Continue the Conversation
This past week I had a discussion with a couple of fellow believers who had had a significant conversation with an elderly person who was in the last days of his life. They were talking to him of the grace and forgiveness offered by God. His response was, “I have cheated and lied. I have not treated people properly. God will not let me into heaven.” They did not know how to respond.
What would your response be? How would you carry on this conversation?
I will give a possible response from my perspective at the end of the article, but at this point I would like to propose that people in our churches are having significant conversations like this in many different forums (hospitals, schools, work, playing sports) and with a variety of people (friends, family, acquaintances). What we require is support from other believers to discover how to continue the conversation.
Significant Conversations is designed to help believers as we talk with the people in our lives about the important issues of life. Coaching for churches encourages the development of a culture of prayer and mutual support that further strengthens the impact of significant conversations in our lives. The purpose statement for coaching Significant Conversations is to equip groups of “champions” in local churches for the role of initiating, supporting and encouraging other believers as they engage those outside the church in significant conversations. This includes:
- Praying with believers that God will provide opportunities for them to engage in significant conversations
- Creating forums to discuss the challenges, questions and difficulties that arise from significant conversations
- Providing means to celebrate what God is doing through these relationships
The goal is to provide a support network in the church that will enable believers to be intentional Christians in their day-to-day relationships. This process is a form of contextualization in which we learn how to engage the common opinions and beliefs of those around us from the perspective of our own convictions and view on life. Because we are followers of Christ, our perspective on life will be centered on our faith in him.
Most of us stumble in knowing how make a relevant, comfortable and significant connection between what is important to us and the contrasting expressions of values and beliefs we encounter each day. We may fail to listen to and validate an opposing view, and we fumble the opportunities we do get to speak authentically about the basis for our life choices. Significant Conversations proposes a way to establish a network of support within churches so that when we engage others in what is significant in life, we are not doing it on our own.
What Drives Significant Conversations (the basic principles)
- Bringing people into the kingdom is God’s mission, not ours. This concept of missio dei1 assumes that God is active, even where the church is not involved. The Holy Spirit is at work in people’s lives and it is he who challenges assumptions and brings a longing in their hearts. Our relationship with others is, first and foremost, an act of God as he exposes them to kingdom living. But we are not responsible for their redemption; that is role of Jesus alone. Like parents who are responsible to keep their children safe, so it is God as father who brings people to himself. Our responsibility is to engage others with love, authenticity and transparency.The orientation of missio dei erases the guilt that is often generated by the idea that if we do not witness, people will go to hell. This burden of eternal judgment is not ours to bear. God is not limited by our actions and his grace is sufficient even in spite of our clumsy, distracted and insensitive words and deeds. At the same time, God invites us to take part in the greatest adventure of all – knowing him. Part of that adventure is found in our significant interactions with others during which Jesus shines through. When we are with Jesus, we are automatically salt and light.
- Impacting people with the reality of knowing God through Jesus needs to be a communal, rather than individual effort. Rather than limiting the work of the church to ministry plans, church programs and worship services, consider the primary impact and essential life of the church to consist of the daily interactions of the believers outside of formal programs. If interactions focusing on the significant issues of life become the main concern of how church is lived out in the broader community, then people will not be left on their own, but will experience support and networking within their daily calling as disciples.
- Rather than creating events to bring church people into contact with strangers, focus on where people are already living their lives. Every week people have dozens of conversations, many of them significant. Begin with those who are already involved and enhance their impact by providing encouragement and prayer support.
- Develop a culture of prayer and interaction. The point here is to move significant conversations out of the realm of individual initiatives and into the realm of corporate prayer. Leaders (“champions”) pray with people in the church for opportunities to be engaged in conversation about what is important in life. These prayer times can be both formal and informal: during a meeting or after talking to someone in a coffee shop, over the phone or in the foyer after church. We want to develop a culture that takes advantage of any opportunity to pray with others. In order to be sustainable and effective, this needs to move beyond a program and become an expression of the life of the church. That is, it becomes a natural and common occurrence to ask about those people with whom our brothers and sisters in Christ have impacting relationships. Creating a culture means that it is natural to pray with our fellow believers about significant conversations. It becomes natural to talk about our own conversations and to ask for prayer that we would have opportunity to engage others in exploring the significant aspects of life.
- Pray for opportunities to be invited into God’s mission. This is not just prayer for God to act by bringing salvation, a change of heart, or transforming events into people’s lives. Instead it is prayer that specifically asks God to give opportunities for significant conversations. This is not prayer for God to work apart from us, but prayer to action. Furthermore, it is not asking God to bless our plans to action, but a prayer for God to include us, through significant conversation, in the work of his Spirit that is already occurring in the lives of others.
- Intentionally look for the opportunities that have been asked for in prayer and respond. Respond to others first with a desire to listen, learn and care. Then, because it is a conversation, we are free to add our own perspectives and beliefs that are relevant to the topic. There is no need to practice or produce a memorized speech and, in fact, that would likely be counterproductive.
- Significant conversations must be authentic. The goal is not to discover a segue through which someone can be invited to church or through which a testimony or a gospel presentation can be given. Rather authentic and honest conversation demands that what is said truly reflects our own perspective; why we believe and act the way we do, our witness to what we have experienced and what drives us. If Jesus is not revealed when we talk about our lives, then something is wrong inside of us. The solution is not to master someone else’s evangelistic approach, but to center our lives on Christ.
