Sharing the Gospel Through Wise Conversation
Generally speaking, people need to trust the messenger before they will trust the message. But make no mistake—we do have a message to be delivered. Yet we need to deliver it wisely. No one comes to Christ by simply observing Christians—in all but rare cases someone has to tell them about Jesus. This certainly does not mean we should be talking about Jesus all the time. But it does mean not hiding our faith and speaking up whenever we recognize that someone is open to learning more.
It is appropriate to talk about your faith. . .
(From Bill Peel and Walt Larimore, Workplace Grace, p. 68)
It’s impossible to read the Bible seriously and miss our obligation to make Christ known. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus calls his disciples the light of the world—not something to be concealed.
You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)
Some Christians take the reported words of St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words” as a reason not to talk about their faith with those who need to hear the gospel. They believe that they fulfill Christ’s call to be his witness simply by the way they live—no need to explain why they live the way they do. The person who says naively, “I don’t preach; I just let my life speak,” may not realize what an egotistical claim that is. Who of us lives such a good life that our actions are the only thing needed to witness to the goodness of Jesus?
Behavior that honors and reflects Christ is a vital part of what it means to be a witness. But being a witness also requires words.
In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16, NIV)
What’s often overlooked in Peter’s instruction is that doing good to others creates a relationship where people want to ask “Why?” Why do you live the way you do? We give an explanation to those who have seen our godly behavior, recognized our hope, and asked about our faith.
While Peter encourages reluctant witnesses to speak up, he puts a constraint on over-zealous Christians who angle for an opportunity to share the gospel—listener ready or not. While some people have come to Christ absent a relationship—and in rare cases absent a witness—forcing spiritual conversation on someone else usually creates more heat than light. Wise faith conversations are not about getting someone to pray a prayer of salvation, but about reflecting the reality of God’s grace to us in Christ and explaining that reality to curious people.
What does wise conversation look like? Here are some elements to consider.
Wise conversation considers the listener’s heart condition. In Matthew 13, Jesus describes the human heart as rough terrain for gospel farming. Weeds, rocks, and hard-packed soil thwart implanting of the seed of Truth. It’s important for those of us who sow the seed of the gospel to take time to consider the receptivity of our listeners.
Most nonbelieving adults have significant barriers to receiving the gospel, issues that have hardened their hearts and trained them to keep spiritual truth at arm’s length. Beside the intellectual issues many have toward Christianity, even more basic and often overlooked are emotional barriers—indifference, mistrust, antagonism, or fear toward Christians or Christianity—negative attitudes that stop spiritual conversation in its tracks.
Sometimes, emotional barriers are caused by negative experiences with religious groups or Christians who are narrow-minded, judgmental, or fanatical. Even well-intentioned Christians who come on too strong can foster mistrust or anger, and inadvertently create more barriers. But ordinary hypocrisy may have turned more hearts away from Jesus than anything else. Hypocritical family members, neighbors, teachers, harden the heart’s soil.
Wise Christians stop to consider these barriers before their attempts to explain the gospel are repelled offhand. When people take note of our competence, character, and concern, the Holy Spirit may indeed open a door for us to give the reason for our hope to individuals otherwise reluctant to talk about spiritual truth.
Wise conversation joins where the Holy Spirit is already at work. It’s important to find out what the Holy Spirit is doing and join in, rather than try to make something happen ourselves in our own timing. No matter how convincing or powerful our arguments are, we can’t raise the spiritually dead. It’s God’s job to open the heart. And he does that on his time schedule not ours—sometimes surprising us. Just because someone isn’t interested in spiritual conversation today doesn’t mean that the Spirit can’t soften the hardest heart over time.
Look to the “interests” of others
As the plane took off, Bill engaged in polite conversation with a woman sitting in the window seat and learned that she was an artist. She grew quiet and went back to her book when she learned that he was a theologian. He closed his eyes and tried to rest. When the plane broke through the cloud cover and reached cruising altitude, the prompting of the Holy Spirit interrupted his nap. He opened his eyes and noticed that his seatmate was staring at the breathtaking sunset. “Beautiful isn’t it?” Bill commented casually. “It’s amazing how God paints us a new work of art every evening, and no two are alike.” Her response surprised Bill. For the next hour, she told him more about her life. They talked about what the Bible says about God’s ability to meet her needs in the difficult circumstances she was facing.
