Our world needs better conversations.* We are naturally suspicious of one another, especially if it’s assumed we hold different opinions about life’s most important issues. But if we claim to follow Jesus, there is a responsibility to push past our suspicions, go deeper than sports and weather, and really start to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Instead of politely navigating our interactions with people who think differently than us, we need to see every conversation as an opportunity to begin a meaningful relationship.
Four Conversation Starters for Christians and Doubters is a tool designed to help you practice The Doubter’s Club lifestyle in your daily interactions with other people. Each conversation starter offers an opportunity to push past the surface-level conversations we tend to prefer and engage in meaningful conversations about all sorts of topics.
Before you venture out and spring one of these conversation starters on people in your life, keep a few ground rules in mind:
Ushering in the Kingdom way of life is always better than trying to make someone acceptable to the King.
Don’t look for a way out of the conversations you start. Using these conversation starters will inevitably reveal areas in which you and your friend disagree. That’s great! Instead of being on the defensive, be curious about other people’s beliefs, even when they oppose your deepest-held convictions. Resist the urge to end the conversation abruptly or reply with a snarky comeback. Instead, express how grateful you are that your friend is willing to communicate honestly.
Don’t mistake conversations for debates. The four conversation starters you are about to encounter are not “debate starters.” Your goal is to build an authentic friendship with someone who doesn’t think like you. Winning a debate is seldom a good way to build a friendship. Instead, you want to explore topics with each other genuinely.
Listen. You are not engaging in mental jiujitsu when you start a conversation with someone. Listen intently to your new friend, ask follow-up questions, and show authentic curiosity about his or her thoughts and opinions. Every friendship needs quality conversations, and quality conversations require us to listen.
If you keep these rules in mind, you are bound to have wonderful conversations with people who don’t think like you. So, let’s get started.
1. What are you finding to be most helpful during this season?
Questions have a unique way of validating people. This question gives them the green light to share how they are coping with life without giving you a license to judge them.
My barber is an atheist and has become one of my best friends in Springfield, Missouri. When I asked him this question, my barber told me he increased smoking weed once he realized 2020 has “made us all lonelier than ever.”
I may not smoke weed, but I find myself zoning out on social media more often — for the same reason. And that’s what I told him.
Questions like this allow Christians and doubters to confess to one another. Consequently, our confessions disarm the shame around how we handle suffering and help us build trust. The point isn’t to convince them to stop smoking weed or whatever else they are doing. Rather, it’s to live out the words of Scripture: “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).
Keep in mind that ushering in the Kingdom way of life is always better than trying to make someone acceptable to the King. One requires mercy; the other requires judgment.
2. How have you been impacted by 2020?
If you ask this question, be ready to act on it. It will reveal where you have an opportunity to serve your new friend. Imagine asking this question to a working, single mom who just found out her kids weren’t going to school next semester due to COVID-19.
Will she have to quit her job? Will there be a gap year in her kids’ education because she couldn’t afford to quit? Will she have to move because she can’t do another five months on her own?
This conversation starter enables you to know how to serve the person in front of you. Jesus said He came to serve, not to be served (Matthew 20:28). Since we can’t be greater than our Master, serving is our fast track to the highest-ranking position in the Kingdom.
My wife is the saint in our house. Because of conversations like this, she started a learning pod in our upstairs playroom for other work-from-home parents who need someone to tutor their kids. She had to quit one of her jobs to pull this off. Nothing builds more trust than serving someone’s needs above your own.
3. I don’t know if you go to church or not, but what are your thoughts about churches being essential or nonessential?
You will quickly discover the spirituality of the person to whom you ask this question. Some see spirituality as having practical benefits in society. Others see it as a fairy tale that expired sometime in the 20th century. I would say most people who are not religious register somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. The current pandemic allows us to gauge our new friend’s spirituality without sounding weird.
Be careful not to be on the defensive. Remember, the goal of asking questions is to show genuine curiosity about the other person. Consequently, you both build trust with one another. It’s more than a verbal hand wave. It’s a way of welcoming someone into your day.
With a question like this, you will likely disagree. If that’s the case, ask more questions, or tell your friend you want to think about what he or she said. Share your thoughts about how church gatherings have helped you personally. Don’t share your constitutional rights to worship, and don’t give this person a piece of your mind.
4. Do you know what I have been questioning lately?
Rarely does a Christian utter such a statement to a doubter. Being the first to acknowledge some of the questions you have about God immediately assures your friend you are authentic. And people prefer to talk with someone who is real over someone who is right.
You don’t need to conjure up questions you are prepared to answer. Think about it. When the noise stops and the kids are in bed, what questions do you have?
Here, I’ll start. Do you know what I have been questioning lately? If prayer works and most Protestant and Catholic leaders are praying for healing, why are people still dying from COVID?
Why do I feel more discontent during the fall than the summer?
Should I finally switch over to contacts? My glasses keep fogging up with these masks!
Whether they’re theological, personal or practical, share your questions. Say the quiet part out loud. Let your new friend give you some advice. Even if the advice is wrong, advice sharing adds relational value.
Imagine being completely wrong, but welcomed. I don’t know about you, but that’s how I would describe my relationship with Jesus!
Where Do You Go From Here?
Here are a few steps you can take to put what you’ve learned into action:
Keep these conversation starters in your purse or wallet. Whether you print off these ideas or create your own, putting conversation starters somewhere you will remember them will help you use them in real life. Next time you are out for coffee, and check your wallet for a gift card, you’ll be reminded to ask better questions and have deeper conversations.
Ask one of these questions each day for the next four days. Knowing how to start a conversation is only part of the battle. You still need to open your mouth and engage with someone who doesn’t think like you. So, don’t let this resource fade into oblivion. Commit to asking a different person one of these questions every day for the next four days, and before long, starting meaningful conversations will feel natural.
Let us know how it goes. The Doubter’s Club lifestyle is all about community. Telling someone about exciting conversations and new friendships you develop encourages you to continue building friendships and pursuing truth with people who don't think like you. So, send me an email via email@example.com. I want to hear about the conversations you start.
The ball is now in your court. Next time you find yourself in a meaningless conversation about the weather, ask the other person one of these questions. I promise you will have a much more interesting interaction. And chances are you will have an opportunity to develop a new friendship with someone who thinks differently than you.
*Influence is proud to partner with Preston Ulmer and The Doubter’s Club on a new series of articles about spiritual conversations with non-Christian friends. The series will appear biweekly on Fridays, beginning today. Ulmer is founder of The Doubter’s Club and director of network development for the Church Multiplication Network of the Assemblies of God.