Here’s another experience from my seminary days: Evangelism Bootcamp. This was the title of a weekend conference at Virginia Theological Seminary, which is located in Alexandria. After a mere three hours into the conference, all the participants were instructed to fan out over the DC area and strike up conversations with strangers. The point was to get people talking about spiritual matters and maybe even God or Jesus.
I admit that initiating conversation with strangers is not everyone’s cup of tea. It can be intimidating, awkward, and just plain scary, even if you don’t intend to talk about God. But not for those of us who signed up for Evangelism Bootcamp. With a name like that, what else can you expect? We were seminarians, clergy, and other ministry professionals who embraced the idea of “progressive evangelism,” a term coined by my very best friend in seminary, Otis, who had organized the conference. Otis explained that progressive evangelism is not about getting people to come to church or believe in God. It’s about revealing the presence of God already there in the person’s life and in the midst of your conversation with them. Otis is brilliant at striking up a conversation with absolutely anyone. So before we set out, he made sure we discussed ways to talk to people in a way that feels natural. Comment on the person’s shirt or how long the bus is taking to arrive. Ask about the book they’re reading or whether the pastry they bought at the coffee shop is any good. Treat small talk as a door to a better and more interesting conversation — using all those pastoral care skills learned in CPE — and then get down to business. In this case, turning the conversation toward the divine. Like I said, anything meaningful is spiritual, so it’s not as big of a jump to make as we sometimes assume.
This is where the stranger part doesn’t make that much of a difference. Whether you’re in a conversation with someone you know well or someone you don’t know at all, you can do this one simple technique: name the holy. Name what you understand as the presence of God in what the person is saying. I learned this from David Gortner, a priest and professor who spoke at the bootcamp. He writes about naming the holy in his book Transforming Evangelism. Here are some examples I’ve used: “You seem really grounded. Do you have a spiritual side?” “I would say God has blessed you with a passion for teaching.” “What you’re describing doesn’t sound like a mere coincidence. I wonder if God might have had something to do with it.” “Everything came together in the last minute? That sounds like the God I know.”
What I discovered in Evangelism Bootcamp, and have witnessed ever since, is that many people are genuinely interested in spiritual conversation. They are open to considering the holy in their lives and hearing about the holy in our lives too. Many of us just don’t know how to start down that road toward spiritual conversation, or else we let our fear of being awkward or offending someone stop the conversation before it even starts. You could see these conversations as a form of relational evangelism, or you could see them as simply creating space for both parties to share their spiritual selves. Gortner writes, “Evangelism is a willful, joyful spiritual discipline of seeing and naming the Holy Spirit at work in ourselves and those we encounter — giving voice to our own grace-filled experiences, and helping others find their voice.”
This means that whenever we seek to have a conversation about faith, we need to be prepared to speak to “our own grace-filled experiences.” We must be ready to carry our side of the conversation in a way that not only testifies to the presence and power of God in our lives but connects with what the other person is saying.
Consider the idea of a spiritual library. We each have a library made up of various books that include our beliefs about God and our experiences of God. Books can include moments of awakening, times of hardship that led to growth, favorite Scriptures or hymns and why they’re our favorite, and many other topics. A good exercise is to take stock of the books in your library and start honing your stories. Here are some prompts to get you going, including a few directly from Dr. Gortner:
- “Is there a principle by which you try to live your life? How did you come to believe that?”
- “Have you ever felt divided against yourself, acting or speaking in ways out of keeping with your deepest convictions? What happened?”
- “When has your heart stirred with an expansive love and desire to commit yourself to the good of others? What sparked that experience, and what did you do?”
- Reflect on doubts about faith, God, or the church that you’ve had during different seasons of life. How did you respond to those doubts? What sustained you?
- Have you ever sensed God moving you to do something or make a change in your life? What was it? What happened?
You might find that your spiritual library is pretty expansive and that it contains more resources than you’d initially thought. If you’re familiar with what’s in there, you’ll be ready to pull a book off the shelf to share with someone else who could benefit from it.
Let’s go back to chaplaincy for a moment. An important part about being an interfaith chaplain is that you don’t focus on your personal faith beliefs. You focus on those of the patient. During my experience with hospital chaplaincy, I learned how to be a comfort to people in times of need and to be a sounding board for lamentation. I helped patients and family members make spiritual sense of what was going on. If someone asked me “Why did God let me get cancer?” my job was not to answer the question. My job was to help them answer the question for themselves in terms of their own religious beliefs and understanding of God.
But sometimes I was hit with a direct question that demanded a direct answer. “So. You think there’s a heaven, huh?” a patient once asked me sarcastically, with a hint of fear in his voice. Another time the wife of a dying man challenged, “How can you watch him suffer like this and still believe in God?” It sounded like an accusation, but I think she was longing for some word of hope. Neither she nor the man inquiring about heaven was looking for a fight or asking for a scholarly argument. They wanted my testimony. And maybe they were even looking for the testimony of the church — the church that has stood in the midst of devastation and turmoil and made truly outlandish claims. “Christ is risen!” is one of them.
Testimony is publicly recognizing that you have seen light in the darkness, that you have felt love overcome fear, that you have met God. It’s personal and firsthand, just like in a courtroom. When taking the stand, witnesses give their own testimony but aren’t allowed to speak for others — that would be hearsay. I don’t remember what testimony I gave to the people in the hospital, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t elaborate or lengthy. In fact, it was probably as simple as “I do believe in heaven. And I believe we’ll both be there one day.”
The examples from the hospital might seem a little extreme. But I bet we all have a book in our spiritual libraries that contains our thoughts on the afterlife. We all have a book about finding God in the midst of suffering. The specific content we draw from our books, and how we go about sharing what we find in their pages, is driven by context. Talking about heaven to someone who is actively dying is certainly different than pondering what heaven is like over drinks with a friend.
There are a host of other factors to consider as well when initiating a sacred conversation. What is the other person’s emotional state? Are they a person of faith? Do the two of you have shared life experience? Do the two of you have shared knowledge of the Bible?
The point isn’t to find the exact right thing to say. The point is to be bold enough to open one of our spiritual books when we believe it can serve someone else — whether that person is a stranger or a friend, someone with a deep faith or no faith at all. What we offer doesn’t have to be eloquent or well-constructed, just sincere. I love it when someone evangelizes to me in this way. Sharing our spiritual selves is a way of sharing God’s grace.
Reprinted with permission from “Ask Me for a Blessing (You Know You Need One),” by Adrian Dannhauser, copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.