One of my fellow students when I was at Bible college was Italian. I’d always had the impression that Italian drivers were quite crazy and the first time I was driven by him I realised my preconceptions had been quite right. I remember one particular journey across Scotland in a minibus that he was driving. All was going well until it was time to use fifth gear. For some reason my Italian friend seemed to have a phobia of fifth gear. He’d rather strain the engine (and our ear drums) in fourth rather than take the risk of changing gear! When he eventually did, after much persuasion, decide to use top gear he gritted his teeth, closed his eyes, stamped on the clutch and slammed it into fifth. After about thirty seconds he was back down into fourth where he felt safe.
It struck me that a lot of Christians are like that when it comes to conversation. We’re fairly happy talking about everyday things but when it comes to ‘changing the gear’ of conversation and talking about Christian things then we suddenly break out in a cold sweat. Eventually we feel we have to talk about the gospel but when we do so it is very unnatural, we ‘vomit the gospel’ over someone and then at the first opportunity we get back onto chatting about the weather where we feel safe. At the back of our minds we can’t help wondering if there’s a more natural way to share the most wonderful message in the world.
In 1 Peter we have a letter written to ordinary Christians. Peter says ‘But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (3:15).
What Peter envisages happening is that people ask Christians questions which in turn get answered. The technical term normally used to describe this method of communication is a ‘conversation’! In other words Peter expects that Christians will have conversations with people who aren’t yet Christians. So how does this work?
Make sure people ask
Peter presumes that people will ask us questions about our faith. In particular he expects that we will be asked about the ‘hope that we have’. So how often does someone come up to you asking ‘What is the reason for the hope that you have?’ Probably not very often. But they can ask this question when they ask things like: ‘What kept you going when things were so tough last year?’, ‘Why do you give up your holidays to help on that summer team?’, ‘Why didn’t you take that promotion they offered you?’ They are asking about your hope. What is it that makes you live the way you do?
So what if people don’t ask us questions? Should we think that it ‘lets us of the hook’ or perhaps it should challenge us to ask whether our hope is making any distinctive difference in the way we live now? Peter expects that our future hope makes a real difference in the present – so much so that people will ask us about it.
I remember helping on an outreach to international students a few years ago. One Ukrainian student came each night and was befriended by a member of the team. Despite a growing friendship the student showed no interest at all in the gospel and didn’t want to talk about it at all. Despite this the team member showed real love as she spent time getting to know the student. On the final night I was giving the student and several others a lift home. She eventually turned to me and asked, ‘Why do you do this? Why do you all give up your summer to sleep in a church floor and spend time with people like me?’ She was asking about the reason for the hope that we have. And for the first and final time I got to talk about the gospel and she was listening. I even took the long route home to give us more time!
Make sure we answer
Peter says that we should ‘always be prepared’. The famous Australian cricketer Shane Warne was not only known for being an amazing bowler but also for his fielding ability. After several hours of inactivity he could dive to take an almost impossible catch. He was asked how he did this. He explained the secret was to presume that every time the bowler bowled ball that it was going to come his way and it was going to be a catch. That way he was always prepared. What a great attitude we could take into each day. Each time we get up presume a question might come our way that will open up an opportunity to talk about significant things.
Make sure the answer is the gospel
One of the things that puts many people off talking about Christian things is that we fear we don’t have all the answers. What if they ask me about evolution or archeology? Peter says be prepared to give the reason for our hope. But what is our reason? In 1:3 he tells us. It’s not six day creationism or biblical archeology but the resurrection of Jesus. The gospel is the reason for the hope that we have. So we don’t need to know everything to get started. We just need to know the gospel. We need to know Jesus.
Make sure the answer is gentle
Many books on evangelism dwell on getting the right method. How do we make sure we say the right thing? However, the New Testament seems to show a greater concern for our manner than our method. It’s not just what we say (important though that it) but how we say it. I have watched as people have alienated seekers with an arrogant and insensitive approach. Let’s show by the way we speak that we are for people. We love them and we want to help them. We’re not out to win arguments but people.
Michael Ots is an evangelist based at Lansdowne Baptist Church, Bournemouth.