Evangelism lessons from the Savior: Part 1
Engage in conversation.
Donn G. Dobberstein
According to an Expedia 2015 study, 66 percent of people dread sitting next to someone on an airplane who wants to talk the entire trip. Typically, midair etiquette calls for a little small talk, followed by ear buds, book-reading, or looking out the window. People want peace and quiet.
That’s how I thought one such flight was headed after an almost two-hour delay. On board, the seat next to me was empty. Tired, I exhaled with satisfaction and stretched out for a little shut-eye. A scant minute before the boarding door closed, the last passenger boarded and rushed to his seat next to me. Exhaling heavily, he said hello. I smiled and wearily asked, “How are you doing?”
What a dangerous question to ask. I’ve just expressed an interest in a total stranger and opened myself to a conversation that might go well beyond the single word answer of “Good,” which I honestly might have desired at that moment.
My flight seatmate happily shared he was on his way to meet his fiancée. It began a casual, friendly conversation. I learned how they met, where she lived, and all their wedding plans. I couldn’t have been happier for him as we walked off the plane and said good-bye.
A couple hours later on a connector flight, I’m buckled alongside a dozen passengers from England headed for a week of golf in America. I’m sitting next to 18-year-old Jonathan, who lived just northwest of London. Accents collided as the dangerous question was asked again, “How are you doing?” The ensuing small talk was casual and natural. He asked what I did for a living.
“I’m a pastor,” I answered, “… you go to church?”
“No,” he said.
“Ever wonder what they’re all about?”
“No,” was his answer.
“At our church,” I replied, “We tell people about Jesus. Ever heard of him?”
“Oh, yeah? Where?”
“What’d they tell you about him?”
“That he lived and died. Crucified him, I guess,” he responded.
“Did they ever tell you why they crucified him?”
“No,” was his answer.
“Did you ever wonder?”
“No,” was his answer.
“Would you like to know?”
“No,” he said, with a shrug.
In my head, I was already dreaming of the first ever in-flight adult baptism using the little cup of water the stewardess handed to me. But it didn’t happen. I could tell he was visibly uncomfortable. The conversation returned to casual and safe.
Two days later, I’m boarding the return flight, wondering, Who will I sit next to this time? She was a well-dressed, sophisticated-looking personal financial manager of accounts exceeding a half-million dollars. After exchanging pleasantries, she initiated the conversation, “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m a pastor,” I answered.
“Really?!” she exclaimed with genuine surprise.
It began a conversation that lasted the entire flight from runway to runway. She talked about the last time she went to church and how she hadn’t been back since—she was turned off by the “meat market” of singles. She talked about her friends in troubled marriages. I talked about the joys of marriage. She told me what she’s looking for in a church: one that can personally relate to her life, one in which she will leave on a Sunday and be able to take something with her through the week. She talked about her upscale world of fine homes, private jets, designer stores in New York City, affluent background, surrounded by materialistic people. She confessed there was something missing.
Engage the world
Jesus had conversations too that engaged an increasingly large world of people who needed more than small talk. We can learn from one conversation with a Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. “Now Jesus had to go through Samaria” (4:4). No, he didn’t. But in order to engage in conversation with total stranger, Jesus went through foreign territory for a Samaritan woman.
Their accents were different. Their cultures clashed. Their conversation was a social no-no (a strange man was not to be talked to in public). She was someone everyone wanted to avoid because she lived an immoral life.
Jesus asked, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:7). What a dangerous question! Jesus used it to begin an incredibly casual conversation that would break through all human barriers and obstacles. In a matter of minutes, Jesus engaged in talk that touched every aspect of her life. He exposed her moral failure with men, then proved himself to be the Messiah she most needed: “I am he” (John 4:26).
Jesus models for us conversation that engages the world. It may be true that the more secular our world becomes, the less inclined people are to “go to church.” But I believe people are still open to conversations with those who genuinely take an interest and care for them. There is an emptiness, a craving for lasting joy, a need to be known and loved, and a desire for greater meaning in our lives.
Why do we struggle in cultivating a normal conversation toward a faith discussion? The barrier isn’t an airplane seatmate, Samaritan stranger, or human deficiencies. It’s the Christian afraid to engage in conversation.
Why do we talk so easily and readily about work, our kids, the weather, football, but talking about Jesus doesn’t come easy?
Why can parents discuss schedules and family finances, but engaging in spiritual conversation and praying together? “Ah, I just don’t know how to do that.”
How come small talk with the checkout clerk is easier than sitting down with a child and having a conversation about Jesus? “Ah, but that’s just not me.”
Jesus models conversation worth talking about because the gospel is what it’s all about. It doesn’t mean the conversation has to begin with the gospel. It begins with you engaging someone in conversation. Say nothing, expect nothing. There are no shortcuts in relationships. It’s slow work. It’s soul work. But it’s so worth it!
The best part is a God who strategically formatted the gospel into words so that it can be part of our conversations with friends, family . . . or even with a total stranger. God wants us to talk about the gospel! Three flights and three chats with three strangers may not have ended with life-changing or Pentecost results. But they did happen. That’s the point. It proves that even the most casual conversation can turn into an opportunity to talk about Jesus.
“Do not be afraid to testify about our Lord” (2 Timothy 1:8).
Any conversation is an opportunity where small talk can turn to spiritual talk and where human needs can encounter gospel power. It can happen anytime, anywhere,
with anyone. It can happen over a cup of coffee, while waiting in line, in the backyard, and even on an airplane.
It can happen with you.
Donn Dobberstein, director of discipleship for WELS, is a member at Trinity, Waukesha, Wisconsin.
This is the first article in a four-part series on evangelism lessons from the account of the Samaritan woman in John chapter 4.
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Author: Donn G. Dobberstein
Volume 105, Number 7
Issue: July 2018
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