Thoughts on Coffee Shop Conversations: Making the Most of Spiritual Small Talk

The first few years after I was saved as a teen-ager, whenever I heard anyone teach or preach about witnessing to others, we were instructed to somehow get to the point of asking, “If you were to die tonight, do you know that you’d go to heaven?” Then, if the person would allow us, we were to share with them the Roman’s Road. I think the Roman’s Road is a good tool, but I don’t think you necessarily have to use it exactly as is to witness to someone. It’s good to be familiar with several Scriptures so the Holy Spirit can bring them to mind as needed.

But in recent years I have struggled with that question, “If you were to die tonight, do you know that you’d go to heaven?” For one thing, it puts the emphasis on what happens after death, as if eternal life started then and not at salvation. Preachers lament over people having a “fire escape” mentality to salvation, as if the only important thing about it is escaping hell, and I can’t help but think that’s because that’s the way Christians have presented it over the years. In addition, I can’t recall any witnessing exchange in Scripture ever using a variation of that question. My next time through the New Testament, I want to especially note how Jesus and the apostles dealt with people.

In more recent years I’ve heard the question, “When you stand before God some day, if He should ask you, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven,’ what would you say?” I like that a little better because the answer instantly reveals what a person is trusting in, but it still focuses on life after death, and though that is vitally important, it’s not the totality of salvation. The forgiveness of sins, overcoming sin, becoming a child of God, knowing God, having a Friend and Comforter in this life, all those seem to be glossed over on the way to dealing with he emphasis of life after death.

Besides wrestling with these issues, I struggle with figuring out how to even get to the gospel in everyday conversations with people about the weather, the produce, etc., all the while a part of me is scared to death and looking for excuses not to get to the gospel.

So against this background of conflicting thoughts, Lisa’s review of Coffee Shop Conversations: Making the Most of Spiritual Small Talk by Dale and Jonalyn Fincher piqued my interest.

I just finished the book last week, and I agree with Lisa, there is much that is helpful in it: when we talk about the Lord, we need to be respectful rather than belligerent or bombastic, remembering that  “the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). We need to get out of our Christianese to think about how a lost person is perceiving and understanding what we’re saying. In conversations with lost people, we need to avoid getting derailed by issues that even Christians disagree about. We need to be careful about our own attitudes even when we think non-Christian people aren’t around, joking about certain types of sin and sinners (“Mocking others, even behind their backs, destroys our capacity to respect them when we speak face to face” [p. 36]). We need to “allow others to remain unconvinced” rather than badgering them into making a “decision” now. (I can testify to having a couple of family members who were supposedly saved when the person talking with them backed them into a corner and wouldn’t let them go without their responding to the gospel, but those kinds of decisions are not usually genuine decisions if the person is just trying to get the Christian out of their face while being too shy or polite to put it into those words.) I agree we need to relate to people as people and not “projects.” The chapters on “One True Religion?” and “Talking About the Resurrection” were particularly helpful to me.

But I have to confess there were a few things I either didn’t agree with or was wary of in the book. And in discussing a few of these, I am not trying to be nitpicky or critical: I am trying to exercise discernment and understanding. If some of these things come across to me this way, I am sure they do to others as well.

For instance, on page 14 the authors write:

While we believe Jesus distinguishes himself as the Savior and King of us all, while we obey his teachings because we believe they give us the best road map for life, we also believe the biblical idea that all humans — be they Christians, Buddhists, Mormons, atheists — are made in God’s image. All humans reflect God in varying degrees of clarity. Therefore we approach every conversation as fellow learners rather than posturing as experts. We can gather data and truth even from those who do not follow Jesus, growing in wisdom and love, and giving others dignity by assuming they are doing the same. If we want our conversations to always be full of grace, then humility, not deft arguments or clever words, must become our first concern.

I agree with the last sentence, and I agree that when talking with someone with a different belief system, we don’t need to “blast” them for what they believe or come across as “superior.” And I do believe that God created man in His image, and that we still reflect something of His image even though that reflection has been marred by the entrance of sin into the world, yet I don’t believe  false religions reflect Him (and the authors don’t either, but that sentence just could be misconstrued). I agree that while talking with someone from a different belief system, we will probably exchange our differing beliefs, and that gives me a window into how he is thinking and an opportunity to share what I believe the Bible says (kindly). And that’s only polite — I can’t expect him to listen to what I say unless I listen to what he says. So I think ultimately we’re on the same page in this, but the sentence that everyone in every religion reflects God’s image could come across as saying that every religion contains truth, which is not what the authors believe. On page 25 the authors mention various outcasts of society (adulterers, demon-possessed, tax collectors, etc.) who followed Jesus, saying, “He loved them beyond their labels, seeing them as people, bearing the image of God.” Again, I agree with the first part of this sentence, but He loved them despite the fact that God’s image in them was marred because of sin, not because there was something of God’s image still left in them.

On page 25 the authors write, “Jesus didn’t act like many many evangelicals. When Jesus met people, he dignified their search for the good life, giving them parables to mull over and offering winsome, playful banter when they could handle his verbal sparring.” The footnote to this sentence references Matthew 13 and Mark 7:24-30. I’m sorry, but I don’t see anything playful in those passages.

