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Sermon 2019-03-31 Ross Woodhouse

Everyday Spiritual Conversations (2) – Enquire, Don’t Disagree!

Welcome to Week 2 of Everyday Spiritual Conversations[1]. If you missed last week this is a series for equipping and encouraging us in our conversational evangelism.

Just to briefly re-cap from last week: our theme was “ask, don’t tell”

We talked about the fear and expectations that come from even just the mention of the word evangelism, our vocal cords constricting at the very thought of speaking about Jesus. Whereas when we know the Lord Jesus, when we have experienced his grace and hope for ourselves when we know God’s heart is for the lost, why would we not want to pass this on?!

I shared one of a number of conversation killers with you: Unbelief. Our sharing with others relies on us believing that God’s heart is for the lost and that the Holy Spirit can open doors of opportunity every day for conversation – when we are willing and available and the key to great conversations is? …Great questions!

Two weeks ago I watched a Billy Graham documentary on Netflix…

Now I realise in this series we’re talking about conversation, dialogue not preaching – although there is certainly a place for that. I mention this because I want us to be inspired by what can happen when the God the Holy Spirit moves and we are obedient to that move and what can happen when the gospel – the power of God unto salvation – is spoken.  I was really moved by these images.

But you know what was more impacting for me, when his family, friends, even US presidents were able to say he’s the same person, with the same simple message…1 million or 1 person. He loved Jesus and wanted anyone to know the same.

He was confident and articulate but said it wasn’t him who moved people toward Christ. “Prayer is crucial to evangelism,” he said. “No matter how logical our arguments or how fervent our appeals, our words will accomplish nothing unless God’s Spirit prepares the way.”

Two important reminders for us this morning…

Let’s get into today’s theme: “Enquire, don’t disagree” …

How is that even possible when what a person might be saying to me or asking me about is simply something that is totally inconsistent with scriptural truth, I don’t believe in, is opposed to my values or all of these. Conversation. And it’s where we need God’s wisdom, God’s Spirit preparing the way to help us. Another word I might throw in here would be restraint. Quick to exercise God’s wisdom slow to blurt out the first thing that might come into our heads.

Because “careless words can erode our credibility”[2] and add to what in many cases is already a dim view of Christianity.

Recall the scripture from last week? “…the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Cor. 4)

When we are looking for an opportunity to converse with ‘not-yet-Christian’ people, we are talking to people whose minds are blinded, for now. Unwise, unrestrained, and not-in-the-Spirit disagreement is in my view an ineffective way of leading people to Christ.

I wonder if at times Christians are perceived in our communities as the “disagreement people”? The words we’ve used, our tone, our posture have given a certain message. It’s not intentional?

But the message we send is, ‘we don’t agree with you, and we don’t accept you’. We can say we want to love the sinner but hate the sin but my experience is the two aren’t that distinguished to the not-yet-Christian. Doug Pollock says “Acceptance does not mean endorsement. When we confuse the two, we destroy the very space God wants to work in”[3].  Jesus himself used language familiar to the day and adopted a posture that built bridges and opened doors. I would suggest we learn to do the same.

If we are to engage people in conversation, it won’t be long before people are saying things we disagree with – and this is certainly so when it comes to the big questions of life. Questions of life after death. Moral/ethical questions. If God is a God of love why is there…?

We believe that God has revealed himself, and that specific answers to life’s big questions are therefore possible, not least in the person of Jesus. However, we live in a society that has embraced the view that the truth can’t be found – or probably doesn’t even exist.

So how do we to turn these potential disagreements into conversational opportunities?

‘Sour notes’: You are listening – remember listening from last week? – to a vocal quartet, but one person is singing a little out of tune.  While you can’t place it, you can hear a ‘sour note’. The same thing happens in conversations. People say things that don’t make sense to us personally. The ‘sour notes’ are our opportunities to ask questions and respond in wisdom. Here are 2-3 suggestions of questions or phrases you might use at such times:

  • “So, if I’m hearing you right, this is what you’re saying. Is this what you believe?”
  • You’re saying you feel this way about this certain thing (you reflect back) because (reflect back) is this right?”
  • “So the thing that’s most important to you is (reflect back) …?”[4]

Such questions, phrases and good listening skills validate the hearer, help them feel heard and valued, create space for God to work in, or rather we’re then working in the space God is in!

 

A personal example

I mentioned last week a friend and I would regularly go into the city and have spiritual conversations with people. I recall one conversation where a gentleman wanted to tell us all about certain ‘spirits’ he interacted with – can I pause there. I think an important value to take into a conversation is being ready for anything that people might say.

When we have engaged a conversation we invite their response whatever it might be and we are unshockable[5]. And, this is why prayer and being in the Spirit are important too!

Now perhaps the typical response might be to say with concern, ‘Why on earth do you think that way. That’s so wrong! There is absolutely no such thing!’ But remember society’s view is that everyone has their own truth, right? That’s what we’re working with!

My go-to response with such situations is: “thanks so much. I really appreciate you sharing that with me. Perhaps we have something in common. We’re both spiritual people” ….

