112. DMM Critiques addressed at FI Summit 2020

Overcoming Obstacles in Disciple Making Movements (DMM)

In their book, TerraNova: A Phenomenological Study of Kingdom Movement Work among Asylum Seekers in the Global North – which provides an overview of DMM critiques in chapter 3, Cocanower and Mordomo divide these critiques into theological, ecclesiological and methodological issues (p. 55). The following focuses on 4 critiques that are pertinent for what Fellowship International is seeking to implement through its DMM efforts.

1. Is it valid to prioritize a discovery process in disciple making over teaching and preaching? (Ecclesiastical).

Is a discovery process such as DBS sufficient for disciple making, or should it be supplemented by more directive and instructional teaching? Does an emphasis on discovery learning as superior for disciple making devalue traditional means of transferring information from the knower to the learner? Is a discovery process appropriate from a biblical and theological perspective? Do discovery Bible studies result in the increase of heretical ideas?

An explanation of the concern:

God uses those with experience and training to help others see new things, things they may be blind to and understanding about what God wants in their lives. Being the church as a community means that we rely on our different perspectives to help each other grow as disciples. Is it possible to become too extreme in embracing a discovery process that we do not engage when we should? Trusting the Holy Spirit to guide is not just an individual issue, but an issue of God speaking through community and through those who are well versed in the Scriptures (cf the apostles seeing their role in community as proclaiming the word) – Phil Webb (private correspondence).

CPM churches have no identifiable leadership gifts in accordance with Ephesians 4, no emphasis on the central role of teaching or proclamation of the Word, and a de-emphasis on the role of the shepherd. – John Massey (quoted in TerraNova, p. 75).

In seeking to avoid one extreme – i.e., passivity – the T4T paradigm has gone to the other – i.e., antipathy  towards knowledge or expertise…. Here the dichotomy is between either absolute dependence on the Spirit as Teacher on the one side, or on the other side an excessive dependence on human teachers…. This excluded middle is T4T’s most puzzling and serious failure. – George Terry (quoted in TerraNova, p. 75-76).

My response:

There is a tension between the responsibility of each believer to engage and be obedient to God’s Word trusting the Holy Spirit alone to guide them in faith and obedience and the role of mature leaders to speak prophetically or pastorally into the lives of individuals. The struggle of all DMM practitioners will be to establish a “both-and” approach that ensures (1) a discovery process in which people grow in confidence that they can understand and obey because of their personal relationship with God through Jesus and (2) a communal setting in which mature leaders shepherd believers and speak into their lives. At least part of the answer lies in avoiding the extremes of JUST discovery without the input of competent teachers and JUST following a human teacher as a substitute for discovery and personal obedience.

The discovery process may be a necessary pendulum swing away from an unhealthy dependence on human teachers that sidelines the work of the Spirit, the clarity (perspicuity) of Scripture and the personal responsibility of obedience.

One argument for prioritizing the discovery process is that establishing disciple making through a discovery process leaves open the possibility for teachers to supplement that learning process, while early dependence on a teacher can undermine the responsibility of disciples to learn dependence on the Holy Spirit as they engage God’s Word directly.

2. Are DMMs biblically valid and worth investing in, or are they a recent “fad” that will soon be replaced? (Theological).

Are we so certain that DMMs are a valid, biblically-based mission strategy that we should abandon traditional approaches? If CPMs and DMMs are a renewal or revival of New Testament practices does this undermine the value of the way missions has been practiced to this point? Or has DMM strayed from an appropriate biblical approach?

An explanation of the concern:

CPM is new — and it is new in the overall history of missions. But in the world of modern missionary methods, CPM (circa 2001) is old. It is already being shelved for something newer. Another missionary friend says, “DMM (Disciple-Making Movement) is a kind of next-generation CPM with a focus on obedience-based discipleship and discovery Bible studies, and with less focus on planting churches.” But this new method only serves the point: Missionary fads come and go. Clear proclamation of gospel truth in the context of healthy biblical churches will last until Jesus returns. – Mark Stiles (What could be wrong with Church Planting).

Are the proponents of DMM correct? Is their model as biblical as they claim? Have they restored the proper biblical understanding of missions methodology that has been lost for nearly 1600 years? We will examine these claims of DMM as we shine the light of biblical revelation on each aspect of DMM methodology. We will see that DMM is not the biblical methodology it claims to be. Quite the opposite is true. Major components of DMM are built upon a faulty understanding of the gospel, conversion, discipleship, and the church. – Chad Vegas (A Brief Guide to DMM)

My Response:

The history of the church has been a series of reformations as committed followers of Christ have revisited the teaching of the Bible and then moved towards practices that more closely align with God’s will and nature. DMM principles and practices are an example of such a re-orientation that brings both challenge and hope to those whose current strategies have not been fruitful. This is not a condemnation of past practices, but a recognition that mission practices require evaluation in the light of Scripture that includes acknowledgement of those practices that God is blessing.

By embracing a DMM orientation the goal is not to blindly adopt new tactics, but to reconsider our own practices in light of what is possible, along with a willingness to do whatever it takes. We recognize DMM fruitful practices as strategies that are biblical and effective and therefore should be adopted by those seeking to initiate movements to Christ, while at the same time promoting contextualization of those strategies. Responsible missions looks to what God is doing in the world and seeks to be challenged and informed by what we find. As practitioners we are called to recognize the pattern of the missio Dei that is evident in DMM fruitful practices and adjust our vision and efforts in that direction.

3. Do DMM principles and practices work in every context, or only in specific places? (Methodological)

Are DMM principles and practices universal, requiring only contextualization in specific contexts? Or are DMM principles and practices only valid under certain conditions, such as communal societies that have a respect for Scripture?

An explanation of the concern:

Though T4T may have the most rigid and aggressive approach to evangelism, all Kingdom Movements have some sort of intentional, fast-paced and reproducible model for “seed-sowing.” George Terry expresses a series of concerns, including the biblical basis for such an approach: “The T4T model undervalues the importance of context in evangelism and proof texts [the parable of the sower in Matthew 13] to support its indiscriminate approach” (TerraNova, p. 67).

George Terry [suggests] that, “The more resistant a context is, the more important the relationship becomes. And in this context, I do believe we need to slow it down a bit and take more time, not necessarily to negate our responsibility to share… we share early, but in the context of relationship” (TerraNova, p. 68).

My research and experience have lead me to believe that Kingdom Movements undervalue incarnational ministry prior to sharing the gospel. This is partly a pragmatic issue ― knowing that each person has a limited amount of time that can be invested in discipleship relationships and wanting to prioritize those individuals who are eager to move forward (TerraNova  by Bradley Cocanower, João Mordomo, p. 68).

My Response:

Contextualization is essential. I believe this is a key message of the New Testament from Acts through Revelation as the apostles work out the message of the four Gospels in a first century setting. We have a similar calling to take the contextualized message of the New Testament and contextualize it again for the settings of our ministries. In DMM principles and practices we have an example of modern day contextualizations that God has blessed. Our goal is neither to unconditionally embrace DMM practices that work elsewhere and thoughtlessly practice them, nor to reject the principles as impractical within our contexts without doing the work of contextualizing them.

For example, the principle of “abundant gospel sowing” asks if there is a way to “filter” contacts to discover those with spiritual hunger and openness who become the people we invest in and develop relationships with. Such an approach does not deny the need for building relationships. Rather it suggests that (1) alongside of other relationships we are developing, it is good missions strategy to cast a wide net in order to discover those within whom God is working, and (2) when we find people with a spiritual hunger to know Jesus, those are the ones we invest in.

4. Is it appropriate to include seekers in obedience-based disciple making (OBD) before full faith commitment? (Theological)

Does the maxim “What you win them with is what you win them to” apply to disciple making so that seekers are invited to engage God’s Word as if they were believers, or does disciple making only occur after conversion? Is the claim “faith is obedience” biblically appropriate or does it undermine true faith that requires a two-step process: faith followed by obedience?

An explanation of the concern:

Jesus called us to make disciples. But when we place an emphasis on any particular aspect of discipleship, obedience or otherwise, we can stray from the type of holistic and balanced discipleship that Christ calls us to. – Joey Shaw (quoted in TerraNova, p.66).

[Discipleship should be] neither primarily knowledge-based, nor obedience-based, but rather doxologically based, “an intrinsic motivation, a desire and passion based upon love and recognition of the great worth of the Lord Jesus Christ, who desires and deserves to be glorified” – João Mordomo (TerraNova, p. 66).

We simply never see a command, nor a pattern, from our Lord, nor his Apostles, where unbelievers are discipled through regular obedience until they finally have sufficient trust in Christ to be baptized. Rather, the consistent method is the proclamation of the doctrine of the gospel. The proper response is faith and repentance, followed by baptism and teaching toward maturity in Christ. – Chad Vegas (A Brief Guide to DMM).

My Response:

DMM proponents consider obedience to be an essential element of a faith commitment. This contrasts mere faith acknowledgement that does not respond in submission and obedience. When James said, “even the demons believe – and tremble” (Jas 2:19) he was not commending the demons for making the first steps of belief, but condemning them for not having saving faith, which is submission to the will of God.

This commitment to obedience is reflected in the conviction within Fellowship International that “What you win them with is what you win them to.” As people come to saving faith through obedience to God’s Word, that practice and response will continue as the way they live out their faith. Consider the following quote from G. MacDonald:

Do you ask, ‘What is faith in him?’ I answer, The leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of his and him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as he tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this necessity—this obedience. It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something else than obedience as faith in Christ.

Instead of asking yourself whether you believe or not, ask yourself whether you have this day done one thing because he said, Do it, or once abstained because he said, Do not do it. It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you (Unspoken Sermons: The Truth in Jesus).

105. Is God more inclined to answer when more people pray?

At the Fellowship National Convention 2018 in Richmond BC, Paul Watson provided an intriguing story about research done on the disciple making movement (DMM) occurring among the Bhojpuri people during 1990-2010.  The one fruitful practice identified from the research common to those who planted the largest number of groups (80+ each) was that they each spent about 4 hours in prayer a day, getting up at 4 am.

As an application of this, Watson encourages anyone attempting to initiate a DMM to raise up 1000 prayer warriors to stand with them.

This brought to mind a question that was raised in an Immerse instructional seminar: “Is God more inclined to answer prayer if 10,000 pray than if 3 or 4 pray?” That is, do numbers make a difference?

I also reflected on Jesus’ words about the amount of prayer in Mt 6: “7 … do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

My reflections highlight the need for an appropriate theology concerning prayer so that we fully commit to a belief in and a practice of prayer so that DMMs will occur. Prayer is tied to the work of the Spirit in creating DMMs, but how? It would be a mistake, or even more forcefully, idolatry and heresy to think that what moves God is the number of people who pray, or the length of our prayers, as if there is an algorithm we are running that moves God to action. I suggest that it is not our prayers or even our passion that moves God, as if he checks to see how serious we are before he answers. Such a formulaic view reduces prayer to a cause and effect, as if it is our prayers that are required for God to act.

Rather, I wonder if prayer, true prayer, is best understood to be in and of itself an act of the Spirit.  It is not that when we pray, then God acts, but rather the reality is that our prayers are how God’s Spirit acts. We do not pray so that God will fulfill his mission, rather our prayers are birthed from God’s desire to fulfill his mission through us. That is, when we pray, it should not be viewed as our initiative, but as God’s Spirit moving us towards his mission. God does not act after we pray, rather when we are praying that is already the initiating act of the Spirit within us.

Perhaps this is the connection between prayer and Pentecost.  Jesus did not say, “Go to Jerusalem and pray so that the Spirit will come.”  Rather he said, “You will receive power when the Spirit comes upon you.”  And so they returned and every day joined in a spiritual practice of prayer (“They all joined together constantly in prayer” 1.14).  This was the Spirit of God at work, and how God does his greatest work – through prayer.

So when 2 or 3 are gathered together in prayer, God’s Spirit is at work. But when 10,000 are praying, that is an even greater work of the Spirit (cf. Jn 14.12-14).  From our side we may say, “God is moving!” However, from God’s side he was already moving with the 2 or 3; with the 10,000 now there are many more aligned with his unstoppable Spirit. When we spend a half hour in prayer, God’s Spirit is awakening us and drawing us into the Father’s presence; when we spend four hours in prayer, we have the privilege of being even more saturated with the presence of God.  This, I believe, is why Paul says, “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5.17), because that is how the Spirit lives in us, and how we live in the Spirit.

My takeaway from these reflections is to cultivate a hunger for prayer in myself and others. I will not pray more and get others to pray so that God will work.  Rather, a development of hunger for prayer and time spent in prayer, as well as urging others to pray, is an act of submitting to God’s call to join him in mission. God is on mission and through prayer we join him in his mission. When the Spirit moves us to prayer then there will be the fire of transformation, because prayer is where the Spirit lives. Without that prayer, we will be all alone in Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones trying to assemble skeletons with wire and crazy glue.

104. A Retelling of the Prodigal Son

Jesus’ parable retold with the True Older Son bringing the Father’s redemption. Luke 15.

Every day the son worked in the vineyards alongside his older brother and the other workers. At first, he enjoyed the smells, the connection with nature, the enjoyment of the fruit, the visits from the father and the guidance of his older brother.  (Gen 2.8,9,15)

But then the story teller came who spoke of exotic foods, exciting entertainment and riches and comforts unimaginable beyond the simplicity of the farm.  The son began to yearn for more beyond his current life and experience.  He began to wonder if his father was holding him back. A great dissatisfaction soured the daily experiences of his life. (Gen 3.1)

Finally, he went to his father and said, “Father, I need more than what you are giving me.  I know that you have great riches.  Since I am your son, let me have a portion that I can use for myself.”  The Father replied, “You are not yet ready for your inheritance.  There is some maturing and development of your body, spirit, heart and soul required before you are ready to handle the inheritance without injuring yourself and others.  Nonetheless, here is the key to your inheritance.  It is there in that trunk.  But do not open it until I give the word.”  (Gen 2:16,17)

Each day the Father came to spend time with the son and oversee his development, but the son was distracted and found the lessons tedious, irritating and irrelevant.  His thought was on the inheritance and he didn’t pay much attention to his tasks.  Finally, the temptation was too much.  He opened the trunk and took the inheritance.  He heard his father and his older brother coming, but he quickly left out the back door before they could find him. (Gen 3:8)

“Finally,” he said, “I am free.” He headed for the city of the story teller and began to experience the foods, excitement and pleasures he had heard of.

