The key to engaging unbelievers in a non-threatening way is to ask questions. This approach has several advantages. First, asking questions encourages the conversation to continue. This is a basic principle of human relationships. By asking questions about the other person, conversation is encouraged.
It is easy to see that this approach to evangelism is different than others that are often practiced. Some people who evangelize focus their efforts primarily on distributing literature such as tracts. This approach often aims for quantity—give out as many tracts as possible with minimal interaction as possible with those who take them. While tracts can be helpful as a summary of the gospel to be read at a later time, those who use them sometimes do so to avoid real conversations with unbelievers. Another approach to evangelism is what one author calls “the gospel burp.” This amounts to a monologue with the unbeliever, in which the Christian tries to blurt out as much of the gospel as possible before the unbeliever cuts him off. This is called the gospel burp because the gospel is blurted out as fast as possible, the Christian feels good afterward, and the unbeliever feels assaulted.
The approach we are advocating here, however, is a genuine engagement in conversation with the unbeliever. It starts by showing interest in the person, and asking questions that get to the heart of the unbeliever’s worldview and belief system. After beginning a conversation, the Christian may steer the conversation toward spiritual matters any number of ways. An effective segue may be something like, “So, what is your religious background?” Or equally effective would be something like, “So, what do you value most in life?” The key here is to move the conversation as naturally as you can into questions of ultimate meaning. Cornelius Van Til described this is carrying the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In other words, almost anything, including current events, cultural events (such as music, film, literature, etc.), or common interests, can be used to transition to spiritual matters.
Once the conversation turns toward spiritual matters, the questions continue. If an unbeliever has a religious background, you can then ask something like, “Tell me about how that affected your beliefs,” or “I don’t know much about that religion/denomination. Tell me more about it.” This is a genuine request, as you should be interested in discovering as much as you can about the person, so that when you begin to share the gospel, you know how to target your presentation to the non-Christian’s actual beliefs. If the unbeliever has no religious background or has rejected belief in God, you can ask a question such as, “Why don’t you believe in God?” or “What made you lose your faith?”
The key here is to listen. To avoid the offense of the gospel burp, we must take the time to listen to unbelievers explain why they don’t believe. We must listen to the stories of how they lost their faith. Remember, evangelism and apologetics should flow out of a genuine interest in and love for that person. Listening and asking follow-up questions demonstrates respect and gentleness, and often opens the door for you to challenge their unbelief and present the gospel.
Once the non-Christian begins to tell about what he believes, you can begin to ask questions that push below the surface to the reason why he believes what he does. These are seemingly safe questions that force him to justify his own belief system. Some common questions include:
- Why do you believe that?
- What do you base that on?
- Where did you get that idea?
- What makes you think that?
- What do you mean by that?
- Can you give me an example of that?
These are all variations on a theme, and they make him think about the grounds for believing what he believes. The truth is, many people have not thought too deeply about why they believe what they believe. His answer to these questions will begin to reveal the authorities in which he trusts. For example, if he says, “I believe we all just evolved and that fate rules the universe.” That kind of statement is nearly impossible to answer directly, because it is so vague and involves such complicated ideas as evolution and fate. Rather than answering or arguing against this statement, you will ask one of the questions above.
In the next post we will look at the advantage of asking questions in an apologetic encounter.