I love talking in-depth with people who are not yet Christians. Perhaps surprisingly, I seem to have relatively few opportunities for such conversations but I always find it fascinating to hear what people do and don’t believe. Generally I find that there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty as to what the Christian faith is all about. I used to be surprised by this, and wonder why it was so hard to get our message across. But the more I listen, the more I find myself trying to place myself in the shoes of those who are talking.
And when I do that, I begin to really understand where they are coming from. They have had little personal experience of church, and maybe have only attended the occasional service at Christmas or a baptism. They have learnt very little about the Christian faith at school, although they may have picked up one or two key facts. Their view of the faith is often coloured by what they read and hear around them, and as it’s the sensational and unorthodox that attracts the headlines, it’s little wonder that they are confused. Plus, into the mix, there is so much in today’s culture which is actively hostile to orthodox Christian faith. I was listening today to the song “Take me to church” by Hozier (at number two in the charts this week, if you’re interested), which turns a protest against the institution in Ireland into an attack on the whole Christian faith (for a learned discussion of the song click here)
So how to respond? Well, first of all, it’s worth recognising that the Lord is present in the conversation. Indeed even though that person may never have prayed or read their Bible, it is the Holy Spirit that unbeknown to them has drawn them to talk to you. So you need above all else to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying and ask for the Holy Spirit to help you see the conversation from the other side. It is so easy to pile in and give the whole gospel in one hit, and that may be appropriate. But if you do that, you run the risk of information overload, even if the language you are using could be understood. The starting point is to find maybe just one image or phrase that challenges an existing worldview, helps them to start to question what they may or may not believe. And from that, maybe over several conversations, to build a relationship. Because in today’s world, more than ever, you accept truth from a source that you trust.
And we are called to be that source. Which is why I also believe more and more that if we are to be effective in our witness and our outreach we also need to take our personal holiness seriously. That sounds terribly old-fashioned, and maybe it is. But even in a world of so many confusing opinions and so many instant soundbites, there is still a hunger for what is real and authentic and true. People will look beyond our words to our lives. And if we are to be the only gospel they ever read, we better make sure that we are good news, for their sake, above all else.