One day, as he was dancing, eating and drinking at a party, in walked his older brother. “I have come to bring you back to our Father.  He loves you, forgives you and wants you back.”  The younger son laughed, “Look at me.  I have discovered life on my own.  This is real living.  I don’t need the father, I don’t need you.  Go away.”

Time passed and the pleasures became desperation, the relationships with his friends crumbled and the coin he had did not buy the excitement and happiness he had previously enjoyed.  Life had become empty and without purpose.  He found himself deeply hungry for more and began to suspect that he had sold out what had really mattered for shallow promises and empty glitter.  A great gulf had opened up before his feet and he saw the end rapidly approaching which is death and darkness.

His brother came again.  “Come back to the father.”  The younger son groaned, “I cannot. I am no longer a son. I have burned my bridges. I have deceived and been deceived.  I have lied and believed lies. I have sold my soul and become a slave.  I am no longer worthy. I have debts I cannot pay.  I have hurt those I love and wronged them in ways I cannot make right.  I have cheated and been cheated.  I am lost and cannot get home. I have died and cannot live.”

The older brother replied, “I have come to find you and bring you home.  I have come from the father to make things right and bring you back to life.  I have spent my inheritance to come and make things right for you.  I have taken on your debts, I have broken your chains, I have healed the wounds you have inflicted and can bind up yours as well.  Whatever wounds that should fall on you, I take on myself. Come, in our father’s house are many rooms of healing, wholeness and purpose.  Look at what the father has sent for me to give to you.” He then showed gifts of the father that would cover his nakedness, allow him to walk on the right path, declare his identity as a son of the father and feed his soul. (Luke 15:22,23)

The younger son hesitated.  “What if I take these blessings and just live here?  I don’t think the father wants my presence.”

His brother replied, “You misunderstand.  These blessings do not exist without the father.  It is only in the father’s presence that you become clothed and can walk in wisdom.  It is only by walking beside the father that you are his son. It is only by sitting by his side that you can eat and feed your soul.”

“I want to, but I am too weak.”

The older son smiled. “Lean on me. I will carry you home where you will be made whole. I give my life for your life because the father is the source of all life and will make all things right.”

“My son,” the father said to his oldest on their return, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. We can now celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. Come sit by me.” (Luke 15:31,32)

95. Expand your “Personal Jerusalem”

Draw your “Personal Jerusalem”

Take 5 minutes and draw your “personal Jerusalem.”  This is a concept I introduce to churches when coaching them to practice methods of effective evangelism using “Significant Conversations.”  Based on Acts 1:8, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…,” this tool highlights each participant’s network of relationships that define our lives.  First, sketch a figure in the center of a piece of paper to represent yourself.  Then draw lines out from the figure to represent the various areas of your life in which you interact with people, eg., family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, teammates etc. Draw extended lines from each of those primary lines and at each new line write down the name of someone with whom you connect regularly and who does not have a commitment to follow Jesus.

Now ask yourself: “Does the cultural make-up of my ‘personal Jerusalem’ correspond to the ethnic diversity of those among whom I live and work?”  This is a personalized variation of an important church planting question: “Does the cultural make-up of our congregation correspond to the ethnic diversity of the broader community among whom we live?”  Even as churches can take steps to establish an “intercultural agenda” in order to develop relationships across cultural boundaries, so individual believers can introduce changes in their lives that lead to enjoyable and significant interaction with immigrants – interactions that have eternal consequences.  Maybe it is time to expand your “personal Jerusalem.”

The Mandate

As followers of Jesus Christ, we have been given the mandate to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19).  What is intriguing about this command is Jesus’ emphasis to intentionally cross cultural barriers in order to establish significant relationships with other ethnic groups.  In past eras, apart from relatively few missionaries, it was difficult for most believers to personally participate in this aspect of our Lord’s desire for us. However, God has now given Canadians the privilege of welcoming people from around the world and, for believers, this translates into an opportunity to participate directly in the Great commission.   No matter what our ethnic background is, the door is open to develop cross-cultural relationships that allow us to “make disciples of all nations.”

Because I live on Vancouver Island, I often travel on the ferry and local transit to get to Northwest Baptist Seminary on the Trinity Western University campus in Langley, BC.  The variety of languages and ethnic groups I encounter are evidence of the opportunity God has given us to fulfill the Matthew 18 commission in our own country.  On one bus, I happened to sit across the aisle from a young Asian woman.  I noticed she was reading a copy of “Our Daily Bread1.”  Intrigued, I asked her if she read the publication regularly and where she had obtained it.  She informed me that she was from mainland China, a friend had given her a copy and this was her first real exposure to Christianity.  She had many questions, and we chatted for the entire ferry trip as I explained the gospel to her. It was an invitation from God to join him in his mission within our Jerusalem.

Participate Now!

There are a number of practices that we can introduce into our routines that will position us to participate in the Great Commission.

1. Say “hi.” Some immigrants feel like guests who have crashed a party.  They are unsure of their welcome and would appreciate affirmation that it is OK to be here.  They have moved around the world and we only need to cross the street to introduce ourselves.

2. Talk about what interests them. If they are from India or Pakistan, they may be avid cricket fans.  Watch a game with them and get them to explain the game to you.  I spent an enjoyable half hour in Pakistan recently watching cricket with a friend’s 6 year old nephew.  He regaled me with stories of his cricket prowess.

3. Develop new shopping habits. If an immigrant family has opened a shop or restaurant, become a frequent customer.  Not only does this validate their presence, but you are able to build a relationship within their context.

4. Serve. Many immigrants are uncertain of what is acceptable and what is not.  It can be an ordeal just to apply for a driver’s license.  Walking with someone through that process strengthens the relationship through appreciation and gratefulness.

5. Be served. If serving is only one-way, the relationship will become uncomfortable and stilted. One church invited a local Punjabi community to share their Punjabi food and culture with the congregation.  If the church had insisted on providing the food and entertainment, it would not have worked.  Because the Punjabi community was given the opportunity to serve others and to share the things they were proud of, they felt validated.  This became a yearly event.

Develop Skills

When cross-cultural relationships are initiated, we are introduced to values and perspectives that are outside of our experience.  The learning curve can be steep, but tools are available to orient and equip those who are serious about developing healthy and mutually satisfying relationships.

1. Eric Law’s “languages of respect.” In his book, The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb2, Law points out that it is insufficient to act in a respectful manner according to our understanding of what constitutes respect.  Instead, we need to learn to communicate with others according to their norms of what expresses respect.  This requires an awareness of our own biases, an openness to appreciate the benefits of a different perspective and a willingness to learn and practice new ways of relating.

Recently, I was online reading critiques of an East Indian restaurant recommended by my son, Matthew. A few were harsh with complaints about the poor service.  I mentioned this to Matthew, who grew up in Pakistan.  He laughed and said it was one of the aspects that made the ambiance seem authentic.  He found the lack of effusive accommodation and smiles appealing and natural, just like he had experienced in Pakistan.  This does not mean that the restaurant owners are rude and do not know how to serve their customers; they are functioning with a different set of values than the average Canadian.  The reviewers based their judgments on western expectations and were unwilling to consider a different way of functioning as valid.

For practical suggestions on how to discover and explore another ethnic group’s language of respect, see the Cross Cultural Impact article “Resolving Intercultural Tensions 3: Speaking Another’s Language of Respect.”

2. Develop your Cultural Quotient3.  In his book, Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to engage our multicultural world4, David Livermore explores four dimensions of cultural intelligence: knowledge, interpretation, behavior and perseverance.  Each of these dimensions is important for competence in cross-cultural relationships.

Knowledge includes self-analysis about what I value as well as why.  It involves the gradual accumulation of information about other cultures.

Interpretation refers to the skill of seeing an action and understanding it according to the viewpoint of the actor.  A Sindhi friend, who is a believer, came into the translation office in Pakistan and exclaimed, “Oh my God!” He then turned and went out again. According to my cultural context, that expression sounds disrespectful.  So when he returned I asked him why he said, “Oh my God!”  He explained that it was an expression of gratefulness because as soon as he had entered the room, God put into his mind something he had forgotten.

Behavior goes a step beyond knowledge and interpretation to changing our actions in order to conform to what we have learned.  Until our actions reflect our thoughts, we have not really learned to be empathetic to another way of life.

Perseverance demonstrates sincerity.  There will be difficulties, hurt feelings and misattributions5 that need to be overcome.  But the rewards, both relational and eternal, that come from adding a cross-cultural component to our “personal Jerusalem” make the effort worthwhile.

Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing effective cross-cultural outreach. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 Our Daily Bread is a popular evangelical devotional publication by RBC Ministries.
  • 2 Law, E. 1993. The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb. St. Louis: Chalice Press.
  • 3 Online CQ assessments are available. For example, the following link is designed for short term missions.
  • 4 Livermore, D. 2009. Cultural Intelligence: Improving your CQ to engage our multicultural world, Grand Rapids:Baker.
  • 5 See Lane, P. 2002. A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a multi-cultural world, Downer’s Grove:IVP, for a good description of “misattribution” and what to do about it, pp. 27-30.

85. Shaping the Gospel message so that it Resonates

A Shift in Communicating Salvation

There was a pause in the conversation.  My visitor considered seriously the illustration I had presented to him.  He then spoke words that became a critical turning point in my ministry in Pakistan – he challenged my understanding of salvation.  To present the gospel, I would often use an illustration of a judge in order to communicate the need for Jesus’ death and resurrection.  My argument was that if someone commits a crime, a just judge can’t forgive wrongdoing based on past good deeds; he must punish the crime.  By implication, God cannot forgive our sins without payment or intervention from someone who can pay the price.

I had presented this scenario to my Muslim visitor.  After thinking for a few minutes he said, “It is true that a judge must be just, but a just judge can also be merciful.  Mercy need not be in conflict with justice, and God is a merciful God. God can forgive without undermining justice.”  I had been long enough in the country to realize the implication of this statement and I was struck silent for a time.  I finally replied, “You are right.  I will need to think about this.”

This was a crisis point for me and I realized that the judicial view of salvation that I had been teaching, based on Paul’s forensic metaphors in Romans, did not resonate in this Muslim setting.  My assumption was that people were depending on their good works for forgiveness, but this was not necessarily the case.  Their hope was in the mercy of a God who knows our weakness and is willing to forgo punishment.  In Canada, we live in a guiltinnocence culture; sin is doing wrong against a moral code and we have a high regard for the rule of law. On the other hand, Pakistani Muslims live in a shame-honor culture.1 Forgiveness is always possible when a command is broken, but a person who dishonors their family faces disastrous consequences, often without the hope of redemption.  I set aside a couple of days to wrestle with this question and discovered a perspective on the salvation of Christ that connects more closely with their felt need for a savior: through bearing the cross of shame (Gal 3:13), Jesus joins us in our separation from God. Because his relation to the Father has not been broken and he is alive with God, we can have a restored relationship with God by becoming “in Christ” (to use Paul’s phrase, eg. Rom 8:1).

Through this experience I realized that people with a history, culture and traditions unlike ours need to hear the message of salvation in a way that is relevant to them, a way that resonates with their sense of brokenness and need.  The way we understand Jesus’ salvation in our setting may not connect with the view of reality in another setting. Effective communication means that the hearer understands within the categories they use to make sense of the world.  By using words and concepts that they are familiar with, we are able to contextualize the gospel message.

Contextualization in Canada

Marie2 took a break from her emotionally taxing work at a charity in downtown Victoria to visit a family friend who made a comment about her spiritual search by means of an eastern meditation technique.  Marie responded by asking, “Does that satisfy you?”  The colleague was silent for a moment and then said, “Actually, no.  It doesn’t.”  The honesty of Marie’s friend has opened the door to further significant conversations, but where does she go from here? Would a description of the death and resurrection of Christ be accepted as the fulfillment of her colleague’s spiritual search?  How is Marie to discover and communicate how the message of the gospel resonates with her colleague’s yearning?

When a Christian believer interacts with a person with different beliefs there are a number of barriers that must be crossed in order for them to converse intelligently about their respective faiths.  Furthermore, intercultural encounters require lengthy and elaborate communication to facilitate reciprocal understanding.  For example, an outline of the gospel that makes sense to the Christian will be met with incomprehension from a Muslim:

Christian: “Because Jesus died, we can be forgiven.”

Muslim: “But is not God free to forgive whomever he wants?”

This gap of understanding needs to be bridged by discovering how the cross of Christ resonates with the spiritual need of those who do not know Jesus.

Steps to Discover Gospel Resonance

Fortunately, there are steps that can be taken by the believer to make the gospel message comprehensible to a friend whose allegiance is with another faith.  In Learning to talk ENGLISH, we considered four steps provided by Wen-Shu Lee that can help an English speaker converse comfortably with an ESL (English as second language) speaker.3 These same steps can be adapted to provide a process through which the gospel message can be shaped in a way that resonates with others.

Step 1. Establish a Conversational Etiquette that facilitates open dialogue about faith.

