I went to a retirement party recently where a man said, “Hey Pastor Neil. I’ve got good news and bad news. Sorry, but I haven’t finished reading your book yet. I’m about 80 percent done. But the good news is I’ve been inspired already to have seven different conversations about God this week with people from all walks of life.”
Wow, that made me happy.
A while back, I began to notice a disturbing trend among people in my church: they were finding it increasingly difficult to talk about God to those outside the church. In today’s contentious social climate, they found it hard to talk to people about life’s deepest and most sensitive topics.
I wanted to discover for myself if it was possible to talk to people outside the church about God. If as leaders we don’t lead in this area, then the Great Commission will become the Great Omission. The furtherance of the Gospel ends with our generation.
In June 2019 I set out on a mammoth bike ride across the United States, talking—and more importantly, listening—to people from all walks of life about their stories, faith, Jesus, and matters of the heart. I clocked 3,000 miles total, pedaling from coast to coast, averaging 100 miles per day—and met all sorts of people. Truckers. Cowboys. Mechanics. Atheists. Muslims. People in gay marriages. I wasn’t trying to convert people. I was trying to bless people. Along the way I discovered that people were eager to talk about life’s deepest issues, largely because they were unaccustomed to anyone offering to listen.
Let’s face it. Historically, a lot of our evangelism training was geared toward Christians who were eager to evangelize. And that wasn’t many. Teaching our congregations how to evangelize was a hard sell because the methods were created by evangelists for evangelists—people who had the specific gift.
But I began to wonder, What if, instead of rushing to tell people about the plan of salvation, we could train our churches to approach everybody—family, friends, coworkers, strangers—in a way that was based on our relationship with God? Loved. Invited. Accepted. And then see what Jesus does with the results.
Here’s what I found while riding my bike:
1. When you truly value Jesus, conversations will flow.
Certainly there’s a needful place for teaching apologetics in our churches. I highly value apologetics. We want people to know the reasons for their faith. But more than teaching knowledge, I teach worship. I want my people to have a genuine love for Jesus, and when this love is at the center of all they do, then they can’t help having conversations about him.
People talk about what they value. I found that it was important to get people talking about whatever they like to do. I love to ride a bike, so it’s easy for me to talk to anyone I meet about bikes. I can easily talk—and listen—about brakes and wheels and derailleurs and the merits of electronic shifting.
I also love Jesus. Due to my deep love for Christ, I can also easily talk—and listen—about why the gospel of Jesus Christ matters today. People desperately need hope, and Jesus offers ultimate hope. That’s where I often tried to lead a conversation.
But what do other people value most? That’s where I needed to start. Their children? Job? Hobby? Hurts? One question I often asked on my trip, after a few easygoing greetings to see if a conversation could begin, was this: What do you value most? Or: What do you hope for? We might have started out talking about bikes or the weather, but when we started talking about values or hope, that’s what often led to a deeper conversation.
2. Where God has you is where Jesus is.
I certainly don’t teach my congregation that everybody needs to ride a bicycle across the country. I made the trip much more as a once-in-a-lifetime experiment than as an everyday way of life. For most people, including me, the mission field is across the backyard fence, or standing next to another parent at the soccer field, or down the hall at work. Wherever God has us is where Jesus is.
On my trip, I found that boldness isn’t the only key. Taking initiative to start a conversation might be part of the key, but summoning up loads of courage to approach people with the Romans Road wouldn’t accomplish much. Genuine connections did. We have to take people seriously. We have to sincerely value people’s thoughts and opinions.
I found that the most effective way to have a deeper conversation was to talk to people wherever I was, invite them to talk about anything that’s important to them, listen hard and take what they say seriously, ask them what they thought about Jesus, listen hard again, then leave the results up to the power of the Holy Spirit.
3. The tone of 1 Peter 3:15 must guide every conversation.
We’re often quick to drive home to our churches the “always be prepared to give an answer” part of 1 Peter 3:15. But how often do we teach specifically about the tone of the verse? “Do this with gentleness and respect.”
Those two attitudes are so important to have in any conversation. Gentleness. Respect. On my trip I found that it’s vital these days not to force my beliefs on people. I put my agenda under control. I didn’t try to start—or win—any arguments. I didn’t try to push my viewpoint. I didn’t try to get the last word. Gentleness and respect got me further than boldness ever would.
When I treated people with gentleness and respect, I met them as is, where is.
Overall, I found that deeper conversations aren’t always easy to start. At times, people made it clear they didn’t want to talk. I didn’t push. Sometimes I asked a simple follow up question, but most times I simply backed away. I trusted that Jesus was working in people’s lives even if we didn’t connect.
But one important conclusion happened again and again. When I finished a conversation, the people I spoke with said they’d love to talk with me a second time. The door stayed open.
Those second conversations are important. It indicated to me that hopefully I had genuinely cared. And it showed that they were open to more.
It’s hard to explain the full plan of salvation in any single conversation if a genuine relationship isn’t already established. Rather, I’ve found that the gospel seeps out little by little, the more we listen to a person, the more we invite them to tell their stories, the more our conversations are genuinely curious, kind, and respectful.
HOW TO USE THIS RESOURCE
The Listening Road purposely doesn’t offer overt teaching on evangelism. The book models effective listening, and it will help your church imagine how they might have conversations about God, faith, and things that matter. You could hold a book club at your church where people read a chapter from The Listening Road each week then discuss.
Ask: what might you do in a similar situation? Where has God placed you? How has God shaped your story and passions?
ABOUT NEIL TOMBA
Neil Tomba is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and the senior pastor of Northwest Bible Church in Dallas, Texas, a position he’s held since 2001. The Listening Road is his first book.