By Bob Smietana
If Beth Moore hadn’t become a Bible teacher, she might have done all right as a religion reporter.
She understands the great secret of what is affectionately called the “God beat”: You don’t have to win when the subject of God comes up in conversation. You don’t have to argue. You just have to listen.
Here’s how Moore put it in a March 2017 tweet: “Not all walls of hostility require agreement to fall. Some crumble when people know they are heard. Listening is not assent. It’s respect.”
In other words, when we talk with our neighbors, friends, or co-workers about life, politics, family, God, or matters of faith, listening works better than arguing.
One of the great temptations of the social media age is the desire to be right. Ranting about politics or theology—something I’ve been guilty of more than once—seems to have become a second career for many.
Friends post something we disagree with on Facebook or Twitter—and we immediately want to crush them and their ideas. There’s no room for kindness or curiosity or any attempt to understand other people’s points of view.
But this scorched-earth approach is incompatible with the gospel—and with the Christian view that every person is made in the image of God and therefore is of inherent worth.
It’s hard for people to believe the message of God’s redeeming love when Christians treat them with disrespect.
However, there’s a better way. And it starts with listening.
For the past 18 years, I’ve been a religion reporter—for Christian and secular publications. It’s the best job in the world, because I get paid to listen to people talk about God and matters of faith.
Through my work, I’ve met with people of all faiths in many different places: Burmese refugees in Murfreesboro, young pastors in rural Alaska, Muslims in the Bible belt, Salvation Army Christians in Yorkshire, Buddhists in Chicago, Jewish leaders in Washington, D.C., snake handlers in Appalachia, Sikhs in the suburbs, Hindus in Minnesota, Mormons in Denver, and nones everywhere.
Often I didn’t agree with their theology or the way they practiced—or didn’t practice—their faith. But all of them had stories to tell. They were willing to share with me because I was willing to listen. And my life is richer for having known them.
I’m not a pastor or evangelist. I can’t tell you how to convince people to believe the gospel. But I can give a few tips on creating space for conversations about the gospel and how to avoid turning people off before they’ve had a chance to consider the claims of Christ.
You don’t have to win
Too often Christians are trying to convince non-Christians that their view of faith is right and the non-Christian is wrong.
When that happens, Christians are focused on winning an argument rather than sharing the love of Jesus. Or the conversation becomes a sales pitch, with a focus on closing the deal—rather than on that person coming to know God.
But we don’t need to win, because God has already won. Jesus is already at work, drawing people to Himself.
Our job is to create space where people can respond to the call of the gospel.
So, as the book of James reminds us, be quick to listen. People don’t mind talking about faith and hearing your views.
But they also want to know you’re interested in them as people, rather than as prospects for your sales pitch.
Be agreeable even when you disagree
As an aspiring musician in the 1990s, I spent Tuesday nights at a Chicago restaurant that was home to a weekly open mic and songwriters’ circle. It wasn’t far from the Christian college where I’d gone to school.
I was delighted when one of my songwriter friends, Marck, decided to attend that college. Marck wasn’t a Christian, but he was curious.
I hoped being at a Christian school would bring him closer to Jesus. If nothing else, I hoped he’d experience the kindness for which Christians are often known.
Instead, his experience turned him off. Any time he disagreed with his classmates—especially about politics or spirituality—they belittled him.
Because he wasn’t a Christian, his point of view didn’t matter to them. Before long, he felt unwelcome.
Think about what you have in common
You might disagree with your neighbors on matters of faith, but you still likely have a lot in common. You both get stressed out about work, worry about your kids, and want safe and thriving communities. Look for ways to share those common interests.
A study from LifeWay Research found that more than half of unchurched Americans would come to a church-sponsored meeting about making their neighborhood safer (61 percent) or for a community service project (51 percent).
By contrast, only about a third (34 percent) would be likely to come to a church service if invited. Definitely invite your friends to a church service, but continue to find or create other opportunities to introduce them to your faith community.
Have a little bit of faith
Remember, God is in the rescuing business. Jesus came to earth, as the Gospel of Luke puts it, “to seek and to save the lost.”
God is already at work in the lives of our neighbors, friends, and co-workers. As the old hymn puts it, “Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, calling for you and for me.”
Our job, as Christ’s followers, is to love our neighbors, share the gospel, and testify about our changed lives. God will do the rest.
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.