Younas sighed and looked ruefully at the end of his burning cigarette.  He had given up drinking “bhung,” a narcotic, he had quit chewing betel nut, but he couldn’t give up smoking. Whenever I meet with Younas, we share our faith journeys with each other and through the drifting smoke we discussed some Sufi sayings that he found significant (Sufism is a mystical expression of Islam popular among the Sindhi people). On this occasion one of the sayings reminded me of a lesson from the Sermon on the Mount, and I showed him the Scripture passage.  Laughing, he replied, “Every time I tell you a Sufi teaching, you are able to show me something similar that Jesus said.”  I concurred and explained, “In the Bible it says that Jesus is the Word of God.  He is the source of truth and all truth originates in him.”  Our established conversational etiquette permitted us to be open with each other about our faiths.

As emphasized in the articles on Significant Conversations, a conversation is not a battle to be won, but a pleasant interchange of ideas and experiences.  The purpose should not be to establish superiority of belief.  Such a stance will damage the relationship by initiating arguments, not conversations, about faith. Instead seek to establish an environment in which both faiths can be discussed, and be respected even in their differences.  There are a number of actions that will ensure this:

  • Listen to understand your friend’s faith, not to find weaknesses or inconsistencies.
  • Articulate your friend’s faith back to them so that they are convinced that you not only understand what they believe, but appreciate this intimate part of their lives.
  • Communicate your own faith with the goal of transparency so your relationship with your friend can deepen.
  • Follow the ABC process: Agree, Build and Contrast (See article: Tools for Talking about Jesus).
  • Don’t spend time developing arguments about why your faith is true, except where such concepts shape your life.  Tell stories about how Jesus makes a difference in your life.

(For further discussion on ways to hold Significant Conversations see “God will not let me not into heaven”)

Step 2. Differentiate between explanations about faith and stories of personal faith

Joanne was adjusting her chair so she could better view the other members of the committee around the table when one of her colleagues declared, “I am a very spiritual person.”  My friend was taken aback and interpreted this as arrogance and an expression of superiority, which is how it would be understood in our Christian or churched culture. She only realized later that her colleague was referring to a sensitivity to and interest in a reality beyond the material needs of life. Metatalk is important when conversing with people of other faiths in order to avoid misattribution: judging someone’s actions according to incorrect assumptions.4

When discussing faith, communication needs to take place on two levels.  The most important level is sharing stories of personal faith experiences.  When we talk about what moves us spiritually, whether a passage of Scripture, appreciation for salvation in Christ or the intimacy of prayer, we are being transparent and vulnerable about who we are.  This is what it means to be a “witness” to our faith.

However, a second level of metatalk is critical when speaking to someone of another faith. Metatalk happens when we step back from the content of the conversation and ensure that communication is actually occurring.  Linguistic Metatalk occurs when we discuss the meaning of vocabulary and concepts to ensure a common understanding.  A colleague related her frustration as a missionary in Latin America while dialoguing with nominal Catholics.  Although the religious terminology was the same, the assumed meaning of the words was different which hampered communication.  I have started to develop a new vocabulary to avoid using Christian words that tend to be misunderstood in the Canadian context.  For example:

Instead of…        I say…

Fear of God =    don’t be careless with God

Sin =   telling God “we can do better for ourselves than by following your way.”

Redemption =  “there is a way to be good again”5

Relational metatalk happens when we talk about the appropriate respect expected by each other when discussing spiritual things.  For example, in Islam the physical Scriptures are sacred, not just the message, and must not be placed on the floor.  The prophets’ names require titles of respect.  The way God’s name is used needs clarification.  A friend was talking to a Muslim woman who had learned English and was using the phrase, “Oh my God!”  When he questioned her, she was devastated to learn that in many western contexts the expression is used as an expletive rather than a sincere reference to God.  In her Islamic context, God’s name is constantly invoked with respect so that his presence is acknowledged.  Metatalk provides a means to prevent inadvertent offense and discomfort.

Step 3. Identify the spiritual yearnings of your friend.

a whole new doorway of understanding about how salvation can be communicated

Abdul Ali leaned towards me intently and responded to the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet.  He said, “Jesus’ meaning, as far as I understand, is this.  He was a prophet of God.  According to this book and according to our faith, he was a beloved prophet of God.  God gave him all knowledge to know who was true to him and who deceived him.  So God gave him the wisdom to know how to make his followers holy.  This means that there was a message here that Jesus said he would wash their feet and make them holy, that is, draw them towards him.  With his hands he would wash the feet, make the person holy and so draw the person towards him.”6

I had never heard the washing of Jesus’ feet explained in this way, but at this point in our discussion the correct interpretation of the passage was not the point.  I was discovering an aspect of the Sindhi culture that would open up a whole new doorway of understanding about how salvation can be communicated.

The way Jesus fulfills my spiritual longings will not necessarily reflect the way my friend finds Jesus relevant to his life.  We cannot assume that what makes sense to us about salvation will resonate with those from another religious tradition.  This was the primary discovery of the research project, Towards Contextualized Bible Storying: Cultural factors which influence impact in a Sindhi context.  We need to first understand how people hear scripture from within their different culture setting in order to shape the gospel message in a way that connects with their worldview.

This is accomplished by listening carefully to our friends when they describe their faith.  What are the spiritual yearnings that they hope will be fulfilled through the practice of their faith?  How does their faith make a difference in their life? It is important at this stage to listen well to discover the stories, images and concepts that express their spiritual concern.

The concepts of “clean” and “unclean” as spiritual issues are lacking in our western society. In another story, when Jesus heals a woman of her constant bleeding (Lu 8:43-48), we are impressed with Jesus’ power and compassion.  But the impact of Jesus reaching out his hand, touching the unclean and making them clean, is, for us, a minor part of the miracle. However, for those living in a culture like the Sindh, the state of being constantly unclean gives impact to the story.  A woman in the Muslim Sindhi culture is not permitted to touch a holy book during her period.  She cannot come into the presence of God because she is unclean, unfit for the holiness of God.  Imagine 12 continuous years of separation from God!  For the Sindhi reader, Jesus did not just heal a woman from a daily discomfort and medical distress, but released her from spiritual bondage and set her free to come into God’s presence.  The concept of  “unclean” for a Sindhi Muslim woman can reflect a deep spiritual longing that, when discovered, opens the door to the gospel.

Step 4. Demonstrate how Jesus addresses your friend’s spiritual desires

Manzoor raised his voice against the rattle of traffic outside the door as he related to me an expression of his faith in Jesus.  He had recently donated one of his kidneys to his brother who had suffered kidney failure.  After the operation, a number of people came up to him and said, “Because of that great sacrifice you are surely destined for heaven!”  His reply was that his action was not the reflection of a desire for heaven, nor was it fit as credit for paradise.  Instead, the action demonstrated his faith in Jesus.  Jesus showed the way of giving up his life for the sake of others.  Jesus’ death on the cross intersects with Manzoor’s life.  Jesus’ sacrifice resonates with that expression of his faith.  This powerful connection of the gospel with real life illustrates one way the gospel message has been contextualized into the Sindhi setting.

The final step to shape the gospel message in a way that fits the perspectives of others is to connect God’s word with the spiritual desires that have been identified in their lives.  As we provide stories and examples of teaching from Scripture that connect with these desires, we illustrate how Jesus is relevant to them.  Furthermore, illustrations from our friends’ own cultural context, such as in Manzoor’s example, can also reveal Biblical values. Discovering such stories will provide a clear connection between their spiritual yearnings and the Gospel message.

For the Sindhi Muslim, there are many connections between their lives and the gospel message: the sacrificial system, a concern for ritual purity, respect for God’s word, the importance of obedience and submission, the role of prayer in their relationship with God.  Similar connections exist in Canada.  Contextualization, whether in Pakistan or here in Canada, demands that we discover and understand the spiritual hungers that people have and then do the hard work of discovering how the gospel message can be communicated so that it resonates with those hungers.

Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships. If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment about this article, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 Roland Muller proposes that each culture is influenced in different degrees by three dichotomies: Shame-honor, Guilt-innocence and Fear-power. See Muller, R 2000. Honor and Shame: Unlocking the Door. USA: Xlibris.
  • 2 The names used in this article have been changed.
  • 3 Lee, Wen-Shu 2000. That’s Greek to Me: Between a Rock and a Hard Place in Intercultural Encounters in Intercultural Communication: A Reader. 9th Ed. Samovar, Larry A. and Porter, Richard E. Eds. Belmont: Wadworth Pub, 222.
  • 4 Patty Lane helpfully elaborates on misattribution and how it can be overcome in her book A Beginner’s Guide to Crossing Cultures: Making Friends in a multi-cultural world. IVP: Downers Grove, 27-30.
  • 5 Husseini, K 2003. The Kite Runner. Canada: Random House, 2.
  • 6 Naylor, M. 2004. Towards Contextualized Bible Storying: Cultural factors which influence impact in a Sindhi context. Unpublished: 68-69.

84. Learning to talk ENGLISH

Cross-Cultural Confusion

Early on in my attempts to deepen my ability to converse in the Sindhi language, I learned a new idiom for “dying,” which is similar to the English “to pass on.”  I decided to use it while conversing with an acquaintance and said casually, “When I pass on…”  He started and a look of amused disgust came over his face.  I immediately stopped the conversation and asked, “Did I not use that idiom correctly?”  “No,” he replied, “That idiom is never used when speaking of yourself, only of others.  When you referred to your own death in that way, it implied that you considered yourself an important person.”  In other words, rather than being a casual reference to my death, I had communicated an arrogant and self-important attitude.

Similarly, but with a different effect, consider the following illustration:

[An ESL (English as second language) student] learned an idiom “kick the bucket.” It had nothing to do with “kick” or “bucket.” She learned that it meant somebody is dead. She also learned that idioms have the potential to shorten interpersonal distance. The next day, she was told that her president’s father just passed away. When the president walked into the general office, [she] made a point to approach him saying, “I am so sorry that your father just kicked the bucket!”1

there are skills that can be learned

Such amusing and embarrassing examples that result from a misunderstanding of the impact and mood of idioms cause much grief for ESL speakers.  But they also provide a challenge for churches in multi-ethnic communities here in Canada who wish to reach across cultural boundaries to talk about spiritual issues with those who have a limited grasp of English. In cross-cultural evangelism, significant discomfort comes from the inability to connect and converse well with people who are from a different background.  Potential embarrassment and a sense of inadequacy to handle the inevitable misunderstandings cause people to shy away from conversation with ESL speakers. In addition, the ESL speaker can quickly become confused and embarrassed due to their unfamiliarity with idiomatic English. As a result, they feel overwhelmed and incapable of responding adequately.  Fortunately, there are skills that can be learned that will overcome these difficulties and allow for comfortable and productive conversations with second language English speakers.

Communication Skills = Effective Ministry

As British Columbia becomes increasingly multi-cultural and multi-lingual, churches will need to develop English communication skills in order to minister effectively to immigrants and others with ESL limitations. A previous article encouraged our churches to learn each other’s cultural “language of respect.”  In this article I would like to describe different, but equally necessary, conversation skills for mother tongue English speakers that will enable them to converse effectively with those who have limited ability in English.  This is accomplished by developing sensitivity to our use of idioms that can cause confusion and embarrassment.  When we provide a safe and comfortable speaking environment, ESL speakers will be more inclined to engage in conversation, rather than withdrawing to protect their dignity.

In an insightful and helpful article, Wen-Shu Lee explains the impact of idioms and also outlines steps that native English speakers can take in order to bridge the gap of understanding for ESL speakers.2 The development and use of the skills outlined below will create a comfortable conversational environment for all participants.

The nature of Idioms

Idioms are colorful shortcuts that communicate on an emotive as well as intellectual level.  They determine the mood of the conversation and are exclusive in nature.  That is, they refer to common narratives within a culture and they relate to the values and perspectives that are the given assumptions within the broader community.  For example, the figurative meanings of the following idioms, “bought the farm,” “get your feet wet,” “get your hands dirty,” and “a wild goose chase,”3 cannot be comprehended by an outsider without explanation.

But on an even more complicated level, idioms have a “relational meaning.”4 There are certain contexts in which their use is appropriate, and other contexts in which their use is out of place.  The two illustrations at the beginning of the article clearly demonstrate this reality.  Understanding the meaning of the idioms does not equip a person to the subtle nuances that guide their acceptable use.

As a further dynamic of idioms, they function as a key to “interpersonal closeness.”5 The use of idioms among friends is an indication and affirmation of the individuals’ identity and connectedness as a group.  Idioms refer to common values and experiences that constantly reaffirm that the participants are legitimate insiders of the group.  A lack of use, misuse, or confusion of idioms marks the speaker as an outsider.

The father of a friend of ours was dying.  She commented sadly, “He is so weak.  He is just bones and skin.”  We knew what she meant, but her error indicated that she was an outsider to our cultural context.

Skills to help ESL speakers feel wanted and comfortable

Lee provides four steps that English speakers can take to establish productive and comfortable conversational relationships with ESL speakers:

Step 1: Establish a New Conversational Decorum6

cultural sensitivity and candid discussion

As pointed out in the article on learning another’s language of respect, “Success in navigating intercultural relationships is dependent upon the practice of hearing and speaking the other’s language of respect.”7 As one application of this principle, it is important to establish mutually acceptable ways to address the errors that arise in conversation.  This requires cultural sensitivity and candid discussion. Talk openly and in general terms about how and when ESL speakers would like pronunciation and grammar corrected, as well as when to provide correction concerning the use of idioms.  Beware of how you indicate mistakes when they occur. Pointing out errors in some cultures is insulting unless done in the correct manner.  Laughter and light-hearted comments can inadvertently sting.  Watch for, and address, signs of withdrawal from the conversation and sensitivity to correction that may indicate hurt feelings or embarrassment.

Step 2: Differentiate Goal-Oriented Talk from Metatalk8

By goal-oriented talk, Lee is referring to ordinary conversation where the interaction is comfortable and unproblematic so that the participants only need to focus on the topicMetatalk, on the other hand, occurs when the participants step back from the topic and discuss the way the conversation is being conducted.  This occurs on two levels linguistic metatalk and relational metatalkLinguistic metatalk focuses on the meaning of a word or idiom, while relational metatalk addresses the appropriate context in which the word or idiom can be used.

