As a Christian, when having a faith conversation with a non-believer, there can be a strong urge to convince them you’re right. You want to win a debate, not for your own glory, but because you want them to have a relationship with Jesus and believe that making your case for Christ is the best way to do that. Sometimes, however, the best thing you can say is nothing at all.
If you have a debate about Christianity, no matter how polite it may be, the other person’s position will be an adversarial one. A debate, by its own nature, pits two ideas against each other. So instead of being open to the other person’s beliefs and ideas, both sides are simply trying to win. This is especially true of any spiritual debate that happens on social media, and let’s be honest, those are usually not very polite. But what if you just listened? What if instead of trying to convince someone, you just asked about what they believe and listened to what they share?
People love to be heard
In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes about one time when he had a one-sided conversation with a botanist at a dinner party. Though Dale said almost nothing during the exchange, the botanist later thanked him for the interesting conversation.
“Why, I hadn’t said hardly anything at all. I couldn’t have said anything if I had wanted to without changing the subject, for I didn’t know any more about botany than I knew about the anatomy of a penguin. But I had done this: I had listened intently. I had listened because I was genuinely interested. And he felt it. Naturally that pleased him. That kind of listening is one of the highest compliments we can pay anyone.”
A listening experiment
In a recent TEDx talk, Tyler Ellis talked about a listening experiment he conducted. Over a two-year period, Tyler conducted 50 interviews, asking each person 20 questions without giving his own input. During the experiment, Tyler got to hear from people all across the spectrum of religious beliefs: atheists, people raised Christian who left the faith, catholics, protestants, and people following other faiths.
What started as a series of interviews led to much more. Though Tyler didn’t share any of his own beliefs or opinions during the interviews, half of those he interviewed wanted to meet again so they can ask about his own beliefs. Tyler formed friendships with several of the people he interviewed. As those relationships grew, Tyler had Thanksgiving dinner with an atheist friend from East Asia and a Muslim friend from the Middle East, served pancakes to college students with a Jewish rabbi, and volunteered at a children’s home with an agnostic friend in Honduras. Those experiences with those you want to reach for Christ can only happen if you first build trust.
Tyler recently met with Indigitous to talk about how to share the faith by listening. “When we invite someone to share their experiences and beliefs, and we listen with genuine interest, we circumnavigate the wall of defenses,” Tyler says.
Whereas a debate is adversarial in nature, asking someone about their beliefs and actually listening draws them closer to you. It shows that you’re interested, you care about them, and it shows respect. And as Carnegie wrote, having a conversation where someone listens intently and is genuinely interested is rare and always appreciated.
“So many of the interviews I conducted ended with my new friend saying, ‘That was a first for me. I’ve never had a Christian do this before. It’s always a debate. But you just listened. This might be one of the best spiritual conversations I’ve ever had. Thank you.’” Tyler says.
Understanding your audience
If you want to reach someone, you must understand them. If you want someone to care about what you believe, you must first show that you care about them. For Tyler, the listening experiment “gave people the chance to articulate what they believe,” he says. “Some people shared their stories for the first time. Some shed a few tears. And many were surprised to hear themselves repeatedly say, ‘I don’t know,’ which produced motivation from within themselves to make their search for truth a bigger priority.”
Though the Gospel doesn’t change, there are a lot of different ways to discuss it. Depending on someone’s beliefs and situation, different aspects will resonate more than others. “The more I listened, the more I came to understand them,” Tyler says. “And this helped me discern the most appropriate starting point for those who expressed interest in future conversations.”
There is a time for listening and a time for sharing. With those who wanted to hear Tyler’s own perspective on the questions he had asked them, Tyler had a unique opportunity to share his faith in a way that resonates with them. If he had tried to debate any of their beliefs in the first interview, explaining why they’re wrong, it’s unlikely that they would have had an open mind toward his own beliefs.
Back to Dale Carnegie, he gives the following advice. Though he was talking about conversations in general, you can apply this to spiritual conversations.
“If you aspire to be a good conversationalist, be an attentive listener. To be interesting, be interested. Ask questions that other persons will enjoy answering. Encourage them to talk about themselves.”
Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. (Habakkuk 2:2)
- Make a list of people with whom you would like to have a spiritual conversation.
- Invite them to meet to hear about their beliefs. Resist the urge to debate or tell your own opinions.
- Focus on building the relationship, rather than just looking for an opportunity to share your faith. Let that part come naturally.