On page 68 the writers say, “By coming to earth in the flesh, Jesus put his stamp of approval on what humans are.” My first response to that was, “Huh?” The next sentence says, “Jesus’ life proves God still finds humans worth redeeming.” Yes, I agree with that, but the first sentence threw me a little bit, because my response was, “He came to redeem us from what we are — sinners — not approve us.” In context I could see what they meant, but many places like this gave me pause at first.

From page 151:

Jesus taught that we live with evil and self-centeredness in our hearts. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” [Matthew 15:19]. According to Jesus the human problem that lives inside us is beyond our powers to fix. Our humanity could only be restored when an uncorrupted, fully human person comes as an example and sacrifice, not only to break the evil within but to empower humans to become fully human in relationship with God and others. Jesus empowers us to do what many religions only tell us to do: grow in love, discipline, and truth. In Christianity, as in all religions, good works are important, but these good works don’t earn the love of God, they evidence the love of God working in us. And unique from all Eastern religions, the end of humanity is not escape from the earth but a remaking of it.

There’s a lot of great stuff in that paragraph that I fully agree with, but that one sentence in the middle about being fully human jars me a bit. Jesus was and is, of course, much more than fully human, He is the Son of God, and when we’re saved we don’t become just fully human, we become children of God, though not in the same sense as Jesus’ Deity (we don’t become gods, as the Mormons believe, and the authors aren’t trying to convey that). I know the authors believe in Jesus’ Deity and in what happens to us to us at salvation, but I think the phrasing of that one sentence can be misconstrued and misunderstood. The authors bring up the idea of Jesus making us “appropriately human” again on p. 213, and that seems to be the focus of their web site .

In the chapter “The Hope For Human Healing,” Jonalyn mentions a moment of lust, and “Instead of berating myself for for being flirtatious or lustful, I simply prayed, ‘Jesus, I invite you into my lust'” (p. 154). I wrote in the margin, “Where is the Scriptural basis for this?” It sounds like inviting Jesus to join in one’s sin, though of course that is not what she means. Earlier in the chapter they mention Brother Lawrence learning to “invite Jesus into every moment, from washing dishes to saying prayers’ (p. 153). I wrote in the margin there, “Is He not already there? There’s a difference between invitation and acknowledgment.” Jesus is everywhere: I just need to remember that and acknowledge His presence, and in a lustful moment my response would have been, “I’m sorry — please help me with this.” It may just be a matter of semantics, we may mean basically the same thing by our different ways of phrasing it.

When people ask the authors whether they follow one religion or denomination, they say, “We follow Jesus. We think he was on to something” (p. 158). I agree that denominational labels don’t save and may sidetrack people, and I agree that we need to keep pointing people to Jesus rather than our “system,” but I think “he was on to something” is very, very weak.

Just to mention a few other problems: The Finchers are more liberal than I am in many of their views about mountains and molehills in the two chapters talking about those. Dale mentions coming from a very strict religious background, and sometimes people who do that go maybe a little too far the other way, in my opinion. And I saw more emphasis on philosophy than depending on the Spirit and Word of God. We do need to think about what we’re saying, how we’re coming across, how the other person might be processing what we’re saying, rather than just lapsing into a witnessing spiel. But as we seek the Lord in knowing how to speak of Him to others, we can trust Him to bring the thoughts and Scriptures to mind that are needed for the moment. God’s Word is what opens people’s eyes, convicts them, draws them to Himself, brings them life (John 6:63) and faith (Romans 10:17).

I was almost feeling like the authors thought every person needed to study philosophy and other religions before talking to people about the Lord, until I came to this paragraph:

Our hope is that you will find many friends to learn from as you talk about Jesus. We want this book to serve not merely as a collection of apologetic tools, but as a road map guiding you toward freedom to be yourself as you talk about Jesus. We hope you will customize your conversations to the unique gifts God has forged in your soul. May you develop your own questions and ideas to introduce others to the God of Israel. May you continue to be taught and humbled by the humans God places in your life (p. 218).

I can say Amen to that.

I think it is wise to try to discuss the gospel as inoffensively as possible (II Cor. 6:3: “Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed). But we have to remember that the gospel in itself will bring offense sometimes. Paul speaks of the offense of the cross. Look at the reaction Christ Himself as well as the apostles received when they shared the gospel. People don’t like hearing that their way of thinking and doing is wrong, no matter how kindly we try to put it. True, too many people have caused offense by their personalities and prided themselves that they were suffering persecution for the gospel’s sake when it was their own fault. But we can’t go too far the other way (which is something I struggle with), trying so hard not to offend the person that we hold back or tone down the truth.

I apologize that this hasn’t been a book review so much as a hammering out of my own thoughts in regard to witnessing in general and the book in particular. I encourage you to see Lisa’s review — she did a much better job. 🙂 For my part, though I found much that was helpful and much that I agreed with, there were enough parts that I either disagreed with or that raised questions for me that I couldn’t endorse it completely. But I think much good could be gleaned from it by a thoughtful and discerning reader.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Coffee Shop Conversations: Making the Most of Spiritual Small Talk

  1. Great review, Barbara. I think your reviews are always far more thorough than mine so I’ll throw off the sentence that I did a better job. ha. I love how you point out the good and the bad, and let the reader then decide for themselves what to think.

    I’m also glad you were able to get some good thoughts from this book too. I still don’t know that I’m much improved in my conversational skills with unbelievers, but I definitely am more aware, and that’s an important step.

  2. Pingback: What’s On Your Nightstand: November « Stray Thoughts

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