When I went to college and first met the man who would later become my husband, he was a committed atheist.
I was a committed Christian. And yet in spite of our differences – or perhaps because of them – the two of us talked about faith and spirituality a lot.
That’s in no small part due to the fact that we took upper-level philosophy courses together. In class we analyzed Plato and Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and Foucault and pondered questions about existence and nature and the purpose of it all; those questions naturally followed us after the seminars ended. We debated. We argued. We shared our experiences as we developed a friendship.
But it wasn’t just a philosophy thing. In college, those kinds of conversations were the norm for most people I knew. I shared my literature classes with three English majors to whom I grew close: a chain-smoking Wiccan, a sort of indifferently-Christian friend whose father had just passed away, and an ambitious future teacher who could best be defined as agnostic. We, too, shared those deep and enriching conversations, talking through our experiences, sharing our struggles as we figured out the whys and wherefores of the world.
For me, college was – aside from being an education in the intellectual sense – a series of thoughtful, interesting conversations with all sorts of people. And looking back, I recognize that’s probably why it was also a time of rich ministry and outreach for me. When you’re already talking with others about why we’re all here and what our purpose is and what we’ve learned from our experiences, it’s easy to talk about your faith and your relationship with Christ, and how it informs your life.
The thing is, most of us live in a small-talk world. We focus on the weather and our pets and sloth videos and how frustrating our boss is. We talk about everything surface, without talking about anything of depth, and in those circumstances it’s really, really difficult to mention Jesus or faith without the topic itself feeling alien, as though you’ve turned on a blinking sign that says, “Let’s Discuss Life and Death.”
I suspect that’s why a lot of people struggle with evangelism. Many people tell me – and I have felt myself – that they have to shoehorn mentions of Jesus and God into their interactions in a way that feels awkward and unnatural. “Oh, you like cats? I do too. …well, you know who made cats? God. God made cats. And speaking of God, have you ever met His Son?” It’s so weird to just bring Jesus up out of nowhere, they say. Or to mention how good He is in a conversation about cats.
But the problem isn’t with mentioning Jesus. The problem is that the conversation is always about cats!
I’m not saying small talk is a bad thing – it’s the civilizing glue that holds a lot of our interactions together. Not every conversation has to become something deep and profound. But when we’re talking ministry and outreach – when we keep saying to believers that we have to engage with nonbelievers, man, and live in love and meet them on their level – conversation is a part of that, and superficiality can be a real obstacle. We need to seek real conversation with real people about real issues. We need to cultivate organic, natural conversations about life and love and experiences rather than using them as lead-ins to a hard evangelism sell.
What that conversation looks like is going to be different depending on who you are and the people around you. Maybe a real conversation means just listening as a work acquaintance tries to talk out a problem. Maybe it means avoiding the urge to make a conversation more lighthearted or “easy” by cracking a joke or pointing out a cat video. For most of us, it simply means making time to really talk and listen beyond the hey how are you weather’s nice huh? of everyday normal chatter.
We often focus, in the Bible, on the capricious nature of the tongue: that it can tell lies and slander, that it can cause great harm and destruction. It can. But Proverbs reminds us that both “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (18:21). Conversation can edify and strengthen bonds. Kind and thoughtful words, caring as expressed in the way we speak with others, can give us the opportunities we search for to reach out in love and to share our own faith.
Superficiality, especially in conversation, is the obstacle to honest sharing, honest talking, and honest learning. Avoid it if you can. For those of us who want to minister to others or share our faith, sometimes a good, enriching talk can open all kinds of doors.