(From Bill Peel and Walt Larrimore, Workplace Grace, p.84-85)
Antagonism toward God is not a modern problem. Throughout history God’s people have taken his truth into hostile cities, nations, and workplaces. But the gospel is never overcome by hostility. God prevails over any strategy the evil one uses to halt the gospel. No manner of worldview, cultural trend, or work environment is too hostile—and no person too hopeless—for the all-sufficient power of the Holy Spirit to reach.
And no matter how passionately we might want a person to come to Christ, remember Christ’s own words. “No one can come to me unless drawn by my Father who sent me …” (John 6:44).
Our job is to help people take one step closer to Christ, leaving the results and timing to God. We are one link in the chain that the Holy Spirit can use at any given time—and it may be a long chain. It’s great to be the last link in the chain of a person’s faith journey. But if we watch for what the Spirit is doing and join in, we won’t be the missing link.
Wise conversation creates curiosity. When we go to work tomorrow as ambassadors for Christ, we need to know the people we work among. What are their interests, their needs, their hopes, their dreams? What will invite them to listen long enough to learn how much God loves them and longs to give them abundant life on earth and eternity in his presence? If we do not take the time to understand our coworkers, doors may close, not open.
Wise conversation should be brief—at first at least. Curiosity about our faith is not automatic. While assessing a person’s spiritual interest, long conversations about faith are likely not appropriate or curiosity-building. While a colleague may listen politely, inside they may be plotting their escape and planning to stay clear of this religious fanatic. Instead try to leave people wanting more.
Even questions about such mundane things as our plans for the weekend may offer opportunities for us to invite curiosity. “I’m teaching a Sunday School class on healing and divorce.” “I’m headed to a men’s retreat with my church.” Letting friends at work know what we’re doing may create openings for the curious to explore. Our choices and activities tell people more than how we spend our time. They reveal what we love. It may puzzle people and cause them to wonder why with so many choices we would choose Christian activities—which they may consider boring or a waste of time. When their curiosity gets the best of them, they will ask, creating an opportunity to give them a short word of explanation.
Raising Faith Flags
A faith flag is a brief (no more than a couple of sentences) mention of or comment about God, the Bible or prayer in the natural course of conversation that communicates we have a spiritual dimension. It is a snapshot of who you are. It could also be a simple word of appreciation describing how you see the image of God expressed by someone in their work.
What a faith flag might sound like …
Guidelines: faith flags …
(From Bill Peel and Walt Larimore, Workplace Grace, p. 82-84)
They may also ask: How can you believe in God in the middle of the difficulties you’re facing? Why are you so kind to people who are hard to love? Why do you work so hard to help others be successful? How can you believe Jesus is the only way to heaven? Their verbalized curiosity is an invitation to share more of the story of the good news you’ve experienced in Jesus.
Curiosity can also spring from sharing common ground found in relationship. Jerram Barrs, head of the Francis Schaeffer Institute, advises his students to search for common ground with coworkers, and to begin discussions of faith on those common grounds of agreement. Do they like art? Are they sports fans? What music do they love? Whatever their passion, when we find a common interest, the basis for relationship is formed. From nearly any point of common interest, a part of your story of faith can emerge.
In longer conversations, it’s helpful to remember that people become interested in Jesus because of a personal felt need or aspiration. As rational beings we need information, answers, and rational arguments, but that’s not all. We are also desiring beings, feeling our way through life trying to find what we’re missing without knowing, most of the time, what we’re looking for. Helping another person see how their deepest longings are met in Christ can create an irresistible curiosity for how Jesus fulfills that yearning.
Tim Keller reflected on a lifetime of talking about Jesus with secular New Yorkers. “Unless people find our conversation about Christ surprisingly compelling (and stereotype breaking) their eyes will simply glaze over when you try to talk to them.” Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus (John 3:1-21) and the woman at the well (John 4:4-26) are cases in point. Jesus not only spoke in concepts and language they could understand, he tailored his conversation to answer each person’s unique question—their deepest longings. By focusing on their individual interests, he woke their curiosity. We can see how successful he was by the questions they asked in return.
Ultimately, when people are able to connect the power of the gospel to their deep longings, they will say, “If that were only true!” When they do, we have an open door for the gospel message.