… “Could you tell me a little more about what you believe to help me understand”. So I’m not agreeing nor disagreeing. I am validating that his beliefs are his beliefs but showing an interest in what he has to say.

The principle here is: affirming the good, accepting, not necessarily endorsing, while asking a question about what I don’t understand.

This all led to a conversation in which I was able to explain very gently the confusion created by lots of truths and people having their own truths when there is only one truth, the person of Jesus and that the gospels are a factual and historical record of his life, death and resurrection.

 

NOTES:

  • Small talk established trust
  • Spiritual things came into natural conversation (I wasn’t overtly trying to tell him anything – I was just being myself)
  • Where there was disagreement I held my opinion, and it led to an open two-way conversation that progressed naturally (asking questions) onto meaningful matters.

Let’s have a look at Jesus to see how he engaged in conflict through passages of scripture:

Luke5.33-35

They said to him, “John’s disciples often fast and pray, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours go on eating and drinking.”

 Jesus answered, “Can you make the friends of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; in those days they will fast.”

The conflict:   Jesus breaking cultural/religious norms regarding fasting

Jesus’ response: Jesus uses a question to invite their engagement in a conversation. Jesus does so while also giving an illustration that might help his reasoning to make sense.

Luke 6:1-11

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”

Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

On another Sabbath, he went into the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was shrivelled. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. But Jesus knew what they were thinking and said to the man with the shrivelled hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” So he got up and stood there.

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to destroy it?”

He looked around at them all, and then said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was completely restored. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus.

The conflict: Jesus breaking cultural and religious norms re Sabbath practices.

Jesus’ response:

In story 1: Picking and eating grain on the Sabbath. Jesus used a question and did so with an illustration that might help them understand his answer.

In story 2: Healing a man’s hand on the Sabbath.

In the parallel account in Mark 3:1-6 it adds an important detail – that they remained silent when Jesus asked the question. So Jesus asked a question – empowering the hearers to make the decision. And only then – in light of their silence (which Mark notes ‘deeply distressed’ Jesus – which could fairly be taken as agreement because no one was able to disagree), did he heal the man.

Luke 14:1-7

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him * on his way.

Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” And they had nothing to say. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honour at the table, he told them this parable:

The conflict: Whether Jesus can heal a sick man on the Sabbath

Jesus’ response: yet again – he asks a question. Only in the face of their silence does he heal the man. Then (in v5) he gives them an illustration that could help

Whilst we don’t have every word Jesus spoke we have accurate summaries of his encounters and conversations. And, what did the writers of the Gospels record as having been on Jesus’ lips at the start of each incident? Questions!

And then – to make things clear, what did he do? Told a story / gave an illustration

An illustration: In some families, if someone says something that is a load of rubbish, they’ll say “That’s a load of rubbish!” – That would be my family!

In other families – ones that don’t particularly like or avoid conflict, when someone talks a load of rubbish, they might go “Oh” – and say nothing.

A third family example is when someone says something that is a load of rubbish, might say “Oh – how interesting, what makes you think that?” And they say this with such interest that you even feel affirmed because they are interested in what you have to say.

Which one is – generally speaking – the healthiest response? Asking questions that open a conversation is the healthiest.

Which one of the family examples do you identify with? The point is we will all have a natural default setting and respond differently to disagreement, that’s not always good and right and the most helpful.

The Bible has a lot to say about our speaking.

Proverbs 29:11. Fools vent their anger, but the wise quietly hold it back.

James 1:5. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.

James 3:17f. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

Proverbs 13:3. Those who guard their lips preserve their lives, but those who speak rashly will come to ruin.

However, if we are going to become more effective as witnesses, we need to learn to exercise wisdom (4th principle) and quite possibly restraint in some of the things we might normally say in some circumstances and learn how to engage people in non-threatening two-way SPIRITUAL conversations.

And doing so is really about people skills – and it can be learnt! Whenever there is disagreement, whenever you hear one of those ‘sour notes’, applaud what is good while asking a question about what you ‘don’t understand’.

By speaking in questions and stories, you can engage people in conversations that would probably not have happened otherwise. By holding your tongue – you disagree without ever really saying you disagree…and by engaging the conversation, you might just discover more of who they are, of where they’ve been, and of what is going on in their heart.

Bible says in Colossians 4:5-6. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

And because you’ve been gentle and encouraging and respectful…in the Spirit, another conversation follows, and then another, and you find yourself encouraging them along a journey toward faith in Jesus, one step at a time!  I want to signal to you now that we’ll be talking in week 4 about what a summary of the gospel message is that will help us as we’re faced with opportunities.

Jesus modelled an approach that engaged every-day people in every-day conversations that ended up touching the heart. If God’s heart is for the lost ours ought to be also. Let’s look out for and be ready for the opportunities with people – and do the same!

Next week – Converse, don’t confront!

 

[1] Adapted from resources provided by Hope Project

[2] Godspace, 26

[3] Godspace, 31

[4] Adapted from Godspace, 60

[5] That includes our posture, body language and the words we use. We are to remain calm and restrained and in the Spirit with our response. Even when a person may share something we would consider morally reprehensible.