This semester with our student leadership team in Christian Challenge, we’ve been reading a book as a group entitled Godspace, by Doug Pollock. The author has a background working with Athletes in Action, and over the years he has found that effective evangelism often comes not from using a particular formulaic approach, but rather seeking to find a natural segue that can direct a conversation towards spiritual topics. In fact, the subtitle of the book is “Where spiritual conversations happen naturally.” Pollock uses the term “Godspace” to describe those moments in a discussion when a non-believer might feel it is safe and appropriate to open up about what they really feel towards God and questions of faith: “cynics, skeptics, scoffers, and spiritually curious people alike can raise their questions, share their doubts, voice their concerns…the “unworthy” feel safe enough to bring their real selves out into the light…spiritual curiosity is aroused, and the message of Christianity becomes plausible.” Sounds great, right?? But how do we get to that point—especially when dealing with someone who would appear to be fairly closed-off spiritually, or who displays a wary caution any time that a Christian attempts to witness to them?? That is one of the very questions we are exploring with our students, because quite frequently, given the secular climate that pervades the University of Colorado campus, the typical CU student is indeed a little reluctant to open up about spiritual matters. But Pollock offers several creative approaches for addressing this obstacle. Serving others, listening well, and asking pointed “wondering” questions can all be effective ways of directing a conversation towards spiritual topics without it becoming so obvious that the other person might shy away. The author also talks about the value of offering what he terms “spiritual appetizers”—which are brief, compact stories of our spiritual experiences rather than a full-fledged testimony. Pollock says that if we are ever hesitant to bring in our own spiritual experience, or perhaps share a Scriptural reference, another easy way to break the ice is to simply ask for permission. When faced with this polite approach, most people will acquiesce and allow you to share. But by not bringing in a lengthy testimony, we ensure that the non-Christian doesn’t become bored, or tune us out. Pollock’s book has been a great one for our students and staff to share together, and it has challenged each of us to think about ways in which we can be more proactive in participating in conversational evangelism.
I personally have been convicted while reading Godspace to reevaluate the way in which I’m spending my time each week engaged in campus ministry. Now as I’ve shared in this blog before, one of my favorite activities as a campus minister is mentoring students. I really value the opportunity to meet one-on-one and encourage them in their spiritual growth. I have seven students that I’m mentoring on a weekly this semester, and yet I want to balance that part of my schedule with some more intentional time spent around non-Christian students. So this fall, I’ve been striving to set up three appointments per week that would offer opportunities to engage in the type of conversational evangelism that Pollock’s book talks about. In doing so, I’ve found inspiration not only from the book Godspace, but from one of my favorite Scriptural passages related to evangelism, and the spirit in which we should approach conversations of faith: Colossians 4:2-6.
I want to take a few minutes to explore this passage in a little depth, to discover more about how Paul advises us to approach spiritual conversations, and exchanges where we might have an opportunity to share some of our faith story. His first piece of advice: pray! Colossians 4:2—“Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving.” It is often said that prayer is the foundation of any successful ministry, and it’s also true that there are few situations in life where we wouldn’t benefit from approaching with a more prayerful spirit. So often I have found that when I get into situations where I hope to be able to talk to others about Jesus, the conversation may end taking an unexpected turn. As much as I am someone who loves to be prepared for every eventuality, the fact is that we cannot always anticipate what will happen when we try to enter into those “Godspace” moments in a conversation. In fact, if we as Christians believe that only through the power of the Holy Spirit can another heart truly be changed or convicted, then we should expect the unexpected. For after all, the Holy Spirit is not at our beck and call, and as Jesus attests in John 3:8—“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” This then is why prayer is so important. Before we try to share our faith we must ask God to direct the conversation, because no amount of preparation, formulas, or even Scripture memory on our parts will be sufficient if His Spirit is not working. This semester, I have done my best to cultivate such a spirit of prayerfulness in myself, especially prior to meetings with students who I know are either non-believers, or seem to be only nominally Christian. I ask God to give me the right words to say, but perhaps more importantly, to give me a good listening spirit. I think of a line from a well-known Christian prayer that has often been attributed to St. Francis of Assisi over the years: “O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek…to be understood as to understand”