Connecting With People's Needs
Think about the conversations you’ve had a work during the last week. What topics of concern, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, joy, appreciation, peace, etc. were expressed? Have you had a similar experience where God was real to you, where you learned a lesson, where you began to see something differently? Take a moment to rehearse or write out what you would say. Keep it positive and avoid sounding superior. Not “I remember when I used to believe that …”
Wise conversation is positive (usually). When people become curious, they will probably begin to ask questions. Often what they really want to know is hidden behind their words. They may be afraid to ask because they’re concerned that we’ll think less of them. They may also be testing us to sense whether we’re going to come at them like Bible-thumpers. If we answer judgmentally, they’re likely to back off and avoid us like the plague. But if they discover a non-judgmental, honest, genuine response, they’ll be more apt to come back for more, especially if our lives and actions echo the answers we give.
The gospel is good news about Jesus, which is not that God judges us, but that he loves us and wants to forgive and heal us. It shouldn’t surprise us when unbelievers make bad choices. When we aggressively criticize their choices and lifestyles, we can create barriers. This doesn’t mean that we condone sinful behavior, but we remember that conviction is in the Holy Spirit’s job description, not ours.
When he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. (John 16:8-11, NIV)
We should also take to heart Jesus’ response to sinful people. He did not bring judgment on unreligious people. He reserved his sternest words for the religious elite, the Pharisees and Jewish officials of his day. With those outside the realm of this religious aristocracy, Jesus’ tone was gentle, humble, and compassionate. Remember his kindness to the woman caught in adultery?
Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:10-12)
Today, many people keep Jesus at arm’s length because they have developed a bad impression of him from his followers. They may think he hates gay people, doesn’t like fun, sides with political views they abhor, shuns people who aren’t perfect, is a racist, keeps women subordinated, or only cares about what happens to people after they die. These attitudes may be true of some Christians, but not Jesus.
Our unexpected graciousness toward people who assume criticism, can surprise them into curiosity. Peter offers important advice for those who want to help their colleagues take one step closer to a relationship with Christ.
Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. (1 Peter 3:8-9)
Every interaction with every person every day is spiritually significant and we have the opportunity to be a blessing to others, not just when we’re insulted or treated poorly, but when we connect with anyone made in the image of God. A smile, a kind word, a word of praise for a job well done can be used by the Spirit to draw someone one step closer to Jesus.
Wise conversation harnesses the power of story. No one wants to hear a canned speech about Jesus, but most people love a good story. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is packed with stories. God could have provided an indexed guidebook for living life on earth. Instead, he gave us the Bible, his inspired word, and filled it with stories, all “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). In fact, the entire Bible is one grand story of redemption.
When Jesus wanted to speak of the Father’s love he didn’t just state the concept; he told an attention-getting story—the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). When he wanted to help his disciples understand the kingdom of God he used stories that Matthew recorded in his gospel.
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow… (Matthew 13:1-3)
Humankind, according to Alasdair MacIntyre, are “story-telling animals.” Think about the conversations you recently had at work. How many involved a story? Likely a lot. In evangelism, stories should populate our spiritual conversations with unbelievers. They can shape information into meaning and help others visualize who we are and what we believe. Storytelling portrays truth in a tangible and authentic way. It opens a window for unbelievers to get a glimpse of what it is like to be a person of faith and can give them a reason to rethink negative notions they may hold about Christians or Christianity.
Storytelling is powerful. Rather than using facts to beat on the mind’s front door, which is often bolted from within, a story allows truth to enter through the backdoor of the heart. Stories can generate fresh insight and expand the depth and breadth of perception while helping us and unbelievers make sense of the world.
How to Tell a Faith Story
A Faith Story is a powerful way to communicate spiritual truth in an inviting form. It briefly describes a particular instance when we had an encounter with God or a time when we learned an important spiritual lesson. It lets the listener see how God is at work, making a meaningful and practical difference in our lives.
A Faith Story ...
Guidelines: Faith Stories …
(From Bill Peel and Walt Larimore, Workplace Grace, p. 85-89)
Stories are a particularly important avenue for Christians to challenge how unbelievers view the world. By telling an effective story, a Christian can invite an unbeliever to drop their weapons. come in, and listen with an open heart and mind. In this way, stories grant an unparalleled opportunity to challenge an unbeliever’s basic assumptions about life.
Wise conversation is understandable. When we speak with nonbelievers—or anyone for that matter—we want to be understood. But if we talk about faith in Christian jargon, we create a significant roadblock. Jargon is insider language understood only by people in a group—in this case other Christians. Speaking Christianese can leave our nonbelieving coworkers and friends confused and even repelled.
We cannot assume others understand biblical terms that are rich with meaning for our faith. When speaking with non-Christians, we should avoid terms that could be confusing, misunderstood, or perceived negatively. Keep insider language to a minimum and stop regularly and ask listeners if they are following and to make sure they understand any theological words.