In the “kicking the bucket” illustration, goal-oriented talk would occur if the president responded to the content of the student’s comment, either by ignoring the inappropriate idiom and thanking her, or with indignation to the implied callousness.  Linguistic metatalk would occur if they discussed the different idioms that could be used to describe someone dying.  Relational metatalk addresses the scenarios in which such idioms can be appropriately used.

Step 3: The Principle of Double/ Multiple Description9

This step requires English speakers to be aware of the idioms they are using and the references they are making that may be obscure to an ESL speaker.  They then provide additional descriptions that orient the hearer to the meaning of their statement.  This added effort is a concession to the reality that ESL speakers do not have sufficient familiarity with the Canadian context that would allow them to comprehend the singular meaning intended.  The ESL speaker generally requires additional cues in order to direct them to focus on the meaning intended.

For example, if at night I say to my wife, Karen, “toothbrush?” the familiarity of the context and our common experience causes her to respond, “yes, please,” with the expectation that I will bring her toothbrush to her.  If, on the other hand, I was to turn to her on one of our walks during the day and say, “toothbrush?” she would look at me blankly because the contextual cues do not provide enough information for that cryptic statement to have meaning.  Similarly ESL speakers struggle to identify the contextual cues and make the connection between the comments made and the Canadian context.  In order for a conversation to continue with a sense of control and comfort, it in incumbent upon the English speaker to provide that connection for the ESL speaker by using double or multiple descriptions.

In the “kicking the bucket” example above, the person who introduced the student to the phrase would have done well to clarify the focus of the comment, how it relates emotionally, the context it is used in, and what it says about our relationship to the hearer.  For example, “This phrase is used when there is no emotional attachment to the person who died and never used with those who know the person.  It is used when the death of the person is spoken of in a disrespectful or light-hearted, rather than serious, manner.”

Step 4: Find Relevance in ESL Speakers’ Cultural Context10

The final step helps ESL speakers relate the idiom to their own context.  By exploring various scenarios of death in their culture and the significance of the relationship with those who died, parallel situations may be discovered that will give the ESL speaker a “feel” for when the idiom can be used appropriately.  For example, a reference to the death of a respected grandfather will require a different attitude and perspective than the death of an ornery mule on the farm.  The former requires a more formal “passed away,” whereas “kicked the bucket” is appropriate for the latter.


These four steps can also be used as a method of contextualizing the gospel cross-culturally.  In the next article we will consider an example of how to help someone from another culture understand how Jesus as redeemer relates to their life by using these four steps.

Mark spends part of his time assisting churches in developing significant cross-cultural relationships.  If you are interested, please contact him via the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 Lee, Wen-Shu 2000. That’s Greek to Me: Between a Rock and a Hard Place in Intercultural Encounters in Intercultural Communication: A Reader. 9th Ed. Samovar, Larry A. and Porter, Richard E. Eds. Belmont: Wadworth Pub, 220.
  • 2 ibid., 217-224.
  • 3 ibid., 217
  • 4 ibid., 218.
  • 5 ibid.
  • 6 ibid.
  • 7 Naylor, M. Resolving Intercultural Tensions 3: Speaking Another’s Language of Respect.
  • 8 Lee, That’s Greek to Me, 218.
  • 9 ibid., 220.
  • 10 ibid., 221.

83. Further Tools for Talking about Jesus

This is the fourth in a series of articles on the importance of dialogue as the basis of Significant Conversations: Evangelism that resonates with our Canadian context.  The first two articles provided theoretical support for dialogue, in contrast to proclamation, as a valid and effective method of evangelism for our Canadian context. The previous article introduced some practical steps towards developing skills that lead to productive and healthy dialogue. This article provides further tools to that end. Significant Conversations coaching is available to FEB churches with the goal of developing local church based support networks that encourage, equip and empower people to converse in contextually sensitive ways about the values and beliefs that shape our lives.


The Pool of Meaning

In their book Crucial Conversations, Patterson et al. claim that “at the core of every successful conversation lies the free flow of relevant information. People openly and honestly express their opinions, share their feelings, and articulate their theories. They willingly and capably share their views, even when their ideas are controversial or unpopular.”1 The essence of Significant Conversations lies in developing the awareness and skills that turn a potential clash of opinions into a genuine dialogue that allows both sides to freely express their values and beliefs.  This “free flow of relevant information” is also called the “pool of shared meaning.” People skilled in dialogue are able to address controversial and uncomfortable subjects in such a way that other views are respected, heard and appreciated.  Everyone is invited to put their thoughts into the pool of meaning. “People who are skilled at dialogue do their best to make it safe for everyone to add their meaning to the shared pool-even ideas that at first glance appear controversial, wrong, or at odds with their own beliefs. Now, obviously they don’t agree with every idea; they simply do their best to ensure that all ideas find their way into the open.”2

This parallels E. Stanley Jones’ methodology of holding round table dialogues.  Jones was a Methodist missionary in India during first half of the 20th century who promoted and facilitated forums in which people were encouraged to express their faith.  The focus was on religious experience and how that related to their faith; relational truth as opposed to a philosophical discussion of theology and doctrine.  Everyone expected to learn and everyone expected to be heard.  Those who “knew Christ were testifying to something redemptively at work at the heart of life.”3 Because we trust that truth is permanent and lies have a short life-span, we encourage people to put their thoughts into the pool of shared meaning where they can be examined and tested.

What are some of these tools that can help us become facilitators of Significant Conversations?  There are more principles in the Crucial Conversations book than can be shared in this article, but we will examine three tools that provide an sampling of what can be done to create conversational space that leads to positive interactions.

1. Be a “Vigilent Self-Monitor”4

The key to successful dialogue is not having clever answers or quick comebacks.  Rather, as Patterson et al. insist, it “starts with the heart.”5 Those who are capable of providing an environment in which constructive dialogue occurs are aware of more than the content of the conversation.  In particular, they are able to monitor their own reactions, notice when they are tempted to act improperly, and take steps to correct their conversation style.

When our values and beliefs are challenged, we begin to feel unsafe and as a result may react in unhelpful ways.  Rather than respectful responses and attentive listening we resort to tactics in order to either control or “win” the conversation. We may use sarcasm or claim support for our ideas in a way that is dismissive of others.6

Those good at dialogue recognize when they are feeling defensive or unsafe and take steps to address it.  A number of steps are helpful:

1. Discover your own default style under stress so that you can identify it.  Patterson et al. have a free online test that will help you do this.

2. Step out of the conversation7 and be transparent.  Say, “Can we pause the conversation a moment?  I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable, and I don’t want either of us to feel attacked or dismissed.  I would like to hear what you have to say, and for you to hear my thoughts.”

3. Remind yourself of what you really want for yourself and your conversation partner.8 If you catch yourself striving to win at the other’s expense, acknowledge it, apologize and move away from that desire. If you can maintain a posture of two friends examining an issue, albeit from different viewpoints, both of you will continue to be encouraged to put your views into the pool of meaning.

Furthermore, good dialogue monitors are aware when others feel threatened or uncomfortable and take steps to make it safe for others to talk constructively.

2. Make it Safe to Talk

Make it safe

Patterson et al. point out that those who are skilled at holding crucial conversations are sensitive to both their own feelings and the defensive reactions of others.  They recognize the tensions and emotions that get in the way of healthy dialogue, step out of the content of the conversation to address those emotions, and then, when the participants feel safe, return to the topic of concern.9 This requires honesty, transparency and clarity of purpose.  Rather than the content, we need to focus on the conversation partner.

This skill resonates well with our goal as Christ’s followers to exhibit grace and love when relating to others.  Concern for the person needs to trump any desire we have to state our opinion or win an argument, and when we communicate that priority as we deal with others, trust is developed.  This does not mean that we shy away from speaking the truth if we think people may be offended.  Rather, I am suggesting that there are steps we can take to make it safe for all to contribute to the pool of meaning in such a way that when we do speak God’s truth, it can be heard without provoking unnecessarily defensive postures that drive others away.  We are actually creating an environment in which the truth can be spoken and listened to.

For example, instead of jumping into a conversation by addressing a topic that someone has raised, ask permission to engage the person in conversation.  Rather than stating, “I think it is wrong for people to…,” say “I have a different opinion about that.  I would like to discuss that more with you.”  This not only prepares the person for your alternate viewpoint, but also communicates that you want to have a respectful discussion, rather than issue a challenge.

Another way to create safety is to use contrasting statements.10 If, during the conversation, you sense that the participants are becoming defensive and emotional because of something you have said, step out of the conversation and state what you don’t intend, and also what you do intend.   “I don’t mean to insinuate that you don’t care about…. What I do want to point out is how we have different priorities and values concerning….”  By talking about the conversation, safety can be restored.

For example, abortion is a very sensitive topic.  A strong pro-life stance can make people very defensive so they respond with an emotional attack.  Rather than retreating (silence) or reacting in kind (violence), a possible approach could be the following: “I don’t mean to insinuate that you do not have a respect for the sacredness of life.  Your concern for the well-being of the mother demonstrates your desire for her best.  We have different priorities and values concerning what is best in this situation.  I think it would be helpful for us both to better understand each other.  I would be interested in hearing your concerns.  Would you be interested in hearing where I’m coming from?”

3. Recognize and Interpret Stories

My oldest son knows how to push my buttons.  I can ask an innocent question, and he will respond in a way that irritates me.  What is going on?  Do I really have buttons so that when someone says a particular sentence, I will be irritated?  No.  The reality is that my son and I have a long history of conflict.  When he makes a particular statement, I immediately relate it to incidents in the past and interpret the statement to mean more than is immediately evident in the words.  That is, I immediately make up a story about what he truly means.  Patterson et al. inform us that the best at dialogue recognize that behind our reaction to a comment made in conversation is a story that we have invented which interprets the person’s statement.11 If someone laughs or rolls their eyes when we are saying something that is important to us, we can react with hurt or anger because we have told ourselves a story about why the person laughed or rolled their eyes.  The tendency is then to respond to that story we have told ourselves even though the reality may be very different.

However, if we want to be good at dialogue, we will “take control of our stories.”  We need to “retrace our path” that led to the emotional response.  Crucial Conversations provides four steps:

  • (Act) Notice your behavior. Ask: Am I in some form of silence or violence?
  • (Feel) Get in touch with your feelings: What emotions are encouraging me to act this way?
  • (Tell story) Analyze your stories: What story is creating these emotions?
  • (See/hear) Get back to the facts: What evidence do I have to support this story?12

One of the fears we have as Christians (or at least I have) is that we will be ridiculed for our faith.  Although this is seldom the case, it is very easy to interpret people’s responses to our comments as a personal rejection or snub.  When we feel rejected, we need to step out of the content of the conversation and go through the four steps.  Once we recognize the story we are telling ourselves, we can learn to tell ourselves a different story, or at least discover if the story we are telling is the correct one.

The Goal of Significant Conversations

Those involved in Significant Conversations seek “influence without apology or attack”.13 Posterski points out that our Canadian sensitivity to political correctness in conversation tends “to pre-empt open discussion which might contain or imply anything negative about feminism, gay rights, aboriginal peoples, other minorities, or other world religions. The informal social policy pronounced by political correctness seems to elevate social sensitivity above truthfulness. A more discerning approach would propose that all views should be subject to scrutiny, including the ‘politically correct’ agenda.”14 As Christians, there is no need for the existence of different views to cause us to keep our opinions to ourselves, or, alternatively, to get into a fight about who is right. There is an important third way of dialogue in which differing views can be heard by all participants. Furthermore, within that “pool of shared meaning” there will be room for the gospel.  But it requires an intentional and skilled approach, supported by the prayer and encouragement of other believers, to develop an environment in which such discussions can be held with respect and effectiveness.


Mark spends part of his time coaching churches in Significant Conversations.  If you are interested in this method of evangelism, please contact him via the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.



  • 1 Patterson, K Grenny, J McMillan, R and Switzler A 2002. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 20.
  • 2 ibid., 21.
  • 3 A good evaluation of Jones’ approach is found in “Witness in the Midst of Religious Plurality: The Model of E. Stanley Jones”  by Mary Lou Codman-Wilson in Confident Witness – Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America, Editor Craig Van Gelder. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. See also CCI Article 81In Defense of Dialogue“.
  • 4 Patterson et al., 56.
  • 5 ibid., 27.
  • 6 ibid., 53.
  • 7 ibid., 66.
  • 8 ibid., 32.
  • 9 ibid., 67-68.
  • 10 ibid., 76-82.
  • 11 ibid., 100.
  • 12 ibid., 101-102.
  • 13 Posterski D 1995. True to you: Living our faith in our Multi-minded World, Winfield: Wood Lake Books Inc, 172.
  • 14 ibid., 166.

82. Tools for Talking about Jesus

This is the third in a series of articles on the importance of dialogue as the basis of Significant Conversations: Evangelism that resonates with our Canadian context.  The first two articles provided theoretical support for dialogue, in contrast to proclamation, as a valid and effective method of evangelism for our Canadian context. This article introduces practical steps towards developing skills that lead to productive and healthy dialogue.  Mark provides Significant Conversations coaching to FEB churches with the goal of developing local church based support networks that encourage, equip and empower people to converse in contextually sensitive ways about the values and beliefs that shape our lives.


Going Beyond Fight or Flight

canadian-passportThe setting was Pakistan in the early 90s.  I was having a problem with our visas and went to the capital city, Islamabad, to sort out the difficulty.  As I entered the government office, I was taken aback to find it crowded with close to 10 North American young people.  They had obviously been on some type of spiritual quest and had embraced the practices of an eastern mystic.  Rather than using the chairs they were sitting cross-legged on the floor, playing instruments and chanting. The office staff was doing their best to ignore them, but they did not seem terribly pleased at the abrasive stance and non-conformist actions of the young people.  One of the young women studied me for a bit and concluded, correctly, that I was a western missionary.  She then loudly commented to one of her comrades, “Christians are so hypocritical.  The Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but they ignore that command and kill cows and eat them.”