- Learning how to communicate the gospel relevantly happens in the context of significant conversations. Rather than first learning a gospel message in an academic environment or Bible study and then, once prepared, stepping out to give the message, Significant Conversations suggests that a “dance” needs to occur between our immediate situation and the gospel. The message of Christ must take shape through its engagement with our life and beliefs. Such contextualization takes place over a long period of time as we discover how the gospel is relevant for another person and we learn to communicate that relevance. Ongoing significant conversations thus serve as a stimulus for believers to seek biblical depth and support in prayer so that they can respond well.
- Significant conversations should be ongoing. If the goal is to “give the gospel,” the tendency is to focus on the message rather than the relationship. In that case, once the message is given, the conversation is over. However, for significant conversations the goal is to maintain a conversation that continues on whenever the opportunity arises. Unfinished threads of thought dropped in one exchange can be taken up as the situation warrants with the goal of going deeper and hearing each other more clearly. We do not fear to listen to another’s convictions, for, as E. Stanley Jones claims, no matter the company, Jesus shines2.
- Forums to talk together about issues that we are facing and to explore how Jesus relates to the questions people are asking today are important. Through significant conversations the questions, issues and concerns of the day are revealed. These can be discussed within the context of biblical teaching to discover how the Bible is relevant. The goal, however, is not to find the perfect answer in order to “win” a debate or to convince an unbeliever. Rather, as the conversation continues, we want to be so confident of the gospel inside us that, when we talk, Jesus comes out naturally, as part of who we are.
- Significant conversations can lead to messy discussions in the church. If the church provides support for conversations with people outside the church, then forums to discuss the ideas presented are required. The questions, doubts and skepticism of the world need to be faced honestly. People outside the church base their life-style choices and beliefs on a different foundation than those in the kingdom. Therefore, the engagement that occurs through significant conversations will be awkward and even frightening at times. The temptation will be to provide answers in a defensive posture or to cut off the conversation prematurely. The leaders’ role is not to provide definitive answers that will end the conversation, but instead help people learn how to maintain the conversation and navigate the differences in a way that strengthens and equips the believer.
- Celebrate what God is doing and the impact being made. Rather than focusing exclusively on commitment to Christ as the one step worth celebrating (which it is!), we need to rejoice in all the steps people make towards faith in Christ.
“God will not let me into Heaven”
So how could the conversation be continued when someone declares, “God will not let me into Heaven”? If this question was brought up for discussion in a significant conversations forum, I would probably add my thoughts to the exchange in the following way.
This comment is an open invitation to explore the fears, concerns and struggles this man is wrestling with. I would want to explore what he actually meant, rather than taking it at face value. Questions are called for, not lectures: “What is God like, that he would refuse you entrance?” or “Suppose you could live life again, would you do it differently? Why?” “Do you think God cares about your change in attitude?” “Do you think God wants you to suffer for what you have done?” “Do you think you should suffer for what you have done? What good would that do?”
People bowed down by guilt do not want a “get out of jail free card.”
I doubt if the man was arguing against the mercy of God, so assurances of God’s grace would be amiss. Rather, I suspect this was a positive step towards recognizing the evil in his life and a refusal to let that guilt be dismissed cavalierly. People bowed down by guilt do not want a “get out of jail free card.” They recognize that this would not be an act of justice. To live consequence free is not appropriate, but neither do they want to have an eternity of guilt on their conscience by not suffering for their wrongdoing. If “saying sorry” means they will be granted a free ticket into heaven, they know instinctively that all that is right and good in the universe would be appalled. Asking questions provides opportunities for such thoughts to be expressed, rather than squelching the opportunity with a distracting comment or unhelpful platitude.
If this situation was discussed in a Significant Conversations forum, the following response would provide a different perspective on the question and could help us learn how to provide an authentic witness in our half of the conversation: “Maybe God isn’t concerned about whether or not we get into heaven. Maybe that is not the point. In fact, I think that when I stand before God I will be totally naked: physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. All the thoughts and actions of my whole life will be laid out before us. In his light nothing will be hidden. And then God will look at me in all my nakedness and he will say, ‘I love you.’ How could I not respond to that?”
Jesus didn’t come to earth in order to get us into heaven
I may also explain, “Jesus didn’t come to earth in order to get us into heaven. He came to make us right. He came to rescue us from the evil that we have done, not the consequences for what we have done. That is a by-product! He came to heal us from the cancer of our life. He came to give us life. He came to bring us into the fiery presence of God so that all that is wrong and twisted can be burned out of us. Nothing we have done can be changed, and there are consequences. Nonetheless, God is bigger than that, and Jesus can make it right. But it will cost us our life. We must surrender it all. We cannot fix ourselves, and living forever in hell isn’t going to make it right for all those people we have hurt. But God loves us and wants to make us right. He is not in the business of excusing our sin and giving us a free ride to heaven. He is in the business of ripping that evil out of our life. He is like a true father that will not excuse his child for even the smallest character flaw, and will suffer all things so that the child will become a true and mature adult. God wants to live with us, like the father in the parable who welcomed the return of the prodigal son, but we must deny ourselves. We even have to deny ourselves the pleasure of feeling that our suffering from guilt means anything. It is God in Christ who suffered, not us.”
Such discussions are not intended to produce clever answers that can be memorized, but to articulate and internalize the truth we live by. When believers meet together to pray about their involvement in God’s mission and to discuss the questions and concerns that have been raised in their conversations, then there is a sense of excitement towards our participation in what God is doing. Such forums provide needed encouragement, direction and support for the conversations in our lives.
- 1 Bosch, D.J. 1991. Transforming Mission. Paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll: Orbis, p. 389.
- 2 Jones, E. Stanley. 1926. The Christ of the Indian Road. McClelland & Stewart: Toronto, p. 168.