You’re sitting in a coffee shop alone.
You’ve just finished your book, so you start chatting to a person at the table next to you. You tell them you’re a Christian, you lead a church, and the first thing you hear is all the stuff about why religions are bad. You listen patiently. They seem a little upset. You empathise. They blow themselves out, because you’re not defensive. So far, so good.
You want to talk about Jesus, but when you think about it, that’s a huge leap. Can I interest you in a man who lived two thousand years ago? He rose from the dead.
Yeah, right. And that’s relevant to me . . . how?
End of conversation.
Here’s the problem:
If we start with the beliefs we want others to hold and make that our focus, oftentimes we come across as people who aren’t listening properly. We’re just insisting that the world must change its position, to admit that it’s wrong, and we’re right. That’s a tough sell. No wonder we meet either resistance or apathy.
What’s changed in our culture?
Isn’t anyone interested in the truth anymore?!
Well, frankly, I think that nowadays the world is asking a different question. At least, that’s how it seems to me. I wonder if you have noticed it too. In 2004, when I completed my Masters in Apologetics, I met the question, ‘Is it true?’ fairly often. And I was equipping myself to answer it.
The question, ‘Is it true?’ doesn’t seem to be nearly as important as it once was. I’m not saying it’s not an important question. It is. But it seems the world has stopped asking it. Nowadays, you can spend hours explaining why the gospels are genuine, reliable documents, and a person on an Alpha or Christianity Explored course will often just look at you and say, ‘And? So what?’
It’s frustrating, but the reality is, the truth question no longer interests them nearly as much as it once did. Sadly nowadays, we’re offering excellent answers to questions they aren’t asking. That’s got to pull us up short. So who needs to change here? If we dig in our heels and say, ‘Well, they should change their question,’ we’ll end up whistling in the dark.
Instead, we must, must focus on the question they are asking. Or we will never reach them with the gospel. What is that question?
It’s some version of these two:
What are you offering me?
What do you have that I would want?
Notice the individualism, the sense that even the big questions must submit to me, since I see myself as the centre of my world. Yet any discomfort over that must be set aside if we’re to listen to what’s really going on when people express these questions.
They’re saying this:
I have needs, I have desires, things I want. I also have struggles and I want to know that whatever religion-or-faith-or-whatever-it-is-you-want-me-to-believe, that it’s going to satisfy me. Help me understand why I should even listen to you. Everyone is selling something. You’ve got a religion you want to sell me? Then convince me why I should buy.
So, there you are in the coffee shop. Your interlocutor has now vented about religion, and because you’ve listened well, the conversation turns to your life. You could employ euphemisms like ‘I lead group discussions,’ or go for some virtue signalling, ‘My church runs a food bank,’ but you want to share Jesus, and those two thousand years feel like an enormous unbridgeable gap. So instead, you remember how the Master did it.
He always started by meeting people where they struggled, with the issues they faced, and he intuitively (and with staggering insight) was able to express love and compassion. Think of the woman at the well, Zacchaeus, the disabled man at the Pool of Bethesda, among many others. He even asked Bartimaeus, ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ The man was blind! And yet Jesus still asked what he wanted! Almost always, he started his interactions with questions. Because it’s by asking questions that we discover the desires of others.
What they want, what they’re longing for.
That’s where we should start.
‘If there were a God, what would you want from him?’ That might be your question.
I know it may seem that we’re opening the door to selfish requests, but it’s not long before you will hear people express the longings of their hearts. Once they do, you will soon hear the kinds of desires that are shared by all human beings. They fit into (roughly) four categories:
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course, but it’s a start. Talk to anyone for long enough, and their struggles will start to rise to the top. A broken relationship. Job challenges. Family discord. Every single one will be based on unmet or frustrated desires.
The world is not asking ‘does God exist?’ but ‘can he help me?’ Jesus has already asked the question, ‘what do you want?’ They are now answering, and they want to know that the God of the universe can satisfy their desires.
Self-centred? Driven by sinful urges? Of course. We human beings, by our very nature, attempt to satisfy our desires in sinful and damaging ways. But as Jesus so often did, we, his followers, must listen well to be given any chance to respond.
Let me say, as an aside, that I’m not rejecting the gospel message about forgiveness of sins. At some point during this conversation, the person’s position before God will have to be addressed. But not at the beginning. At the beginning, we should start with a person’s burdens, their lost dreams, their shattered hopes.
There’s a reason why there are so few genuine atheists. Most people are open to the idea that a ‘higher power’ exists. But they want to know if that entity can help them satisfy their desires. The reality, of course, is that God has determined not to satisfy their most keenly felt desire, which is that he would end their suffering. That is in the future. Yet once that phase of the conversation has passed, there is tremendously good news that we can share.
Love – what greater love can one imagine than the kind that leads a person to make the ultimate sacrifice to rescue those he loves?
Happiness – what greater joy is there than knowing the one who made you, and who loves you with an everlasting love?
Significance – how wonderful that whoever you are, you are essential to God’s story, with each of us given a role to play.
Peace-and-Justice – one day, all evil will be judged. We long for justice, because justice is found in our creator, who will make all things right.
Spend long enough, and a person’s desires will show you who they are. Spend long enough listening, and you may be given the opportunity to share the answer to the deep desires you’ve just heard expressed.
But you must listen to a person’s desires first.
Even in this very secular culture that surrounds us, many people may also permit you to pray. It may sound crazy, but in the secular West, people like the idea of prayer. So, as the Spirit leads, offer to pray, and when you pray, start with their needs.
As you leave the coffee shop today, you thank your new friend for listening (though you’ve probably done the lion’s share). You tell them, if they’re open to it, that you’ll continue to pray for their needs. Perhaps you’ll even pay for their cappuccino. This world is suffering, and it needs to hear about a God who cares, who suffers with and for us – one who is capable of satisfying our desires, even when they are perceived through sinful eyes.
Offer any other God nowadays, and they won’t give him the time of day.
Just as well our gospel is so powerful, so true, so glorious.
For our God is not only the Truth, but also the Way and the Life. He satisfies every yearning of the human heart.