She was obviously throwing out a challenge that was directed at me.  I considered the dilemma: Should I respond and correct the misunderstanding evident in her remark, or should I remain silent? I concluded that she was looking for an argument and, therefore, any response to address her error would only result in conflict and a verbal battle.  As a result, I remained silent and let the statement pass unchallenged.  But were these the only two options at my disposal?  Was there a third way of addressing the challenge that could have led to constructive and healthy dialogue?

Canadian Christians live in an environment in which many of our values and beliefs are contradicted and challenged. All of us have been faced with similar dilemmas while talking to colleagues and friends, when values and beliefs are expressed that we view as destructive and false.  Do we challenge what is said and risk alienating people, or do we keep silent?  Fortunately, there is another option.  Rather than viewing such expressions as challenges to our faith or as errors to be corrected, we can develop skills that allow us to use these incidents as invitations to dialogue and opportunities to engage in Significant Conversations.  Rather than a defensive posture that results in flight (silence) or fight (contradiction and argument),1 there is a third way that leads to constructive, enjoyable and open conversations in which all participants can express their views in an atmosphere of respect.  But this doesn’t happen by accident.  Skills need to be learned and practiced.


Developing Skills to Talk about Significant Issues

In their book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Patterson et al. provide both the theory and practical application required to engage in effective and relationship-strengthening conversations when “opinions vary, stakes are high and emotions run strong.”2 Their book is based on years of research during which they discovered the skills used by influential people who are able to speak into volatile situations so that respectful and positive dialogue results.  In this article, I will apply some of those key principles and skills to the uncomfortable arena of conflicting values and beliefs. By learning how to face such challenges with grace and confidence, they can be transformed into positive and significant conversations, conversations in which our faith in Christ becomes evident.

The phrase “opinions vary, stakes are high and emotions run strong,” is an appropriate description of the tension and conflict that can arise when we face issues (such as current sexual practices) that are in stark contrast with our convictions.  In this case “opinions vary” refers to a clash in values.  When an uncomfortable value challenges our belief system and the way we live our lives, then the “stakes are high,” and we are prompted to defend our perspective.  However, confronting the issue can result in “strong emotions” that threaten existing relationships and lead to defensiveness and heated arguments.

conflicting values and beliefs [are] invitations

Patterson et al. point out that in such situations we can do one of three things: “we can avoid them, we can face them and handle them poorly, or we can face them and handle them well.”3 Avoidance means that we will lose the opportunity to develop a relationship on a deeper level. Handling these situations poorly is probably even more harmful than avoidance because of the damage done to relationships.  However, if we recognize these situations as invitations that can lead to non-threatening and thoughtful conversations, and then respond with the right skills, we can encourage positive dialogue that will lead to, not only hearing the concerns of others, but sharing our own Christian perspective.

The following example outlines one of the skills from Crucial Conversations that can be used to generate healthy and effective dialogue.


The ABCs of generating positive dialogue

I have a tendency to express disagreement with comments that I don’t think are right.  This is not helpful when the goal is to stimulate dialogue.  By immediately disagreeing (and I am trying hard to overcome this obnoxious habit), the conversation becomes defined as an argument in which one person wins and the other loses.  Fortunately, there is a healthier approach to expressions of values and beliefs that we disagree with.  Patterson et al. provide us with the ABCs4 of discussing conflicting opinions without conflict:

  • Agree: Rather than immediately addressing the point of disagreement, it is more profitable to discipline ourselves to find the areas of agreement.  By finding common ground we become cohorts rather than sparring partners.
  • Build. Even if we strongly disagree with the value expressed, it is better to phrase our view as a further development based on the area of agreement, rather than a contradiction of the other point of view.
  • Compare and contrast. Even when pointing out the difference between our view and the view of our conversation partner, it is helpful not to contradict them. Rather than stating that the other person is wrong, suggest that we differ and compare the two views.  This allows both conversation partners to explore the two views together, rather than attacking each other’s perspective.

As an illustration of how a conversation of values can lead to a witness of our faith, suppose a colleague mentions that their daughter is shacking up with her boyfriend, and seems to consider that appropriate behavior.  The two tendencies that do not allow the relationship with our colleague to deepen are either silence (not addressing the issue) or violence (indicating disapproval which communicates condemnation).  By following the ABC process, a positive outcome is possible:

Agree: “It is true that people living together before marriage is common these days.  That is far different than it was a generation ago….”  In this way there is agreement, not about the moral issue, but concerning facts that are common to the situation.  The topic is introduced in a non-threatening way.

Build: “Even though some of the relationships do develop to the point of marriage, it worries me that this often leads to weaker relationships and broken homes for children….”  This brings out an unspoken issue that may be a concern of the colleague as well.

Compare: “I think we differ in our perspective.   You have a pragmatic outlook and hope for the best and want to affirm them in their relationship so that it can be as good as possible.  On the other hand, I hold to the sacredness of the marriage covenant as something given to us by God that is essential for a relationship to develop into all that it is intended to be….”5


The Discipline of Dialogue

Developing conversational skills that lead to effective dialogue requires discipline, practice and a willingness to leave the comfort zone of our natural and comfortable response patterns.  But when we recognize the potential of these conversations to introduce people to Christ and deepen our own faith, the struggle is worth it.  In the following article, skills to control our own emotions as well as practical steps to make a conversation safe for others will be discussed.


Mark spends part of his time coaching churches in Significant Conversations.  If you are interested in this method of evangelism, please contact him via the Contact Me form. If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.




  • 1 Patterson, K Grenny, J McMillan, R and Switzler A 2002. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 29.
  • 2 ibid., 1-2.
  • 3 ibid., 3.
  • 4 ibid., 156-158.
  • 5 If you have other examples of how this ABC method can be used to stimulate positive dialogue, please let me know via the ‘Click here to comment’ link at the bottom of this article.

81. In Defense of Dialogue

This is the second in a series of articles which provide both theoretical support as well as practical application for the concept of Significant Conversations: Evangelism that resonates with our Canadian context.  In the first article, Talking about The Gospel in a Pluralist society, it was proposed that dialogue is a superior method of evangelism for our Canadian context as compared to proclamation. This article argues that dialogue is an appropriate contextualization of evangelism that fits with our cultural setting. Mark provides Significant Conversations coaching to FEB churches with the goal of developing local church based support networks that encourage, equip and empower people to converse in contextually sensitive ways about the values and beliefs that shape our lives.

Canadians don’t talk about religion

conversation picAt a meeting on developing multi-ethnic churches, I had opportunity to share the concept of Significant Conversations with a couple of young pastors.  They were excited about the potential of this approach to evangelism and proceeded to introduce it to their congregation.  One of the pastors wrote me:

“Last night I led a group through the 5 things we need to change about the way we approach evangelism from one of your webpages. It really made an impact and both [of us] felt it was the  message our people were ready for and needed to hear. It generated a lot of really thoughtful questions and at the same time excited them! It really is a significant paradigm shift we are guiding them through.”1

However, within a couple of months, they informed me that their congregation was not ready for this shift.  They first needed to have significant conversations among themselves before they would be ready to speak about spiritual things to those outside the church.

no talking religionThis unwillingness – even embarrassment – to talk about spiritual issues is common in Canada, but it is a cultural, not a universal phenomenon.  In Pakistan, where we served among the Sindhi people for a number of years, conversations about religion are common and natural. I would bring Sindhi booklets with me while traveling on the bus.  As I sat and read them, curious onlookers would ask me about the booklets and I would respond by explaining that they were about Jesus and the Bible.  Inevitably, people would ask for copies and some of them would come to visit me so that we could talk more about spiritual things.

it is easier to be tolerant when we do not discuss our differences

There are many reasons for the reluctance to talk about religion and spiritual matters in Canada:  (1) Faith and belief are considered a private matter, and there is a sense of impropriety that cautions us against probing into someone else’s personal spiritual space.  (2) While some people thrive on controversy, the rest of us would rather not face the discomfort of a disagreement. (3) Tolerance is one of our values, and it is easier to be tolerant when we do not discuss our differences.  In fact, disagreements are often considered in bad taste and evidence of a lack of tolerance.  (4) Furthermore, for those who “live with fear of the world, they are convinced that rather than being an influence, they will be influenced.”2 It is disconcerting to have our security undermined by ideas that challenge our assumptions.


Dialogue: presenting an exclusive religion in an open system

for a belief to be welcomed in a pluralistic setting, it must be presented within a context of options

It is also curious that in our society, there seems to be less tolerance for Christian ideas than for other belief systems.  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, Christianity is considered the dominant belief that has enjoyed a privileged position over the years.  A backlash to a perceived unfair advantage is not unexpected in such an environment.  But there is also a secondary issue with respect to the nature of Christianity as an exclusive religion within a context of openness and relativity. “By its very nature, a pluralistic society is open to new influences. As soon as a society endorses a ‘multiplicity’ of options rather than pouring life into a ‘one way’ mold, an open system is created. In contrast to a closed system that resists the introduction of anything new, an open system welcomes what has not yet been discovered or experienced.”3 Posterski’s insight is very important.  A key reason why Christianity is quickly rejected as an option in some quarters is because it is perceived as a closed system that resists new thoughts.  In order for a belief to be welcomed in a pluralistic setting, it must be presented within a context of options, rather than as a faith that can only be entertained by rejecting all others.

Is it possible to talk about the exclusive claims of Christ within an open system?  The answer is “yes,” if Jesus is presented as one option among many, one who is worthy to be explored. This approach need not compromise the requirement for eventual commitment and dedication to Christ, but to gain a hearing there must be openness to entertain other faith systems on a level playing field.


Creating a culture of dialogue

the prevailing opinion [is] that no belief should receive preferential treatment

The vision of Significant Conversations is to reshape our cultural context from one in which religious topics are private and considered inappropriate in day-to-day conversation, to a environment in which diverse ideas are expressed in a spirit of acceptance and courtesy. Dialogue acknowledges the reality that many opposing beliefs are at play in our Canadian context, and it conforms to the prevailing opinion that no belief should receive preferential treatment.  Rather than declaring up front that our belief is the only one that is legitimate and true because it is from God, a dialogical approach treats all beliefs systems with respect and listens to them; this allows our belief to be granted similar treatment. “When we impose maps on people and prescribe how they should believe, we step across the line. Rather than offering clarity, we convey superiority.”4 Proclamation says, “This is true, you must conform to this.”  Dialogue says, “In my opinion, this is true. Let’s compare it with what you believe.” Proclamation focuses on the exclusivity of the Christian faith, whereas dialogue allows for the discussion of our faith in the broader context of a plurality of beliefs.


Is Dialogue “selling out” to cultural pressures?

08gliteBut is this approach legitimate, or are we selling out to cultural pressures?  By choosing the route of Significant Conversations because it is more comfortable and natural for us in our pluralist society, does this mean we are neglecting our call to proclaim the gospel?  Are we in danger of “watering down the gospel” by presenting it as only one of many beliefs? Apart from the important clarification that this approach does not claim to replace proclamation, there are a number of reasons why dialogue represents an appropriate contextualization of evangelism that fits with our cultural “language” and mood, rather than an inappropriate capitulation to societal pressures.


1. Presentation does not compromise the message

The dialogical approach does not jeopardize the message; it focuses on a presentation that resonates with our Canadian values. Acknowledging the reality that there are competing beliefs and demonstrating respect towards those who hold to those beliefs does not mean that we affirm, approve of or endorse those beliefs.  Neither does dialogue imply compromise. “Compromise involves making concessions at the cost of personal integrity. Compromise requires that people surrender their principles to the ways of others. In contrast, giving permission [for others to speak] simply secures cultural space for other people.”5

dialogue does not undermine our beliefs, rather it causes us to evaluate our attitude

Furthermore, because dialogue replaces the concept of competition (I am right, you are wrong), with that of contrast (this is how we differ), it actually encourages the exchange of ideas in an environment that allows for friendly interaction and ongoing conversation. Posterski affirms that “the dynamics of life dictate that people who give permission also get permission. Mutuality is necessary to make life work in a society where diversity reigns. Those who give permission to others end up getting permission for themselves.”6 Thus, dialogue does not undermine our beliefs, rather it causes us to evaluate our attitude.  Posterski affirms that when we “distinguish attitudes from beliefs…, it is possible to alter one’s attitudes without changing one’s beliefs…. When attitudes develop conviction but also engender empathy, they foster relationships and open the door to interpersonal influence.”7 Posterski affirms the same principle in the statement that “when acceptance is the attitude and when appreciation for what is good in people is expressed, followers of Jesus are in a position to influence those who have not yet accepted Christ and his teachings.”8


2. Dialogue is Missional

toleranceDialogue is a missional approach to evangelism.  In missions, the missionary enters a context in which the gospel is considered foreign.  No priority is granted for the message of Jesus; a hearing for the gospel must be won.  Furthermore, the message itself must be shaped (contextualized) in a manner that is relevant for the recipient people group.  This requires an attitude of engagement and interaction with the people through which the missionary listens and comes to value how these people make sense of their world.  Only when the context is appreciated and respected can the gospel message be presented in a way that resonates with the culture. Similarly, in Significant Conversations the goal is to present the gospel as one of several competing beliefs, but in an atmosphere of tolerance and respect. As participants engage the gospel and contrast it with other beliefs, the hope and expectation, as was experienced in E. Stanley Jones’ round table discussions,9 is that Jesus will shine.

Rather than opposing “the principles that govern a pluralistist [sic] society: acceptance of diversity . . . , appreciation of options. . . , and interaction with alternatives,”10 a contextualized approach embraces these parameters and works within them to provide an approach that resonates.


