From Small Talk to Life Talk

Spreading the love of God is inevitably a personal, relational experience. We know as Christians that–if we stay at this “evanglism” thing long enough, we’re going to have to talk to people. And this can seem like a burden for many of us. It can also seem fruitless. It’s possible to do a lot of talking, but continually miss the mark on creating a space where the person you’re talking to can feel safe enough to be open, to be a bit vulnerable. It’s this point of vulnerability where those unique relationships that carry us through life start to form, it’s where love is tangibly experienced.

While there’s no silver bullet to cultivating conversations like this, here are some key phrases (in no particular order) to keep at the ready:

  • Ask “How are you?” With meaning. And conviction. Give the patient listening space for an answer, and take whatever comes seriously and reverently. Follow ups like, “ah besides school, how’s the rest of life going?” can help keep this question going, allowing a person to slowly reveal what they choose.
  • “Sometime, I’d like to hear more about your spiritual journey…would you be up for that?” (h/t Cru “SomeTime,” Overview). This question “asks permission” for a future opportunity, an interval that allows a person to accept and prepare to share, without feeling imposed upon.
  • If someone’s already sharing a bit about their life, work, hobbies, passions, a deeper follow up could be, “…in all that, what are the things you really want to be true of in life [or in this season of life, the coming year, etc.]?” (h/t Cru, “New Years Conversations”).
  • “Can I pray for you about that?” or “Is there anything I can pray for you for?” For a person who is uncomfortable with religiosity, you could even phrase it, “Is there anything you’d like me to pray about or just keep in my mind for you? (while it sounds weird for us Christians, many people of no faith at all “like” the idea of prayer or others thinking about them.
  • “What was your religious background growing up?” in a relevant conversation, is a good gentle “on-ramp” to talking spirituality since it doesn’t force a person to speak about present beliefs–only about the past, and area where their may be shared humor, or silent/serious wounds to enter into.
  • Life Goals/Careers: “What do you like most about what you do? How about the least?” “What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned in life?” “Tell me about your greatest success or greatest failure along the way?” “What’s the greatest piece of wisdom ever passed on to you?” “What three principles have benefited you the most thus far in your life journey?” “What’s your ultimate vocational dream?” “What did you see yourself doing career-wise when you were eighteen?” (h/t Doug Pollock, “99 Wondering Questions”)
  • “For [insert your own situation: i.e. someone just starting out, someone with young children, someone retiring, etc.] what advice would you give about what you think he purpose of life is”? (h/t Doug Pollock)
  • After someone has shared a bit of their biography in facts, “ah, in all that…what would you say some of the major turning points in your life have been?” (h/t Pollock)
  • Relationships: “How did you meet your husband/wife (or boyfriend/girlfriend)? What have you learned about yourself through marriage (or dating)? (h/t Pollock)
  • Influences: “Has there been one book/movie that has greatly influenced you?” “Besides your parents, is there any one person who stands out as having had a major influence in your life”? (h/t Pollock)
  • “What, if anything, causes you to be hopeful about the future?”
  • Personality: “As people get to know you, what do they enjoy most about you?” “As people get to know you, what do they enjoy least?” “As people get to know you, in what area do you feel most misunderstood?”
The point of these phrases isn’t to reach some specific conclusion, or even lead directly to an initial proclamation of the Gospel–the point is to create a space for a person to be heard, to be able to share a little deeper or more personally than our busy world typically allows (or even wants!) people to share. They allow a person to be known in ways they may be craving for–that inner loneliness we sometimes feel, even when surrounded by caring people. When we have listening conversations, we ourselves can be more vulnerable with others, building the trust that’s a bridge to the Gospel–a concept written about by Sherry Weddell in Forming Intentional Disciples and inherent in our Catholic conept of “pre-evangelization,” as moments that connect the values someone actually/inherently experiences to who we know God personally to be.
Do you have other great phrases to help “ripen” conversations? Feel free to share in the Comments.
Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Vermeulen

Colleen Reiss Vermeulen, M.Div., M.N.A., blogs, ministers in parish life and lay/deacon formation, and serves as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. She and her husband, Luke, have been married since 2011 and live in Ypsilanti, MI with their two young sons.

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