue with His Father that shaped the way He spoke and the things He did as Messiah.
Obviously, we are not Jesus, but His example shows us one of the most important practices for meaningful gospel engagement with others. We, too, must maintain that inner conversation with God as we talk with others. We do not always know what to do, but we turn to our Living God and Loving Father who knows every person in every way.
Although others may never perceive it, we must continually return to our Father to submit to Him both our desired ends in conversation and our approach to presenting the gospel to others.
Throughout my conversation with Jim, I returned again and again to an inner conversation with the Father. I asked things such as, “Lord, what are You doing here?” or “Father, what would you have me say in response to that?” or “Lord, I lay down my desires to take this in a different direction; what is Your direction here?”
As we keep this inner dialogue with God, it allows us to be intentional about gospel engagement while also relieving us of the tendency to inauthentically control conversations toward some end. Our dialogue with God guides and guards us into true gospel engagement with others.
In this situation, my conversation with God guided me into focused questions that sustained a fruitful conversation with Jim about the deepest things in his life and reality. He did not pray a prayer with me to become a follower of Jesus at the end of our conversation. But that in itself was not my goal.
Instead, I was able to take one step along the pathway of relationship between two human beings and also relationship with the Living God, who is hidden yet always present to us and others.