3. Dialogue is a subjective rather than objective approach

information-overloadIn our Canadian context, the task of determining the true faith among all the available options through the use of logic is impossible.  If the gospel is proclaimed in an objective propositional manner, the implication is that it can be verified against a normative standard through a rational and logical process.  The response in our Canadian context is to challenge absolute declarations and to question normative standards.  When this happens, the task shifts from proclamation to an attempt to verify absolute claims and to defend norms.  This very quickly becomes unwieldy. Not only is the information that needs to be evaluated too vast to process (think of trying to sort out the internet!), but the assumptions that determine which facts should take priority cannot be proven by a logical process.  Unless both parties are committed to a long academic and potentially tedious process of collecting the facts and challenging assumptions, the discussion is usually unhelpful, resulting in stalemate and frustration.  Because the presenter of the gospel is required to be an expert in providing objective proofs in this model, it is one reason why many Christians shy away from sharing their faith.

dialogue conforms to the prevailing cultural mood of judging the validity of a belief by its fruit

On the other hand, dialogue conforms to the prevailing cultural mood of judging the validity of a belief by its fruit: if it works for you, it is true for you.  It narrows the context of discussion to the subjective experience of the dialogue partners, rather than appealing to an objective absolute. To declare one way right and the other wrong invites contradiction and argumentation.  However, expressions of beliefs that relate to personal experience invite comparison and contrast rather than competition.  It is less threatening for the presenter because they only need to know why they believe and bear witness to what they have found; proofs for an objective truth to satisfy a critical listener are not required. Scripture provides support for this subjective view: “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).

In our society we treasure free speech and thus protection for the expression of personal beliefs is a high value.  Because of this, contradicting is seen as arrogant and offensive, while differing is not.  This fits with our position as followers of Christ, because he calls us to be witnesses (Acts 1:8), not lawyers.  Through dialogue we create a safe environment in which all participants are comfortable to share their ideas.  As witnesses we do not convict people of the truth of the gospel, that is left to the Holy Spirit.  Instead, we listen to the views of others, express our own thoughts, and then compare and contrast the ideas so that people understand the distinction and the uniqueness of Christ’s message.


4. Dialogue avoids arrogance and arguments

While counter-intuitive, the reality is that the less firmly we express our opinions, the better they are received.11 Why is this?  It is because within our Canadian context, we abhor arrogance and we are taught from an early age to resist and find weaknesses in arguments.  Challenge is met with opposition.  However, if we do not put people into a situation where they feel threatened, and instead provide our perspective as a personal view (“this is what I believe”), then people will be more willing to try it on for size.

windWe need to ask ourselves “what do we really want?”  If we want to win and be proved right and others proved wrong, then a powerful proclamation may be called for.  However, if the goal is to see people come to Christ, then it should be recognized that in our cultural setting the way of dialogue will often result in a greater willingness to explore the gospel message.  At the very least, it provides a means by which the discussion of spiritual issues can be brought into the public forum in a way that frees Christians to express their beliefs without needing a philosophical or theological education to prove the truth of the gospel.

sun with glassesThere is a common parable about a contest between the sun and the wind.  The wind challenged the sun to see who could remove the hat off of a man’s head.  No matter how hard the wind blew, the man clutched his hat tightly and kept it on his head.  When the sun had his turn, he warmed the man to the extent that the man willingly removed the hat of his own volition.  Dialogue does not view evangelism as competition or challenge, but as an opportunity to create space so that people can exchange their views in a non-threatening environment.


Moving to the “how”

In the next article, we will explore some of the skills needed for successful dialogue.

Mark spends part of his time coaching churches in Significant Conversations.  If you are interested in this method of evangelism, please contact him via the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 Personal Communication.
  • 2 Posterski, D 1989. Reinventing Evangelism: New Strategies for Presenting Christ in Today’s World. IVP, 78. Posterski is specifically referring to Christians in this quote, but it is also relevant for those of other faiths.
  • 3 ibid., 77.
  • 4 Posterski D 1995. True to you: Living our faith in our Multi-minded World, Winfield: Wood Lake Books Inc, 182.
  • 5 ibid., 162.
  • 6 ibid., 164.
  • 7 ibid., 203-204.
  • 8 Posterski 1989, 77.
  • 9 A good evaluation of Jones’ approach is found in “Witness in the Midst of Religious Plurality: The Model of E. Stanley Jones”  by Mary Lou Codman-Wilson in Confident Witness – Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America, Editor Craig Van Gelder. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
  • 10 Posterski 1989, 168-169.
  • 11 Patterson, K Grenny, J McMillan, R and Switzler A 2002. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 132.

80. Talking about The Gospel in a Pluralist Society1

This series of articles provide both theoretical support as well as practical application for the concept of Significant Conversations: Evangelism that resonates with our Canadian context.  Mark provides Significant Conversations coaching to FEB churches with the goal of developing local church based support networks that encourage, equip and empower people to converse in contextually sensitive ways about the values and beliefs that shape our lives.


I. Moving from Proclamation to Dialogue

saint-paul-preaching-in-athens-3511-mid1Evangelism is traditionally thought of as proclamation.  Because we have a message, the message, that the world needs to hear, we are encouraged to tell the world the story of Jesus.  This approach has a strong history, from Paul’s declaration on Mars hill (Acts 17) through to Billy Graham’s gospel meetings.  Most evangelical churches consider preaching from the pulpit an important aspect of spreading the message.  There are also many programs that encourage Christians to memorize key verses, produce creative diagrams and use provocative questions to communicate the gospel message.  This article does not intend to undermine the value of these methods when used in the right context, nor suggest that we should not communicate the message of Jesus to others.  I have spent many productive years in ministry focusing on proclamation and appreciate this activity.  However, my experience tells me that, in our Canadian context, expressions of superior knowledge, certainty and exclusivity usually result in opposition and rejection.  People are hardened against exclusive proclamations of the gospel message, and to avoid uncomfortable and potentially disastrous confrontations, many Christians leave attempts to talk about the gospel to those who have a “gift” of evangelism.

I still remember my first experience of evangelism while in Bible college, fresh out of high school.  A fellow student invited me to join him at a park to present the gospel to people on a Saturday afternoon.  I thought I would learn the ropes from him, but soon discovered that he was as green as I was.  When we approached people to hand out a tract or talk to them, we were quickly rebuffed and stared at suspiciously by others passing by.  Upon our return (feeling wounded and bloodied!), I vowed that I would never do that again; such attempts must be only for the “gifted.”


II. Avoiding both Capitulation and Control

Open dialogue … with the goal of encouraging a cross-fertilization of ideas and beliefs

Fortunately, there is another way of being witnesses to the message of salvation, an approach that resonates rather than clashes with our pluralistic and postmodern culture, but which is seldom taught or discussed in our evangelical churches.  Open dialogue with those of differing belief systems is a method that encourages a respectful free-flow of meaning and is one of the few acceptable ways values and beliefs can be presented within our cultural context.  We can engage in conversation with the goal of encouraging a cross-fertilization of ideas and beliefs, rather than focusing on a one-way attempt to present a message. In this way an environment is cultivated in which our faith in Christ, along with other alternative beliefs, can be expressed and heard. Respectful dialogue creates a non-threatening, comfortable atmosphere that facilitates a mutual desire for conversations about the significant issues of life.

Dialogue requires tolerance towards and acceptance of the conversation partner while holding firm to personal beliefs and values.  Dialogue helps us avoid capitulation on the one hand – keeping silent and letting other’s opinions rule the day – and aggressive control on the other hand, in which only one view, our “correct” perspective, is presented. Instead, in dialogue mutual and transparent input of meaning by all participants with appreciation for each other’s beliefs and values is made possible.  The key to this approach is to avoid dogmatic assertion while providing a safe environment for all to clearly express their beliefs.


III. The failure to engage in Dialogue

culturally appropriate conversational etiquette

The bad news is that many Christians fail to take advantage of opportunities to engage in significant conversations, and when they do, they tend to slip into defensive or confrontational modes of speaking that stifle, rather than encourage the engagement of ideas.  The good news is that culturally appropriate conversational etiquette can be learned and, with an adjustment to our attitude and approach together with a little practice in conversational skills, enjoyable, stimulating and significant conversations can take place.

starbucks-cupOne young woman related the following incident to my wife, Karen.  She was working at Starbucks and commented to a customer who was heading to a Halloween program with her young children, “I don’t believe in Halloween.”  The response was immediate, aggressive and abrupt, “Well, I do!”  There was an uncomfortable pause until the drink was finally ready and handed over.  Such interactions are far from uncommon.  Unfortunately, rather than working out an alternative style that could lead to more productive conversations, such approaches are often justified with comments such as, “Well, maybe it will cause her to think about it.”


III. Going beyond the “sucker’s choice” of “Silence or Violence2

Onion model of culture SISIAs noted in the article Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture, conversations become significant when people begin to express their values about what they believe is right or wrong, appropriate or improper. Conversations can develop to an even deeper level when the reason behind those value statements is explored.  The “why” of a value reveals a person’s belief.  For example, if a person points out to a clerk that they have been undercharged and makes sure that the difference is paid, they have lived by a value of honesty.  The reason why that value is important to them is their belief (e.g., people should be treated with justice and fairness). Furthermore, to go even deeper, the reason why they hold to that belief is their worldview (e.g., people are created in the image of God and are therefore sacred and not to be taken advantage of).

Unfortunately, when a friend or co-worker expresses a value that is contrary to Christian beliefs, we are often incapable of recognizing this as an opportunity, perhaps even an invitation, for a significant conversation. Even if we do notice the opportunity to develop the relationship on a deeper level, most of us lack the tools to engage the topic in a constructive and enjoyable way.  We either keep silent and the opportunity is lost, or the conversation degenerates quickly into an uncomfortable and damaging argument.  In such a scenario, it is the better part of wisdom to let such expressions of values pass without comment.

A third way beyond “silence” or “violence”

Our emphasis on proclamation has played a role in reinforcing two common reactions when we are confronted with values and beliefs that oppose our conviction. Either we refuse to address the value or belief out of a fear of damaging a relationship or from a sense of cultural propriety and “political correctness” (silence), or we challenge the speaker, contradict their view and proclaim our belief in contrast to what has been said (violence).  I would like to suggest a third way, a way that can empower the people within our churches.  We need to learn how to address the contrasting views in our society without resorting to either “fight or flight.”  We need to learn how to hear a value that contradicts what we believe is right and explore it in such a way that a respectful, stimulating and significant conversation results.  The end result should be that all the participants leave the conversation with their dignity intact, increased respect for each other and a greater appreciation for the other’s viewpoint.  If this occurs, not only will the door will be open for further conversation, but our role as salt and light in this world will not be obscured by defensive or emotional reactions.


IV. Developing Dialogue Skills

In the following articles, I will develop two aspects of evangelism as dialogue.  The next article will provide a theoretical basis of contextualization within our Canadian culture following both the principles of Significant Conversations as well as Donald Posterski’s reflections on becoming a “meaning maker” within a pluralistic society.3 We will consider the possible objection that choosing dialogue over proclamation is a “sell-out” to cultural values, and provide evidence that this is a legitimate and effective expression of an evangelistic method that does not undermine the message.

The final article will outline key dialogue skills taught in the Significant Conversations coaching sessions.  These skills are an application of the patterns of effective engagement described by Patterson et al. in their book Crucial Conversations. The practices outlined in the book are gleaned from years of study of people who function effectively when “opinions vary, stakes are high and emotions are strong.”4 This is the scenario we face when a value is expressed that contradicts our Christian faith.  How we handle that opportunity will determine if a person is drawn to the gospel or repelled.


Mark spends part of his time coaching churches in Significant Conversations.  If you are interested in this method of evangelism, please contact him via the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 This is a deliberate play on the title of L. Newbigin’s classic, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.
  • 2 Patterson, K Grenny, J McMillan, R and Switzler A 2002. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 24.
  • 3 Posterski, D 1989. Reinventing Evangelism: New Strategies for Presenting Christ in Today’s World. IVP, 143
  • 4 Patterson, K Grenny, J McMillan, R and Switzler A 2002. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1-2.


75. “God will not let me into Heaven”

Continue the Conversation

conversationThis 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

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

social-networkThe 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)

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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”

heaven_and_earthSo 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.


If you would like to contact Mark please use the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.





  • 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.


68. Deflating Bouncy Castles: a critique of evangelistic methods

passion for the Great Commission

From the outset of this article, I want to be clear that I believe in and promote evangelism.  One of my ministries offered to our FEB churches through Northwest and Fellowship International is that of coaching for evangelism following the grassroots method of encouraging Significant Conversations.  Furthermore, it is not my intention in any way to discourage those who want to reach their community for Christ and are experimenting in creative ways to do so.  Obedience to and passion for the Great Commission (Mt 28:18-20) is to be commended and encouraged when it is found in our churches.

At the same time, it is also important to interact with each other to stimulate strategic and critical thinking about the way we approach our communities and the message we are communicating.  During our time in Pakistan – a country with little response to the gospel message – we learned to appreciate the challenges and critique of others with respect to our methodologies.  It is wise to seek and welcome questions and perspectives that cause us to evaluate our approach, so that our efforts can be as effective as possible.  It is in this spirit that the following thoughts are offered.

Challenges concerning Priorities in Evangelism

I received a CD from an influential evangelical association recently. On the cover was a picture of bouncy castles and people eating hotdogs.  The intent was to promote the idea of churches doing “acts of kindness” and planning church-sponsored events in the community.  The promoters of the CD believe that through such community events the relevance of the church can be demonstrated and fruitful relationships with the unchurched established.   Following this methodology, 3 churches in the area in which I live each held separate community fun days during the summer.

I want to challenge the community fun day approach and explain why these church organized events, to a large extent, distract from, rather than encourage evangelism.  The issue is not one of right and wrong, but a matter of considering our priorities in light of what we have to offer as followers of Christ.

priorities and strategy in evangelism

In the early days of our church planting ministry in Pakistan, I spent considerable time explaining the gospel message to young men who came to visit me.  Later on, I realized that my priority was misplaced as relationships with the “power brokers” in the family hierarchy were not being developed; it was the relationships the leaders of the families that would have guaranteed a reproducible and lasting impact in that context.  Similarly, it is possible for Canadian churches to have misplaced priorities and engage in outreach activities that distract from more strategic and impacting evangelistic methodologies.

