How to Start Gospel Conversations
When Jesus returned to heaven, He left us with a task. Make disciples.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
This command is for every believer, not just for pastors and missionaries. We are ALL sent to make disciples.
This involves two parts. First, we must be a disciple, personally following God in holy obedience and faith. In order to teach others “to observe all that I have commanded”, we must model obedience. Second, we must make disciple makers, teaching others to follow God and also equipping them to make more disciples. Every disciple should be a disciple maker.
Here is our central focus:
Be a disciple that makes disciple makers.
Day in and day out, no matter what, this must be our focus. Even if all our other plans fall apart, we must be a disciple that makes disciple makers.
If this is our focus, how can we do it better?
Here are a few thoughts and tips to help us engage in this all-important task.
CONNECTING WITH THE LOST
To have the opportunity to share our hope in the gospel, we need to be intentionally building relationships with unbelievers. We need to reach people where they are. The vast majority of people in post-Christian Europe (and, similarly, more and more in the US) are not going to come to church to hear the gospel.
We need to go to them.
In addition to looking for opportunities to share Christ in your everyday interactions with people, we need to find ways to intentionally stay connected to the lost. For many Christians, their circle of unsaved friends is very small. As we grow closer to Christ, it is true that we will have less in common with unbelievers and won’t be able to participate in some conversations or activities. However, if our Lord was able to be “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34), then so can we.
Sometimes we get so deep in our Christian circles that we might not even know where to go to build friendships with lost people. One of our ABWE (Association of Baptists for World Evangelism) missionaries, Doug Fry, encourages his church members to “find their tribe.” In other words, find the people who enjoy doing what you enjoy. Then do your shared interests with these unbelievers. Encourage church members to connect with others by using their interests: running clubs, singing clubs, music groups, gyms, martial arts classes, motorcycle clubs, surfing, CrossFit, hiking, and many more! Find an activity that can be done with unsaved people and connect with them. This is often where gospel conversations happen.
I know from experience that it’s easier to prioritize programs and projects instead of people. Jesus always prioritized people. When people are the priority, we will connect with the lost.
Jesus was "a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). Are we?
STARTING GOSPEL CONVERSATIONS
Connecting over an activity or being a friend is not enough, we need to have gospel conversations. Sometimes during a conversation there is a natural opening for a clear and bold gospel presentation. But do you ever find it hard to start these conversations?
Most evangelism tools assume you are already in a conversation with someone. These tools help us clearly present the gospel, but they rarely help us start conversations.
Here are a few tips I have found helpful for starting conversations that naturally lead to the gospel. Most are from the books Sent, by Ashley and Heather Holleman and God Space, by Doug Pollock (I highly recommend both):
See people as Jesus does
Gospel conversations happen as a result of seeing people the way Jesus does. We need to slow down enough to care for them as a person. When people feel you truly care, it opens doors for deeper conversations. Make this your daily prayer: “Lord, help me to see others as you do.”
Smiling is a visible way to show our joy in God and love for others. The power of a smile is often overlooked, but is impactful around the world. A smile shows that you are friendly and approachable—something people look for when starting conversations.
Find something to comment on
We can comment on something we have in common like the weather, shared experiences, shared interests, etc. We can notice something they enjoy and comment on it (pets, hobbies, etc.) We can also notice something to genuinely compliment them on. What we say doesn’t have to be earth shattering, just something to break the ice. Finding common ground is easiest when we are involved in activities and hobbies with unbelievers—be a friend of sinners.
Ask open questions about the other person
Be curious! Being curious helps us ask deeper questions that people love to answer. People love to talk about themselves and things they find interesting—asking questions shows that we care about them as a person. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
Most people will mention, often in passing, the things they love or want to talk about. As people tell us about themselves, try to actively listen and ask follow-up questions. Using open questions promotes good conversation because they take some explanation on their part and cannot be answered with “yes” or “no”.
What made you want to become a _____?
Why do you enjoy _____?
Look for open doors to plant gospel seeds
As we talk with people, notice opportunities for deeper, spiritual questions or comments. This doesn’t mean noticing opportunities to monologue a gospel presentation. Our goal is to talk with the person, not at them. The goal is deeper dialogue. Actively listening and staying curious creates a safe place for people to share their true selves. When they do, they may share specific needs, concerns, or questions that need God's help. They may also share hopes, dreams, and values that reveal their deepest longings. All of these open doors to point people to God. Pray that God will “open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Colossians 4:3). (I use a daily reminder on my phone at 4:03pm to “pray for open doors”.)
Here are 4 ways to plant gospel seeds:
1. Mention God, prayer and the Bible in the conversation
Just talk about God as a natural part of our everyday life.
2. Quote or paraphrase the Bible
Look for opportunities to use the phrase: “What you’re saying reminds me of something I read in the Bible where God says ________.” (Sent)
3. Use questions
Here are a few helpful questions:
“1. What does your tradition say about Jesus?
2. Do you consider yourself on a spiritual journey? What is that like? Where are you on that journey?
3. I’m in a fresh season of prayer. Do you have any prayer requests I might commit to pray for?
4. Can I tell you something I just learned in the Bible that’s changing how I handle ________?” (Sent)
After using one of the above questions, we can use this question to talk about Jesus. “You can probably tell I’m a Christian and someone who studies the Bible…Do you happen to have any questions about Jesus I could answer for you?” (Sent) This gives people an open invitation to ask anything they are curious about. For more examples of great questions, check out God Space.
Questions like these are helpful in many contexts, but there is no one-size-fits-all question. The best questions are those that come from actively listening and staying curious. When we listen and then form our questions based on what people said, the questions will fit naturally into the conversation.
4. Share stories
When it is fitting, share a brief story of how God has worked in your life – your salvation story, an example of personal surrender, or a story of answered prayer. Close the story with a Bible verse that highlights God’s work in the story. Stories are helpful, but only God’s word is powerful unto salvation.
Invite a response
Not every conversation has to include a gospel presentation or invitation to respond. People may need to believe foundational truths like the existence of God before we share a complete gospel presentation or invite a response. Starting conversations can create a safe space to discuss spiritual things and plant seeds of truth. As Jesus said: “One sows and another reaps” (John 4:37).
When do we move from explaining how to know God personally to inviting someone to respond? Wait for the leading of the Holy Spirit. When He leads, we can ask: What about you? Who do you believe Jesus is?
If God doesn’t lead in this way, invite them to continue the conversation or study the Bible. Say something like:
I enjoyed this conversation. Would you like to talk more about this another time?
I would love to talk more about this. Would you like to get together to look at what the Bible has to say about this?
A word of caution: Gospel conversations should be just that—conversations. They shouldn’t be a canned script. No one wants to talk to a robot. If all our interactions are perfectly scripted, it may shut down conversations. Use questions. Be yourself. Share from your heart and connect with people.
Keep building deeper relationships and deeper connections to God’s Word. Be bold to start conversations and look for open doors for the gospel!
God’s “well done” goes to those who steward the gospel well by spreading it to others, one conversation at a time.
To read more about having a heart that overflows to others, check out my book Overflowing.
To read more about starting gospel conversations, check out Sent or God Space.