Having begun in a prayerful spirit, Paul then in Colossians 4:3, elaborates on the theme that God and His Holy Spirit alone are responsible for making people’s hearts receptive to the message we want to share: “meanwhile praying also for us, that God would open to us a door for the word, to speak the mystery of Christ.” Frequently we enter into a spiritual conversation or evangelism opportunity so full of what we want to say. But our agendas, carefully crafted as they may be, and even though they could be full of Scriptural wisdom, are not necessarily always going to be well-received. The Lord must give us some point of entry to be received by that other person, and I’m finding out that this “door” can take many different shapes and forms. The head of our ministry here in Boulder, Bobby Pruett, has a phrase that I really like—and he apparently first heard it from a mentor of his, Harold Bullock, the pastor of Hope Church in Ft. Worth, Texas. “The bridge of relationship must be strong enough to bear the weight of Gospel truth.” And that’s certainly one form that the “door” God opens to the Gospel can take. If we have built up a strong enough relationship with someone, then they will usually give us a fair hearing, and be willing to listen to a message that may even be at odds with their accepted worldview. But sometimes I talk with students that I’ve only just met, and so there hasn’t been time yet to build up that relationship. And since I work frequently with internationals, some of whom may only be at CU for a single semester, I don’t always have the luxury of time to work on establishing such a long-term relationship. So what are some other shapes that the door could take? Well in Godspace, Pollock talks about the importance of asking wondering questions and offering “spiritual appetizers” as I have already mentioned. Asking a pointed question, or presenting a brief spiritual experience to someone else could then allow for a more detailed sharing of the Gospel. Pollock also mentions how acts of service can be the “backdoor” into someone’s heart, demonstrating our love for them, and giving us some credibility that we can then expend in terms of a spiritual discussion. Our students with Christian Challenge recently tried to put this principle of service-based evangelism into practice. They came up with an innovative idea around Halloween to engage in “reverse trick-or-treating.” In groups of three, they went into some dorms on campus where we knew residents, and then began going door to door, offering to take out residents’ trash in exchange for some Halloween candy. They didn’t pass out any literature, or even specifically try to make an identification with Christian Challenge. Instead, when asked why they were doing this, our students simply identified as Christ-followers, and then shared briefly about what Jesus meant to them, if the other person seemed receptive.
Having looked at how we should prepare for spiritual conversations through prayer, and then having acknowledged that God alone can provide the right opportunities for us to share, Paul then focuses in verses 4-6 on what the content of our message should actually be. In verse 4 Paul asks “that I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak.” To make manifest means to clearly demonstrate, exhibit, and bring out. Working on a college campus in particular, I sometimes find myself tending towards over-intellectualizing the Gospel message when in reality it’s quite simple. I love talking about theology with some of the guys I mentor, and getting into in-depth Scriptural study, all of which is great in its place, especially as a means for challenging those who are already believers to grow deeper in their faith. But in talking with someone who’s not yet a Christian, we don’t want to make accepting Christ seem like a purely intellectual proposition. I think here, wishing to be “manifest” and clear, Paul is perhaps also cautioning us against using language that would come across as excessively “Christian”. In other words, while we may think that everyone knows and understands terms such as “sanctification”, “repentance”, “justification” or even “accepting Jesus as your personal savior”, this is increasingly not the case, especially in a society where the number of people who are “Biblically illiterate” and thus completely unfamiliar with most Scriptural terminology and concepts, continues to grow. Finally, to be manifest means to be brief, as much as possible. Employing a food analogy to stress the importance of brevity in spiritual dialogue, Doug Pollock notes in Godspace: “Most Christians I know admit that when someone shows the tiniest interest in their faith, they don’t offer snacks in response, but a full-blown smorgasbord. Small inquiries get super-sized answers. All the not-yet-Christians wanted was a snack, but they got the full meal-deal instead.” So as we talk with others about our faith, we need to use clear, concise language that will facilitate the working of the Power of God through us, rather than confuse or obscure our message. In verse 5 then, Paul speaks to the urgency that should underlie our evangelistic efforts: “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time.” He expresses very similar sentiments in Ephesians 5:15-16: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” I think too of another verse, this one from Jesus in John 9:4. Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, where I received my Master’s of Divinity degree, actually chose this verse, out of all others to emblazon on the main tower of the seminary complex. It’s a good reminder that, for all of our discussion about how to talk about our faith with others, the most important thing is that we do it! Time is indeed fleeting, and we simply never know how much is left for us, or the person we may be engaging with. We can always be fine-tuning our evangelistic approach, but there can be no excuse for inactivity.
In Colossians 4:6, Paul summarizes for us the balance we should seek to achieve in evangelism: “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” In our spiritual conversations, we are poised between seeking to understand others, and being empathetic to where they are coming from, and yet also desiring to stand firm and unflinching upon the bedrock of Biblical truth, even when it may be unpleasant or unpopular for someone else to hear. The reference to salt of course calls to mind the words of Jesus to His followers in Matthew 5:13—“You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” Salt is representative of our fidelity to the Truth of Christ, while grace reflects not only our desire to understand others, but also the wonderful gift of salvation that Christ can impart to them. Knowing how to answer each person is ultimately a matter of finding a balance between grace and truth, and this is something that the Holy Spirit can enable us to do. I am excited to strive to find those moments of “Godspace” amidst my daily conversations, and meetings with students, and as I continue to be taught by God in this process, I hope to learn much more I can share. Thanks for reading!!