There is one way of witnessing that we should always bear in mind. Jesus said, ‘Everyone who acknowledges me… I also will acknowledge’ (Matthew 10:32). An acknowledgement is usually very short, so this verse suggests that we can witness by briefly acknowledging the Lord in a conversation. We can then see if our conversation partner picks up on this comment. If they don’t, we leave our remark without making an issue of it.
For instance, perhaps we are chatting with someone about the news when they say something about an awful disaster or terrorist act. We might ask, ‘Do you think faith in God can help people in such situations?’ If they follow up on our remark, then we can continue. If they do not, we can just let it go. Another opportunity will arise.
It is important to know when to let things go. We Christians are sometimes in danger of being so passionate about our message – which is understandable – that we fail to be sensitive to the negative reaction of those listening to us. Therefore here are some things to bear in mind.
Firstly, we should be careful not to acquire a reputation as a ‘monomaniac’ – someone who can only talk about one thing – and therefore get put down as a ‘religious nut’. If we want people to be interested in what we have to say, out of love for them, we need to converse with them about other subjects. We must not be a one-track person. If we feel that we have too few interests to make us an interesting conversation partner, we should find some more! At the very least we can read a newspaper or listen to the news so that we can chat about the wider world.
Secondly, when we sense someone is beginning to feel ‘got at’, we should not press the point but move on. That is, we must always be prepared to give the other person space. We need to judge when they have had enough – and before they tell us so.
The key thing is not to let ourselves get under pressure to ‘give a message’. Not only will that prove intimidating but we will fail to communicate the gospel effectively. However, sometimes things are taken out of our hands.
This happened to me once. Sitting at a meal with a group of young people, some Christians and some not, I was asked by the person beside me why I believed in the resurrection of Jesus. I answered but tried to keep my voice down. However, that had the very opposite effect to the one I wanted – the buzz of conversation at the table died down, and all were listening. Finally, one man further down the table could stand it no more. He hammered his knife on the table and shouted, ‘Stop that nonsense. I have never heard such rubbish in my life.’
There was dead silence as they waited for me to say something. I commented (trying to give myself space to think!), ‘You seem to feel very strongly about this.’
‘You bet I do,’ he said.
‘In that case, I would be interested to know what you made of the evidence for the resurrection given in the New Testament when you studied it …’
‘I, well, I didn’t know there was any,’ he spluttered.
The meal was over, and I invited him to my room for coffee. He was open enough to ask about this evidence for the resurrection. After a while, I paused the conversation by enquiring, ‘Suppose I could provide enough evidence to demonstrate that Jesus did rise from the dead and was the Son of God as he claimed. Tell me, would you be prepared to take the step of trusting him for salvation?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘my parents shoved this stuff down my throat when I was at home, and I just don’t want anything to do with it!’
‘Thanks for being honest,’ I replied, ‘for that is really the first honest thing you have said to me all evening.’
The conversation at once changed in tone as he told me about the resentment he had against this ‘religious stuff ’ pushed into him. It was not long before he realised that there was a rational way to approach the Christian faith without emotional blackmail. Wonderfully, once he saw this, it was not long before he became a Christian.
This example shows that sometimes people’s initial reactions and even their questions are driven by emotion and experience rather than reason. We have to be sensitive enough to tell the difference and address the questioner more than the question. Of course, not all reactions are like this. Treat questions as genuine unless there is good reason to think otherwise.
Hosting discussion events
Another way of getting conversation going is to invite people to a meal and to watch something interesting on TV or the internet. The meal does not necessarily have to be elaborate. In fact, for this purpose, something simple is best.
When I was a student, we had very little technology. However, I did have a reel-to-reel tape recorder (how primitive it seems nowadays!) and recordings of a series of lectures called, ‘The Case for Belief ’. These were by my friend and mentor, Professor David Gooding, and in them he dealt with various objections to Christianity. I would simply tell my guests that I had found the talk interesting and would play a short extract which we would then discuss. The response was excellent, and some very fruitful conversations ensued.
There is so much more material available today, such as podcasts, that can be used for the same purpose. Especially useful are those that have interactions between, say, Christians and atheists – since both sides are represented, people are much more willing to listen because they are less likely to feel ‘got at’. One very good source is Premier Christian Radio’s podcasts of their show Unbelievable with Justin Brierley, which is an apologetics and theology debate programme. There are many others easily to be found on the internet.
I am aware that some people take fright at the idea of this kind of thing. A common reaction is: ‘I would be too scared to do that because I have no skill at leading a discussion.’ My response is who said you had to lead a discussion? If you invite a mixed group of people and together listen to or watch something interesting, there will be a discussion whether or not you say anything. We need to get right out of our heads the notion that anything like this all depends on our ability to lead a discussion. It doesn’t. Instead, trust the Lord and be willing to take a risk by doing something along these lines. Witnessing is like swimming. You will never be sure the water will hold you up until you commit yourself and get into it. Take the plunge to witness, and you will find that the Lord will hold you up as he has promised.
This article is an extract from the book ‘Have no fear – being salt and light even when it’s costly’ by John Lennox published by 10publishing, a division of 10ofthose.com and reprinted with permission.