Wise conversation remembers who we are talking to. One of the reasons why spiritual conversations are intimidating is that we are talking to dead people—spiritually dead, that is. Paul describes the desperate condition of the human race apart from Christ in Ephesians.
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
While our conversation should be positive, by its very nature, the gospel is confrontational. According to Tim Keller,
In every gospel presentation, there is an epistemological challenge. People are being told that their understanding of God and ultimate reality is wrong… In Summary, there is truth about God (“you think you know who God is, but you do not”), truth about sin and your need for salvation (“you are trying to save yourself, but you cannot”), truth about Jesus (“he is the messianic King who comes to accomplish your salvation for you”), and a call to respond to these truths by repenting and believing in him.
If we’re afraid unbelievers will be hostile to the good news of Christ, it’s important to remember that we are talking to men and women who are victims of the enemy, not the enemy themselves. Yes, they can be hostile, but we were enemies of God when he came after us. Yes, they are sinners, but so are we. Yes, they may not know the truth, but we didn’t figure things out on our own. Yes, they may stand for things repugnant to God, but so did we. They may not love God, but God loves them.
In humility regard others as better than yourselves (Philippians 2:3)
What evidence of God’s image do you see in a person?
What things do you have in common with the non-Christians that are part of your life?
When has God been real to you, taught you, comforted you, encouraged you in these situations?
And perhaps most important, we are talking with people made in the image of God, no matter how distorted, disfigured, or unrecognizable it may be. That fact demands our respect and deserves a dignity not often granted in our fallen world.
Catholic blogger Jennifer Fitz reminds us of how this should impact evangelism.
Evangelization is not about getting other people to do the thing you want them to do. It’s not about crafting just the right technique to make that right moment fall together so neatly.
Evangelization is about looking at the person in front of your face, no matter who that person is, and gasping in wonder at the miraculously beautiful creation God has endowed with a dignity and a worth that nothing can erase, no matter how deep in the mire that person is swimming just now. You see that person, and you know for a fact: Here is somebody worth dying for.
And then you try for a few minutes to do something worthy of being in the presence of such a person.
Praying for Ourselves and Others
Praying for Ourselves
We cannot accomplish anything of spiritual significance unless the Spirit is working within us. Following are examples of how we can pray for ourselves as Christ’s ambassadors in the workplace. We can ask that…
Praying for Others
We can pray for coworkers and friends, asking that...
(From Bill Peel and Walt Larimore, Workplace Grace, p. 164-165)
Wise conversation begins with conversation with God. While the rapid and far-reaching spread of the gospel in the first century was fueled by the mass mobilization of ordinary Christians, it was empowered by the persistent pattern of prayer. The vital role of prayer in evangelism is recorded throughout the Book of Acts (Acts 1:14; 1:24; 2:42; 2:47; 4:24, 31; 8:15; 9:40; 10:9; 10:30–31; 12:5; 13:3; 14:23; 16:25; 20:36; 21:5; 26:29; 28:8).
As we encounter coworkers and colleagues in the workplace we hope will come to faith we need to remember that evangelism begins and ends with God. He has invited us to partner with him in the privileged mission of reconciling men and women to himself. We do our part modeling godliness and speaking wisely. The rest is in his hands. That’s why we talk to Jesus about people before we talk to people about Jesus. Even Paul, as gifted a communicator as he was, needed prayer.
Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving. At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should. (Colossians 4:2-4)
Note, Paul’s prayer is both for unbelievers, that God would open a door for the word—something only God can do—but also for Paul himself, that he would speak clearly.
Wise conversation respects the integrity of the workplace
Is it OK to talk about Jesus at work? Many Christians wonder whether in a spiritually diverse workforce we are allowed to tell people about Jesus. Is it legal? Is it allowed by my company? In general, the answer is “yes,” it is legal to talk about Jesus at work. We will consider the legal situation in the United States, specifically. We recommend that those in other countries learn about the laws where they live.
In general, if a workplace permits any personal conversations and discussions at all—as almost every workplace does—then it must permit religious conversations. So, if someone can talk about family or soccer at work, talk about religion is also permitted. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects workers in most public and private workplaces against discrimination based on religion:
It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer -
(1) to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; or
(2) To limit, segregate, or classify his employees or applicants for employment in any way which would deprive or tend to deprive any individual of employment opportunities or otherwise adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
This means, among other things, that if a sincerely held part of our religious beliefs is an obligation to tell others about Jesus, an employer generally cannot prevent us from doing so, unless it would interfere with the work at hand or create a hostile work environment for others. (A hostile work environment occurs when a “workplace is permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule, and insult that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the victim’s employment and create an abusive working environment.  Don’t do that!)
