Talking with others about controversial, volatile topics like the gospel is scary. I get it. It scares me, too. In spiritual conversations, landmines abound. It’s understandable that some are skittish. I’ve found a good way to minimize the risk, though, and increase my courage. I use questions. Questions keep me safe.
I want to give you four ways questions can increase your margin of safety, too, while still providing a great opportunity for you to make a difference.
First, questions get you going. Most people find that starting a spiritual conversation is a bit awkward. Using a well-placed question, though, is a safe way for more timid types—and aggressive types, too—to get off the bench and into active conversation. It helps you ease into the game, so to speak, in a genial, non-threatening way, especially when your question shows a personal interest in the other person.
I had a fun conversation once with a witch in Wisconsin simply by asking about her necklace—a five-pointed star called a pentagram often associated with the occult. “Does that jewelry have spiritual significance?” was all I said. Yes, it did. She was “a pagan,” and happy to talk about the particulars. More questions followed as I probed for detail on her views. I was relaxed and so was she. It was painless.
There’s a reason questions make the initial stages of a conversation so much easier. Once you ask, it’s the other person’s turn to answer. Your job is done for the moment. All you need to do is listen. It’s simple. Once you’re rolling, the conversation almost always gets easier as opportunities for more questions present themselves.
Second, questions get you valuable “intel.” Like I said, sometimes there are landmines out there, and it’s safer if you find them in advance.
Once, on a flight out of LAX, I chatted amiably with a thirty-something passenger sitting next to me. As I gently drew him out with questions, I learned he was not a Christian, though he used to be. In fact, he said, he used to be a preacher’s kid. What had happened to his preacher dad? “Oh, he’s still alive. He’s just not a preacher anymore. In fact, he’s not a Christian anymore, either.”
Valuable intel? You bet. As I listened more to his story, the outlines of his spiritual topography came into focus. It wasn’t a pretty picture. If I’d jumped into the conversation leading with the gospel, I’m sure I would have hit a tripwire. In situations like this one, questions often reveal obstacles in your path you can carefully maneuver around if you know where they are.
Third, questions protect you from having to defend your own view. The reason is simple. If you’re asking questions, you’re not making statements. Since the burden of proof is always on the person making the claim, you’re in the clear. If you stick with questions, you’ll have nothing to defend, so you’re in a safe place, not vulnerable to counterattack.
Fourth, starting with questions makes exiting easier, so entering is easier, too. Flying home after nearly two weeks of grueling work in Paraguay, I had a midnight layover in São Paulo, Brazil. I was tired and didn’t want to talk. I was also hungry, but I didn’t trust the airport restaurants, having had a bad experience in Uganda a month earlier.
I saw a young American chatting in Portuguese with a waitress, so I asked for his advice. He gave the restaurant a thumbs up, so I suggested we sit together to enjoy our meal. I learned quickly why this young Yank spoke Portuguese so well; he was an LDS missionary. Now I was at loggerheads with myself.
It was a great opportunity to witness, of course, but to be completely candid, I did not want to endure an evening of evangelism with a Mormon missionary at midnight in Brazil after two weeks of talks. Like I said, I was tired.
Then it dawned on me. I didn’t have to mentally commit myself on the front end to a lengthy bout with a non-believer. If I was willing to simply start with a few questions about his own Mormon beliefs, I could easily exit whenever I ran out of gas. Plus, asking about his views was a lot simpler than preaching about my own. It gave me the sense of safety I needed to step out.
You may be wondering if I actually make a difference for the gospel focusing principally on questions. I do. And you will, too. Questions will help you ease into conversations, they’ll give you valuable intel, they’ll allow you to sidestep the burden of proof until you’re in a solid position to defend your own view, and they’ll make it easy to exit when it’s time to go. Put simply, questions keep you safe.