If I were to sit down across from you today and ask you about your life, your dreams, your worries, and the things you think about at night, would it be a pleasant conversation? I hope so, and it probably would be, if you and I were both pleasant, reasonable people. As long as I was a patient listener and asked gently, and you were a kind, fairly open person, even a conversation about personal matters could be relaxed and pleasant. During our time together, opportunities would probably naturally arise for me to respond to your remarks by sharing some of my own life details and thoughts. At the end of the exchange, we would both part having enjoyed a nice time together.
Apologetics can be like that. Just a conversation. It doesn’t have to be some formal, heated debate–it doesn’t have to have an audience. I want to show you that apologetics is accessible to you. You don’t have to be some academic scholar or pastor. You just have to be willing to think, ask questions, and share your thoughts. In other words, you have to be able to carry on a thoughtful conversation.
This is the beginning. I want to walk you through this new life. For that is exactly what this is–a new way of life. Not that it’s “Christianity deluxe” or anything, but it’s a new way of using and growing tools you already have. It’s a new mindset. So here we are–the beginning. Welcome aboard.
We’ll begin with conversation.
I’m going to give you some principles for productive conversations, in four areas. Hopefully these will be both beneficial immediately and lay the groundwork for future areas. But before we begin, here is your first assignment:
Assignment 1: Notice things.
This is borrowed from a series of books called the Gallagher Girls, which is about the girls of a spy academy and their adventures. I absolutely adored reading these as a young teenager. The first assignment in covert operations their teacher gave was “notice things.” His point was you cannot be a good agent if you don’t notice things around you–lots of things. Details, movements, facial expressions, motives. The same is the case for the art of good conversations and good apologetics. You must be observant before, during, and after the conversation. In fact, you must get into the habit of noticing people and things all the time. What must you notice? Their thoughts, their mannerisms, their prejudices, things that annoy them, things they avoid, things they love. You must learn their stories–what made them who they are today. If you fail to notice these things, you will have a hard time getting across to them, because you will have missed who they are as a person.
Now, keeping this in mind, let’s begin the principles for good conversation.
In any conversation, there are several components. First, at least two participants. (Unless you’re talking to yourself, which does have its place. But anyway.)
Second, a topic. Although this may naturally or purposefully shift, and may be spoken on unspoken.
Third, active listening. If everyone talks at once and no one listens, what’s the point? The purpose of conversation is communication.
Fourth, good questions. I suppose hypothetically you could have a conversation without one, but miscommunications would likely abound and it would be difficult for the listener to participate and for the conversation to move forward.
Principles in the four areas of good conversation
- Find your participant. This can either be planned or spontaneous. You may decide you want to talk to a certain person and be the one who starts the conversation. Or someone around you may strike up a chat. It doesn’t matter. You can have a good conversation with just about anyone around you: your taxi driver, your coworker, your neighbor, your sibling, your cashier, or your friend.
- Discern the topic–and possibly guide it toward your own. Oftentimes, the topic related to apologetics will come up in the course of natural conversation and you will just make the effort to take it further. Other times, a current topic will allow for a nice segwey. Occasionally, you may specifically meet with someone to discuss a certain topic.
- Listen actively and sympathetically. Listen carefully to the other person, with a genuine desire to understand. Show concern and sympathy for them, and agree whenever possible. Make eye contact and use body language to express engagement.
- Ask good questions. This is a topic you’ll find coming up a lot later on. But for now, here are some suggestions: Ask for clarification of something they said, by repeating back what you understood. This helps avoid miscommunication. Ask “what if” questions about their ideas, specifically in the context of beliefs/worldviews. For example, if they say they believe abortion is an issue of personal choice, ask if the mother should be able to choose to end her child’s life once he is born as well. Use questions to lead them to another topic or to introduce a discussion you want to have. I call those “thinky questions.” For example, “If you could choose your last words, what would they be and why?” or “What’s the difference between living and existing?” Ask for definitions. As John Stonestreet has said, “The battle of ideas is a battle of definitions.” For example, “What do you mean by ‘poor’?”
So, try it! Take these principles and try to apply them to a conversation. Find your participant, establish the topic or ask a question to start off the discussion, listen carefully, and ask follow-up questions to help you learn more about them and their position. Share your own side only as applicable or when asked. For this first attempt, really focus on listening and asking questions. You shouldn’t get whacked over the head for your opinions if you aren’t stating them yet, if that makes sense. Have fun with it and don’t forget to notice things. Let me know how it goes. Remember, I’m here to help.