Despite these legal protections, employers have tended to be inconsistent in their policies regarding evangelism. Sometimes employers are ignorant of employees’ rights in this regard, or choose to disregard them, and enforcement of the law varies. According to Deborah Weinstein, who teaches employment law at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “Courts across the country have interpreted this issue very differently. In a 2006 case in California, the court said persistent and blatant proselytization is prohibited because it could constitute harassment. But other courts, in Colorado, for example, have said employers need to bend over backwards to accommodate those who need to proselytize.”
Of course, if we have to resort to legal rulings in order to talk about God with our co-workers, we may have already lost the chance of gaining any conversation partners. Maybe we should ask why such a restrictive policy exists in the first place. Have we or other Christians engaged in harassment, abuse, improper use of power or other offenses while talking about God? Even if you have the law on your side regarding the right to evangelize, if your tactics aren’t beyond reproach you may risk alienating the very people you’d like to talk with.
In any case, it is crucial to avoid an imbalance of power when sharing our faith at work. If we have power over others there is the danger that sharing our faith will come across as coercive. People may be afraid to say no to us or ask us to stop. They may even pretend to accept our message for fear their job prospects will be diminished if they don’t. Others may suspect that those who accept our message are gaining an advantage at work. The Conference Board —a global business organization— notes, “Because supervisors have the power to hire, fire, or promote, employees may reasonably perceive their supervisors’ religious expression as coercive, even if it was not intended as such.”
Some Christians have concluded it is best to avoid proclamation to people in a position of lesser power and to trust God to appoint someone else to share the good news with them. Others believe it is possible for supervisors to share their faith if they pay close attention to preventing detrimental effects. Needless to say, if talking about God would exploit a power imbalance, we shouldn’t do it. Err on the side of caution, keeping in mind that people in positions of power almost always underestimate how much that power affects people in positions of lower power. A supervisor might think a casual conversation about faith is not a misuse of power, but how could the supervisor truly know whether the subordinate feels the same way? Asking the subordinate is definitely not a reliable way to find out! One source of further information for those who own businesses is the LeTourneau University Center for Faith and Work at http://centerforfaithandwork.com/LegalProtection
The bottom line, at least in the United States, is that in almost every workplace we have the right to tell others the good news, as long as we do it in a way that is not offensive, aggressive, or misuses power. Through God’s grace this should be eminently possible.
Elton Trueblood, The Company of the Committed, (New York: Harper & Publishers, 1961), 53.
Jerram Barrs, lecture in the class Apologetics at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, February 1997. From lecture notes by Randy Kilgore.
Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An introduction for Christian witness in late modernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018), 180.
“Defeater Beliefs and a Gospel Sandwich,” https://www.timcasteel.com/2010/10/defeater-beliefs-and-a-gospel-sandwich/
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008) 216.
Joshua D. Chatraw and Mark D. Allen, Apologetics at the Cross: An introduction for Christian witness in late modernism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2018), 180.
Timothy J. Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), p. 113-114.
“Why Do We Evangelize?” July 3, 2015, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jenniferfitz/2015/07/why-do-we-evangelize/#sthash.m9F7sl3a.dpuf.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, SEC. 2000e-2. [Section 703], accessed at the website of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, www.eeoc.gov/laws/statutes/titlevii.cfm, July 18, 2012.
EEOC Compliance Manual, Section 12: Religious Discrimination, paragraph 12.I.A.2, July 18, 2012. Note also that the EEOC Compliance manual includes “proselytizing or other forms of religious expression.” as a protected religious observance (12.I.A.1.1); that “the ‘sincerity’ of an employee’s stated religious belief is usually not in dispute” (12.I.A.2) and “the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely-held religious belief” (12.I.A.3).
CNN.com International, “Balancing Faith and Business” by Peter Walker, posted Feb. 12, 2007, accessed at http://edition.cnn.com/2007/BUSINESS/01/31/execed.religion/index.html, July 18, 2012.
Charles Mitchell, “Faith at Work: What Does It Mean to Be a 'Faith-Friendly' Company,” The Conference Board Executive Action No. 217 (November 2006), 10.