Evangelism. Outreach. Missions. Conversions. These are all common evangelical catchphrases to describe the Christian’s call to The Great Commission, to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). And the Church has plenty of programs to show for it—from mission trips to neighborhood service projects to student evangelism training. But before any of these can happen effectively, something far more basic must be learned. According to Mary Schaller, president of Q Place, that first step is learning the basic art of conversation.
The Church is undergoing a paradigm shift from one-way presentational evangelism to evangelism that looks more like a two-way exchange, and Q Place is a leading voice in this critical rethink of evangelistic practices. So, here, our team talks with Schaller about the “lost art” of spiritual conversation, and how the Church can move away from alienating Christian jargon to language that reaches those of other and no faith right where they are.
Barna Group: According to Barna research, only 4% of unchurched adults were invited to church by a friend and actually went, 23% were invited but declined, and 73% were never invited at all. Why do you think this invitational model isn’t working?
Mary Schaller: There are a number of reasons for this. First, not all Christians have relationships with non-Christians. Many people in the church tend to surround themselves with other believers and form a few deep relationships with people outside of church. Second, even when they do develop these friendships, many Christians lack practical conversational skills for talking about God.
Christians often don’t have the skills or confidence to have even low-depth spiritual conversations with people who have different beliefs. So we’re asking them to make an invitation that does not have the relational foundation—it’s like kissing before the first date. It’s unnatural and awkward for all parties involved. “If you have not taken the time to get to know me, why do you think I’ll go to church with you?”
Many people who are invited choose not to come—part of the 23% you referenced—because they have had negative experiences with Christians. Some are angry at God, or have unanswered questions. They often see church as a place where they are simply told who God is, what to do, and how to live (not to mention, where to give their money!).
Ultimately, we need to ask whether attending a church service will really meet the needs of the people we’re inviting. In our increasingly post-modern culture, people exploring faith want to discuss their questions about God on their own turf with people they know and trust, who will respect and listen to them. They really aren’t interested in going outside of their comfort zone to a church setting where they will simply listen to a presentation that isn’t likely to give them the opportunity to work through their own spiritual questions.
Barna Group: So what is the alternative? What can Christians do differently?
Schaller: The majority of Christians and non-Christians alike can agree on one thing: They are uncomfortable with the “E” word—evangelism. It’s one of the highest church values, and the least practiced. Perhaps there is a different “E” word that fills the need in this secular culture and lays essential groundwork for the Gospel—engagement.
The key is to figure out how to empower Christians to engage in meaningful conversations about God with those who believe differently. This is not something we leave to the “professionals,” but rather something anyone can do on any day of the week. Everyone can have conversations, so let’s start there. If our conversations can build trust and prove that we care, then relationships grow, and disciples are made over time. We should strive to create spaces for safe and open spiritual conversations that pave the way for people to discover God for themselves at their own pace.
Barna Group: What can Christians learn from Jesus’ conversation style in Scripture?
Schaller: The small stuff really seems to count for Jesus. Mustard seed faith; a couple of fish and a few loaves of bread; the widow’s mite. The small things, the ordinary things, really count. Jesus used the small things to engage with people and demonstrate his love. Jesus noticed people. He prayed for them. He listened. He asked questions. He loved them. He welcomed. He facilitated good conversations. He served with people with him. And he shared the good news about the kingdom of God.
Christians can follow Jesus in engaging people where they are with those nine simple, everyday conversational practices. We have developed a set of resources on this, which we call The Arts of Spiritual Conversation. Often those practices lead to ongoing discussions about God, and then people we know begin to make discoveries about Jesus.
Barna Group: What practical ways can Christians intentionally detach themselves from the conventional church language, or “Christian-ese,” when conversing with their unchurched friends, to meet them where they are?
Schaller: Simple. Talk less and listen more! Many people are really looking for someone to listen to them, not to hear an uninvited apologetic argument. In fact, it’s listening—not talking—that needs to become the Church’s new evangelistic method.
When we approach people with the intent to tell them what we know, yet don’t really try to understand where they’re coming from, they will put up defenses. When we demonstrate that we are truly seeking to understand people and not change their point of view, we create a safe environment for them to open up at a deeper level. As they feel genuinely understood, they also begin to better understand themselves. In a society full of people who would rather talk than listen, people are starved for someone who is willing to move into their life as a listener and learner. It communicates love. Eventually, they become more open to what we have to say, if we’ve listened well to them.
Barna Group: Something you mention in your study is the value of “holy curiosity.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
Schaller: The “Q” in Q Place stands for “Questions,” because we recognize the value of cultivating a place where it feels safe to discuss the big questions of life. The starting point is with open-ended questions that are motivated by authentic interest in another person’s life. They open up conversation and create a dynamic learning environment. And the path to a good question is using our God- given curiosity. It all starts with curiosity … otherwise questions will feel loaded, formulaic or insincere.
It is “holy” curiosity, both because the curiosity is God-given, and because the questions are Spirit-led and sensitive to the need of the moment. Holy curiosity invites interaction, leads to greater connection and transparency, and opens the door to new opportunities.
Barna Group: Over the years, Barna research has charted the rising occurrence of spiritual conversations happening online, especially among the Mosaic generation (young adults). What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of spiritual dialogue in the digital realm?
Schaller: The obvious advantages to digital spiritual dialogue are its convenience, flexibility, accessibility and anonymity.
Yet our culture is caught in a problematic paradox: Despite the increasing digital interconnectivity, people continue to grow more socially disconnected and lonely because most of the conversation is superficial. Can you have meaningful, life- changing digital conversations and relationships? I believe to a certain extent you can, but they don’t take the place of being in the same room with people. That’s why people still travel so much for face-to-face meetings with co-workers, and to get together with family and friends.
As far as the disadvantages, there are implicit dangers of having eternity- affecting conversations in a virtual world. Do people really know who they’re talking to on the other end of the conversation? Can you trust each other with so many relational cues missing? Ultimately, online relationships need to be scrutinized and can only be fully validated in person.
God knew we needed a face-to-face human encounter with Him and others. That’s why the Incarnation, God becoming man, is so powerful. We still long for the physical presence of God, others and community that our digital relationships will never satisfy. Perhaps we are “hard-wired” with that need for the physical presence of others. However, digital tools can get the conversation started.
About Barna Group
Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar ￼￼￼ Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
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© Barna Group, 2013.