Consider the following:

1. Most of our communities offer many opportunities for entertainment and activity.  Anyone with children knows that one of the primary tasks of a parent is as taxi driver, taking children from one activity to the next.  In this context, organizing a community fun day means that the church has put itself in a position of competition with all of the other activities and programs available to the community.  Rather than filling a vacuum by providing much needed entertainment – a possibility in some rural or impoverished communities – most churches add one more opportunity to an excess of amusement options.

I would challenge churches to take a different approach: infiltrate community programs that already exist and support events organized by other groups.  Volunteering demonstrates the desire of the church to serve and to see others succeed.  It builds bridges of appreciation with the organizers of those groups, which can lead to the establishment of relationships and open the door to significant conversations.

2. For the most part, church-based community fun days do not meet the real needs of the community by bringing positive change in another person’s life.

My challenge to churches is to identify a truly needy segment of the population, discover who is already meeting the needs of that group and then partner with them to make a difference.  This allows for good stewardship of church resources while encouraging synergy with others in the community.  Strong relationships are built when people work together for a common purpose.  In addition, significant ministry to those in need benefits both the giver and receiver (recognizing that significance must be measured according to the recipient of the service, not the ones serving).

3. A community fun day is not evangelism.  Although the point of the program is to connect with the community, the forum is not conducive for people to engage each other about significant spiritual issues.  Instead, energy is put into running a smooth program and ensuring that people feel satisfied and happy, like a Sunday School picnic to which the community is invited.

I encourage churches to recognize that their primary evangelistic outreach is already occurring through the congregation. Consider those activities, opportunities and relationships that people experience on a daily basis throughout the week as the best forum through which Jesus can be introduced. Significant conversations already occur in our lives.  Set the primary evangelism program of the church to be the support and development of those existing relationships.

4.  Community fun days misrepresent the church’s purpose if they are an attempt to promote or reinvent the church in the eyes of the community. Church is about the gospel of Jesus Christ and the difference he makes as we live in obedience to him.  The message of a fun day, on the other hand, is that church provides the community with a good time, and thus obscures the primary agenda.  A message that we are a community-oriented social organization whose presence is inoffensive and consistent with the goals of society, is a misrepresentation.  We are seeking to be counter-cultural: change agents with a mission to turn people’s perspective towards God.

The challenge churches need to keep in the forefront is to discover those people who have a spiritual hunger and engage them in conversation.  A community fun day environment promotes fleeting, surface level interaction between strangers.  However, the majority of any congregation has daily contact with friends, co-workers and relatives whose spiritual interest is known to them.  Leaders who spend their energies on supporting and guiding believers to make the most of their naturally occurring conversations will find themselves pulling with the congregation, rather than being frustrated by a lack of enthusiastic participation in outreach programs.

5. Busy lives can leave little time for relationships and relationships take time. Programs that involve people in activities with strangers leave less time and energy to develop those relationships that are already significant in their lives.

It is important that people have the time and encouragement to develop their current relationships and to fulfill what they perceive as significant service to others.  A man connected with our church died a short while ago and over 600 people attended his funeral.  Each of those 600 people who took time out of their schedules in order to say good-bye represents a significant relationship. While he was alive, these were the people that he could talk to at a level deeper than the surface pleasantries common to the interaction of strangers. Instead of encouraging people to participate in programs through which they interact with strangers or develop new relationships, it is usually more productive to begin with the relationships that already mean something, those relationships in which conversations on a deeper spiritual level can more naturally occur.

6. Community fun days are an advertisement, like the sign in front of a church.  Advertising seeks to connect with a desire of the consumer.  Through the exposure to fun, family-oriented activities, the church communicates its value and benefit to the participant. It is possible that, seeing the fun programs, some will decide to pursue a connection with the church.

However, I believe that it is more important to allow the relevance and significance of the gospel to be the attraction.  People are looking for meaning and purpose in order to make sense of their lives.  They are not likely to discover this in a bouncy castle setting, nor even in a church service, which is often the next invitation they receive.  Rather, it occurs in those informal, natural settings in which people engage in conversation and speak freely about their questions, concerns and beliefs.

7. Community fun days are one example of programs that encourage people to get involved with a goal of encouraging church unity.  It is true that when people work together they can develop strong  relationships, as noted above, and this is a good thing.  But when the program does not reflect the essence of our faith, the connections fail to fulfill the spiritual unity prayed for by Christ (John 17).

I would challenge churches to consider the content of what unites us as believers. Church unity and fellowship are experienced around expressions of the Christian message.  For example, because a key desire of believers is to live as intentional Christians within their current relationships, leaders have the opportunity to develop and encourage networks of prayer and support for believers to aid in the process of discovering how to live out their faith.  Participation in each other’s lives that leads us closer to Christ is the fellowship for which Jesus prayed.

8. Church programs, such as community fun days, are “safe.” We maintain full control and can run them according to our beliefs and values.  We can have the last word and ensure that it fits our perspective.

Nonetheless, I encourage churches to participate in community run programs where they have little power, limited opportunity to set the agenda and cannot overtly preach the gospel.  We need to discover how to influence those we interact with through relationships, rather than through controlling the agenda.  We need to engage in dialogue, rather than insist upon our message having pre-eminence.  As E. Stanley Jones noted, when there is round table dialogue with all religions having equal opportunity to present their beliefs, it is Jesus who shines.  We do not need to fear an even playing field, or even one in which we are discriminated against.   For it is through relationships, significant conversations and love that people will come to Christ.

An Alternative: Recognize the Untapped Outreach Potential of Your Church

lead from behind = empower

When we lead from behind, the definition of leadership becomes “empower.”  Rather than creating programs for people to become involved in, I suggest that the current involvement people have in the lives of others be considered their primary ministry. Because people already engage others in significant conversations at a grassroots level, pastoral leadership can put their efforts towards empowering them to fulfill their God-given vision of Christian life and ministry.

As followers of Christ, believers have a desire to live relevantly and to impact their culture, and so they struggle to discover how Jesus makes a difference in their daily relationships.  They want to understand and express how their faith makes sense within this pluralist context, and they look to pastoral leadership to help them understand how God speaks into their situation.

Without intending to criticize the sermons or teaching found in church services, I nonetheless suggest that there is a gap between the instruction people receive in church and the life that they live, a gap that needs to be addressed from the perspective of the daily challenges they face.    That is, the questions need to be first understood within their environment before the relevance of biblical teaching can be identified.  The priority is to first listen to and understand the conversations that are taking place and then discover how the God’s word provides relevant teaching.  This requires personal, one-on-one interaction.  One metaphor I find particularly relevant is that of filling bottles with water.  Throwing a bucket of water over a number of bottles will result in some water getting into the bottles.  However, the more effective approach is to spend time pouring water into each bottle – slower, but far more effective and lasting.

Therefore, instead of encouraging people to be busy in church programs, consider the following:

  1. Identify those people in the congregation who are already speaking to others about spiritual things.  There are probably more people than you realize who engage others in significant conversations. By being attentive to what is already happening, you are validating people’s passion to live significant lives in relationship with others.
  2. Meet with them on an individual basis to hear their stories, to encourage them and to pray with them.
  3. Coordinate networks of support and prayer for them with others in the congregation.
  4. Affirm and celebrate publicly their investment in other’s lives as the primary ministry of those church members.

Mark spends part of his time coaching churches in Significant Conversations.  If you are interested in this method of evangelism, please contact him via the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.

Also see:

Significant Conversations

Onion Model of Culture

Why I Don’t do Evangelism

66. Uncomfortable with Gospel Presentations

An Incomplete Wedding Shower

I remember a friend relating to me the story of a mentally handicapped young woman who lived with her parents.  Every time there was a wedding shower for a bride-to-be at the church, the mother would take her daughter to the event.  One day, the young woman asked her mother, “When do I get my wedding shower?” not realizing that a man and an engagement were prerequisites.  The mother, a kind and wise woman, instead of confusing her child with explanations, gathered some of her close friends together who brought presents and they held a “wedding shower” for the young woman.  She was satisfied and never missed the “extras” that usually follow a wedding shower.

I am concerned that some of our gospel invitations are like that – a representation of reality that leaves out the most important part, the development of a relationship with Jesus Christ.  The gospel message is reduced to an efficient, orderly formula: 5 colors, 4 laws, the Romans Road, a short sermon.  It is a reality that people need salvation from sin, but the Savior is a stranger.  It is also true that they need to humble themselves and repent, but they have not come to love Jesus.  People are encouraged to accept “the gift” for its benefit to them, not because of a growing passion for the Giver.

It is often stated that most Christians come to Christ when they are children.  This statistic is given as a reason for encouraging children to pray a prayer of commitment to Christ at an early age.  However, it is important to keep in mind that this is a western statistic.  In other parts of the world, where there are people movements and the gospel is expanding beyond the Christian community, it is adults who are coming to Christ.  Many evangelistic programs in our churches focus on children with a number of reported conversions as a result.  But I suspect that these often may be like that “wedding shower” in which the relationship is not a prerequisite.  Children are easily influenced and will readily accept invitations from adults they trust.  Tellingly, when a child who has accepted Christ at an early age grows up, they may mention the early event of “accepting Jesus,” but will usually continue by stating, “but I didn’t really understand and I committed my life to Christ when….”

Disconnected from Life and Relationship

a wedding is … a metaphor for conversion

When people unfamiliar with Christian teaching hear a 5 minute gospel presentation, it may come across as a religious ritual disconnected from life.  Even worse, in church if the gospel is continually reduced to a few “steps to become a whole new person,” the significance of the gospel becomes diluted, referring to an event in the past rather than the core expression of life.

Summarizing the gospel in a short presentation as a “gift” that only needs to be accepted is like inviting someone to get married before developing a relationship, as if the wedding ceremony itself is the essential act.  Rather, a wedding day serves as the culmination of a growing relationship and, through covenantal vows, lifts the relationship to a higher and exclusive level. In my marriage with Karen, our wedding day is remembered fondly each year.  It was an exciting and important expression of the development of our relationship.  But it was the relationship that validated the wedding.  It was an act within the context of an ongoing and strengthening connection between us.  This perspective does not devalue our wedding vows, but puts them in the correct context: we pledged ourselves exclusively to each other because we had come to that point of commitment in our relationship.

I would see this as a metaphor for conversion.  Even as a wedding is not a free gift for whoever wants it, but the natural and proper response within a developing relationship, so commitment to Christ is the response of those who have come to recognize and value the love of Christ.

Conversion within a Centered Faith

I believe that conversion is best viewed within the context of a centered faith, rather than a bounded faith.1 In a bounded perspective, the focus is on “insiders,” those who have accepted Christ, and “outsiders,” those who have not accepted Christ.  The goal is have the outsiders cross the boundary of conversion in order to become insiders.  Unfortunately, this can result in a tendency to reduce the gospel message to one particular response.  By accentuating the boundary, the context of ongoing relationship is downplayed.

In the centered view, the focus is on Christ.  The goal is to orient people, within every aspect of their lives, to the relevance of Jesus and to life in the kingdom of God.  As they grow within this perspective of life centered on and oriented towards Jesus, they develop to the place of expressing exclusive commitment to him.  Even as a wedding day is an important step in a relationship to establish a covenant between two people, so Jesus calls us to an exclusive relationship with him.  But that commitment only occurs when there is a prior orientation towards and ongoing relationship with him. By taking a centered view, the boundary experience of total commitment to Christ finds its appropriate expression within the broader journey of moving towards him.  Jesus exhorts us to count the cost (Lu 14:25-33) and it takes time to learn the implications of discipleship before making that commitment.  He first called his disciples to follow him, then he took 3 years to develop a relationship with them that would bring them to that point of full commitment.

Orienting Others to Christ

baptism [is] as serious as a wedding vow

It is with this conviction that Karen and I raised our children.  We did not encourage them to pray a prayer of repentance and commitment to Christ when they were young.  Rather, we followed Jesus’ example and instruction in Mark 10:13-16.  We constantly talked to them about Jesus and blessed them in his name so that they would learn to love him.  We discussed in front of them the relevance of Christ as he related to our life situation and concerns. When they were older, we did not encourage them to be baptized.  Rather, we portrayed baptism as a step as serious as a wedding vow.  It is not something done lightly, it is not just an act of obedience, it is a commitment to Jesus for life.  It is a covenant made when we are ready to die for Christ.  As a wedding vow binds a man and a woman together for life, so baptism is a pledge that binds us exclusively to one Lord for life.

A centered view of conversion does not mean that we do not lead children to Christ.  On the contrary, we must consistently orient them to him in every aspect of their lives.  And then, when they do make that commitment to give their lives to Jesus, it will be within the context of an ongoing relationship.

Mark spends part of his time coaching churches in Significant Conversations.  If you are interested in this method of evangelism, please contact him via the Contact Me form.  If you would like to leave a comment, please use the “comment” link at the bottom of this article.


  • 1 see Frost & Hirsch in The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st-Century Church (Peabody: Henderson, 2006: 47-51) for an excellent description of the implications of a bounded versus centered approach to ministry. Also Rick Brown explores the implications of a centered approach to Muslim evangelism in Muslims Who Believe the Bible in Mission Frontiers, July-August 2008: 19-23, available online.

57. Significant Conversations: Onion model of Culture

The Common hunger of Humanity
What we as human beings search for and value in life is the “meaningful” and the “good.”

