Jesus has called His church to make disciples. It’s the primary charge He has given us. Making disciples has pretty much always involved what we call “Spiritual Conversations.” Spiritual conversations are conversations that help someone take the next step in a relationship with Jesus. That may be the next step in considering giving their lives to Jesus, or the next step after giving their lives to Jesus. All of those steps along the way happen in the context of conversations with a “disciple-maker.” So what are the keys to having great spiritual conversations?
Listen to the Holy Spirit
We want to work where God is working. We want to put our efforts where people are responding to what God is doing. Think about all the times in the New Testament when God led someone to have a conversation with another person who was beginning to be open. Ananias to Paul. Philip to the Eunuch. Peter to Cornelius. In Matthew 10:11, Jesus tells the disciples to find a person of peace when they go into a village. That is a person that is already responding to God’s work in their lives and is open to the Good News. Jesus also told His disciples not to waste their time with people who are resistant to the message.
Listening to the Holy Spirit is an important part of knowing who to talk to and how far the conversation can go. Anytime we are talking to someone, we should be asking the Holy Spirit to show us what the next step is for that person and to reveal to us where the person is in terms of openness. Too often Christians shove the message at people who have zero interest in the name of sowing seed, leaving the person less likely to have a conversation with another Christian. We seem to think it is our responsibility to take them all the way to a salvation decision when they haven’t even decided if they are willing to even consider the basic facts of the Gospel. We fail to consider that we are sowing seed by just asking a good question that could cause them to start to reevaluate their own worldview. Our job is to proceed at the rate that they are responding to the Holy Spirit.
I grew up hearing Pastors emphasize that people could die that night, so it is imperative that you share the whole Gospel message with them and press them for a decision any time you can have a spiritual conversation. I felt responsible for every person that I couldn’t bring to a decision. But I found that this approach yielded arguments, false decisions, and often left the person unwilling to have future conversations. I finally realized that I am not responsible for the other person’s lack of openness to the Lord. If I begin to have a spiritual conversation with someone and they don’t respond with more and more openness, I am not responsible to push ahead. They are not ready yet, and I have gone as far as I can go.
Ask great questions
As I just mentioned, asking great questions is a huge part of having great spiritual conversations. It reveals how open the other person is to the Gospel. It helps them see where they are spiritually. It makes them put their own views into words, which they often struggle to do. Asking questions like, “Have you always felt that way? If not, what changed?” can help them see that they are changing their views based on circumstances. Asking follow-up questions like, “On what do you base that view?” can help them see that it is really just their opinion and that it is not based on anything solid. Asking questions like, “Where do you go for encouragement?” or “Where do you find hope when circumstances fall apart?” can help them see that their lives are not anchored to anything that has a greater purpose.
Now consider how much more powerful that is than telling someone that they don’t have hope, their view is not based on anything but their opinion, or that they are lost and going to Hell. Declarative statements like those are likely to end in an argument. They are what I call “Line Drawers.” That means they draw a line and make it clear that my position is on this side and yours is on that side. This automatically puts them in the position of defending their side. But when you ask questions, you aren’t accusing them of anything. You aren’t telling them they are wrong. You are asking them to weigh their position and think through how that’s going for them. You are asking them to explain to you where they find hope. They may muddle through an answer that they seem pretty pleased with, but deep down, saying it out loud will cause them to realize that their answer was hollow. That question may stick with them and they may think about it over and over when they are alone. Are there times when we make declarative statements? Absolutely! Once we begin to see that they are open and want to know more, we will start explaining more and more. But while you are determining how open they are (while listening to the Holy Spirit), asking great questions is a powerful tool.
Help the other person properly identify where they are spiritually and what their next step should be
Along those same lines, you want the other person to come to an honest evaluation of where they are spiritually. One of the worst things we can do in a spiritual conversation is to ask, “Are you a Christian?” Why? Because that means so many things to so many people, that you are not likely to get an honest answer. To some people that means that they aren’t a Jew, or a Muslim, or Hindu. To some people, it means they grew up in church. Many religions that don’t agree at all about the key facts of the Gospel call themselves “Christian.” Once you have asked that question, and they have answered that they believe they are a Christian, you have nowhere to go when further conversation reveals that they are not a true believer. It puts you in the position of basically having to say, “You said you were a Christian earlier, but I don’t think you are.” That should go well! We use a tool that describes what it looks like to come into a relationship with Jesus and then what life looks like once you are a Christ-follower. We then have them mark themselves somewhere along that continuum to reflect where they are in the process. Again, we aren’t drawing a line and asking "Are you on this side or the other." This would imply that there is a right answer and there is a wrong answer. No one wants to give the wrong answer. Instead, we are showing a process and asking where are you along the way. You would be surprised how accurately people mark themselves when there is no “wrong answer,” but rather just steps in the right direction. Once they have marked themselves, we ask what is holding them back from taking the next step or fully committing their lives to Jesus. There is no argument, they have marked themselves short of all-out commitment, so the conversation naturally flows right into what it would look like to take the next step.
Use parts of your own story to show how you’ve seen God work in ways that relate to what they are experiencing
One of the most powerful tools you have for spiritual conversations is your own God story. Sharing parts of what God has done in your life makes the message relatable to the other person. In a world where “lived experience” is the gold standard of truth (which is not good), no one can disagree with your story. Every believer needs to be ready to share their own salvation story in about 100 words with no churchy language that an unbeliever would struggle to understand. But many times, you will be sharing other parts of your story. This is part of listening to the Holy Spirit. You are asking the Holy Spirit to show you if there is a great question you should ask or a part of your story that would relate to the other person. They may mention that they struggled to believe there is a God after some tragic event happened. You might share that after a tragic time in your own life, you were angry at God for a while and even wondered if He was really there, and then share how God was faithful to you through that time. This isn’t your salvation experience, but it may help the other person see that people who do trust Jesus with their lives still struggle with doubts, and it may help them take a step in their openness to God.
Encourage the other person to find the answers themselves
Another key part of spiritual conversations is pointing the other person to where they can find the answers for themselves instead of just becoming the “answer source” for them. Even in early conversations, point them to the passages that answer their questions. Ask them to dig into them and have a follow-up conversation. Also, point them to solid resources that will help them understand Scripture. Many websites feature tons of commentaries and other Bible study tools. It is important to provide them with solid resources because who knows what they will find if they just “google it.” There are many unbiblical explanations of passages that cover hot cultural topics, and to be honest, those are the sites that seem to get priority in search engines. Encouraging the people you are discipling to find answers for themselves will train them right up front to begin feeding themselves and prepare them to teach others to feed themselves when they make disciples.
This is a very broad overview of what it looks like to have effective spiritual conversations. These are a great start, and perfecting these few keys will continually increase your effectiveness. But there is so much more to having effective spiritual conversations and making disciples. We coach church leaders on how to train disciple-makers and make disciple-making a central part of their church culture. If we can help, let us know!