With regard to the “meaningful,” we are always trying to make sense of our world. Hopelessness, which is what we seek to avoid, is the antithesis of the “meaningful” and happens when the world does not make sense. Children from dysfunctional families, for example, are more prone to be careless of themselves and others – smoking, dangerous activities, lack of respect for boundaries, etc. Their world is not making sense and much of what they do is a cry of despair of the senselessness of it all. They deliberately do what they have been warned against, partly in reaction to the pain that they experience from those aspects of society considered to be places of security and meaning. Ultimately, the lack of meaning leads to suicide, as in the case of the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.

the issue for evangelism is no longer (if it ever was) about finding the right delivery system

Tied to this, and which is also a matter of universal human concern, is the search for and desire to experience and center our lives on “good.” We desire and search for that which is conducive to human flourishing. This corresponds with Jesus’ view of humanity. He had pity on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. They were in need of what is good and they were seeking for it, but they were looking in the wrong places.

what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern

In other words, what all of us as human beings are seeking are matters of ultimate concern, the questions of human existence: What should I do? Why are we here? What may I hope?

Implications for our post-Christian Environment
Common approaches to evangelism assume that we as Christians have the answers to these questions and look for “delivery systems” whereby these answers can be provided. Church services, evangelistic meetings, tracts, etc., are all designed with the desire to deliver the Christian message. These approaches do work for some, but, if statistics Canada is correct, not for the majority of Canadians.

We live in a post-Christian environment. What this means is that the majority of people have heard the message. If you were to ask the average person on the street: “Do you know that Christians believe that Jesus died and rose again and that by trusting in him they can have their sins forgiven?” the answer would most likely be “yes.” Even if their understanding is only a parody of the true message, the average person hears these presentations through a pre-understanding and prejudice against the message. The result is the affirmation of the lack of relevance of the gospel to their lives. What this means is that the issue for evangelism is no longer (if it ever was) about finding the right delivery system. Instead the need for our society are forums in which people are engaged in discussion about the questions of ultimate concern. It is within such forums that the relevance of the gospel of Jesus can be considered.

Grassroots Conversations: The SISI system
The SISI system is an attempt to provide support for those who wish to engage people in conversation on a significant level so that the various answers to these questions can be addressed. Rather than a “delivery system” whereby the gospel message can be communicated, the goal is to learn how to create opportunities to discuss the deeper meanings of life. In these settings of dialogue or conversation all parties are given room to express their values and beliefs concerning how life “works.” Within such an environment Christians have opportunity to act as “witness” to the experiences of their lives and express the “hope that is within them.”

The SISI system is a process of discovery and response, rather than the common evangelistic approach of message and response. The common evangelistic approach is to provide a version of the gospel message and then ask for a response. The response may be in the form of a choice to accept or reject (i.e., invitation at an evangelistic meeting or by a TV evangelist), or it may be in the form of comment or reaction (i.e., the approach of Alpha and Discovering Christianity). In common evangelistic approaches it is the Christian story that serves as the context for discussion. Such approaches are not only good, but necessary and many people have come to Christ through these efforts.

However, the SISI system works from the other direction. It does not begin with the Christian story, but with the story of the conversation partner. It is missional in its approach by beginning where others live and think. Missionaries spend much of their time getting to know the people they are living among so they can understand the world from their perspective. They then work from within that worldview to discuss how Jesus can speak to those people in relevant and transforming ways. While they must speak from the experience of Jesus in their own lives, the starting point of conversation is the concerns and perspectives of the insiders to that context. The missionary’s job is to do the work of explaining how life in Jesus is applicable within the new setting. The insiders then respond and the ensuing dialogue becomes a process of discovering the ways life can be meaningful and good – the ultimate concerns of humanity. If, as we believe, the gospel message is the means by which this can be obtained, then the conversation will take seriously the person of Jesus Christ – at least for some participants.

Moving Deeper in the Onion Model of Culture
If we consider the “onion model of culture,” (1) significant conversations are those that move beyond the material and behavior levels (first two rings) to consider values, beliefs and worldview. That is, the goal is to move beyond comments about our environment (e.g., weather, sports) and behavior (e.g., our preferences for schools, holidays, church) to consider values (e.g., appropriate behavior, sexual morality), beliefs (e.g., value of human life, purpose of sex) and worldview (e.g., overall structure or “story” that provides ultimate meaning to life, God, the cross of Christ).

Jesus Shines in “Round Table” Conversation
The SISI system is based on the same principles that guided the approach of E. Stanley Jones, a missionary in India during the time of Gandhi. He established “round table discussions” to which Muslim, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians were invited. They did not argue the logic of their particular religious system, rather they explained how the ultimate concerns of life were experienced through their personal faith experience. People were encouraged to explain how their faith made their lives meaningful and good. E. Stanley Jones used the “room” created by these discussions to speak of how Jesus gave meaning and goodness in his life.

His conclusion from these discussions was that we need to hear the struggles of others as they search for meaning and goodness in their lives. When such a conversation occurs about the significant issues in life – values, beliefs and worldview – then we have opportunity to speak of Jesus who is at the center of our search – and in any environment, Jesus shines.


  • (1) Adapted from SCA International MissionPrep training Manual (unpublished), 2007. p. 18.

55. Why I Don’t do ‘evangelism’

Check out the Significant Conversations – an alternative grassroots approach to engage your community for Christ

Canada is not Pakistan
Evangelism in Pakistan was easy.  I would occasionally travel in a bus with a pile of tracts in Sindhi with an invitation to visit me printed on the back.1   I would read a tract by holding it up high enough so that the men behind me would be able to see it.  Soon I could hear them discussing the unusual sight of a foreigner reading Sindhi.  Someone would eventually ask me what I was reading enabling me to inform him that it was a tract about Jesus and to invite him to take a copy. I was then able to hand the tracts out to whoever was interested.  When people followed up on the invitation and came to my house, I invited them into a room that had a Bible on the coffee table and asked them if they would like to hear a passage from Jesus’ book. Spiritual discussions took place easily and comfortably because religious conversation is a popular way to pass the time in Pakistan.  Moreover, when people left I often asked if they had any concerns for which I could pray and usually they were very open to the idea.

In Pakistan, evangelism was a piece of cake.  Canada is not Pakistan.

Coming home to Canada I discovered that those methods which made sense in Pakistan are of little use here.

Methods that don’t fit the need
Coming home to Canada I discovered that those methods which made sense in Pakistan are of little use here. I found it quite stressful to spend time with someone who was not a believer because my evangelical upbringing convinced me that I was supposed to “give the gospel” and “win people to Christ,” but I had no tools to begin the process without alienating the person.  I wanted to introduce people to Jesus, but the cultural environment with its low tolerance for any suggestion indicating a need for spiritual reorientation negated that possibility and I was left without the opportunities I enjoyed in Pakistan.

As a result, I realized that I had to stop trying to do “evangelism.”  So I did.  I stopped approaching relationships with an agenda to present a gospel message.  I gave up the sense of guilt that drove me as if I was responsible for people going to hell. I no longer have a “plan of salvation” that can be diagrammed on a napkin.  I am free from the burden to “deliver” or “win”.

Not a Lawyer, but a witness
There are many ways to be involved in the Great Commission and I discovered that many evangelical methods, often considered synonymous with evangelism, were not appropriate for me.  My desire to engage people for Christ’s sake is driven by my commitment to God’s mission to the world, but my perception of what that entailed for the Canadian context was misguided.  I thought it was my duty to be more clever than those with whom I spoke so that the answers I provided and the logic of the case would sway them.  My understanding was that God wanted me to be a lawyer and deconstruct the defenses of the opposition in order to convince the jury.  Such an aggressive view of evangelism as a battle can be seen reflected in a review of a book on apologetics that promoted the book as part of an “arsenal” for evangelism.

Instead I came to realize that God is calling me to be a witness.  Witnesses tell their own story.  My responsibility is to communicate the events of my spiritual journey when called upon: to tell people why Jesus is special to me (1 Pet. 3:15).  I thought I needed to convince people of their need to change.  Instead I discovered that my role is to engage people in significant spiritual conversation, rather than convince them to enter the kingdom.

The Holy Spirit’s Prerogative
My desire is that people follow Christ, but it is not my task to persuade them; that is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit.  My role is to discover where the wind is blowing (John 3), i.e., where the Spirit is at work in a person’s life. Moreover, Canadian sensitivities have made me very conscious of the danger of viewing people as projects through which I may fulfill a particular religious obligation.  My goal is now to become a conversationalist who does not need to perform, only listen and respond. To talk to people I need to have a true relationship with them and engage them with a desire to deepen that relationship, not for the purpose of finding an opportunity to make a “presentation.”

Thinking like a Missionary
Fourteen years of living in another cultural context helped me to finally clue in that I needed to act and think like a missionary.  That is, I needed to spend 95% of my time finding out what is ultimately significant to them, and how they think about and express their spiritual journey.  Only then would I be invited to speak into their lives and be competent to do so.  This is a key missional principle: the task of the missionary is to do the work of discovering the relevance of the gospel message for a people group, rather than providing a generalized “plan of salvation” that is assumed relevant but leaves the work of applying the message to the hearer.  Such an approach often results in listeners concluding that the message does not relate to them.

Significant Conversations
I discovered that the method that is effective within the Canadian context is not the proclamation of a message but the development of relationships within which significant conversations occur. That is, I now seek to explore with people the ways they make sense of the world.  People are seeking spiritual reality and significance for themselves but often lack the opportunity to express their personal journey to sympathetic listeners.  Sincere and open conversation that respects contrasting opinions is both appreciated and enjoyable when there is no pressure to “win.”  When a conversation partner feels free to be vulnerable about their spiritual perspective, it creates relational freedom and interactive space and often results in an invitation for me to acknowledge my dependence upon Christ and give him glory.

Jesus is the truth that this world needs to find peace with God.  We do not need programmed approaches in order to expose the people in our lives to the light of the world.  Rather we need to hear, engage and respond so that the light that is within us can shine in a way that does not blind, but illuminates.


  • 1 Mark and Karen served in Pakistan among the Sindhi people with FEBInternational from 1985 – 1999. Mark continues to be involved in Bible translation.

3.   Go into all the World and "Humanize"?

As an evangelical I cringe when evangelism is described as "humanizing," as if the focus of salvation has somehow changed from what God has done for us in Christ, to what we are to accomplish for ourselves. However it is never wise to quickly dismiss another point of view without grappling with the questions and understanding the concerns that have produced that perspective. Although "humanization" is not likely to become the next evangelical buzz-word, there are insights here that we would do well to incorporate into our understanding of the mission of the church if we are to make a cross-cultural impact.

Holistic Evangelism

Classically evangelism has been the act of calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ so they may enjoy forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life, and only subsequently is the reformation of society a concern. In contrast, others view evangelism as the "humanization" of society rather than simply bringing people to God through Christ. Instead of focusing solely on a person’s spiritual condition before God, humanizing emphasizes the restoration of God’s original intention for humanity in all relationships: vertical (with God), horizontal (with each other), and with our environment. In this view evangelism as pointing to faith in Christ is considered one essential dimension but cannot become a spiritual experience separate from life experiences in this world. Rather than the dualistic view of a "vertical" salvation leading to "horizontal" changes in the world, there is a holistic concern for individuals in relation to community and the world.

One strength of this position is the recognition that in our evangelical concern for the spiritual life of the individual we have often neglected the community at large by "extracting" the new believer from the world, rather than exploring the implications of being salt and light with the goal of societal transformation. Humanizing addresses societal issues of justice and mercy concerning which we, as the people of God, have responsibility. In addition, separating evangelism from other elements of mission activity can lead people to compartmentalize their lives, relegating evangelism to a specific, infrequently done task, or to the "experts" who are called to do the job full time. However when the gospel permeates all aspects of the life of an individual and community of faith, the result is a transforming witness within the society at large.

When Everything is Evangelism, Nothing is!

The problem with broadening evangelism to the concept of humanizing is that it may simply result in classifying almost everything as evangelism. Viewing the evangelistic dimension as an inseparable element saturating all of the church’s participation in mission sounds natural and appropriate, but in practical terms it may only serve to obfuscate the spiritual aspect of the ministry.

If social concerns monopolize the agenda, the spiritual element of relationship with God may not become integrated into the ministry and then, although temporal improvements may occur, the gospel will not have opportunity to change lives. Even if only for practical reasons, it is better to have a separate mission activity called "evangelism", so that the other tasks can be constantly reminded of that essential element.

For mission to be God’s mission, it must include not just action, but an evangelistic message that challenges people to change. Without this message, we misrepresent the motive of our ministry and thus do an injustice to Christ’s work within us and within the community of believers as well as undermine the basis for our participation in mission. Lasting change will not be the result unless there is change in the hearts of people and a significant part of our role of change agents in the world is the message preached which infuses our gospel action with eternal rather than temporal meaning.

Moving from either-or to both-and

Holistic evangelism is not achieved by choosing either the preaching of the gospel or humanizing. Rather the solution needs to be both-and in recognizing that there is a proclamation or "prophetic" element of our faith that should interpret our humanizing actions in the world. Evangelism as a call for change is not to be separated from the actions of the believing community in living out the gospel. Acts 1:8 states "You will be my witnesses" which is much broader than doing or giving witness in that the Christian community becomes a living demonstration of the gospel. The gospel must be revealed through a congregation of transformed and transforming lives because of the death and resurrection of Christ. The spoken or written word is merely an explanation of that gospel which is lived out by the community of faith. Words alone can never be the gospel or even become a substitute for the gospel, any more than a prophetic message could substitute for the Word become flesh in Christ (Jn 1:14).

Recently within the country where our family served as FEBInternational missionaries a convert from Islam began to be persecuted due to his open faith. Since his conversion he had become heavily involved in social programs to improve the living condition of many people in the area he worked. The elders of the tribes held a meeting and the accusation was put forward that he was spreading Christian teaching. One after another the elders spoke up listing the good works that the man had done. They concluded that a belief that produces such benefits cannot be harmful and the man was granted the freedom continue his ministry. "[Y]our light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven" (Mt 5:16 TEV). The gospel seen and the gospel heard are the two inseparable pillars of evangelism.