How to Have Conversations in a Secular Age

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The strength of a dinner church is how easy conversations can occur at the table. While there is preaching and prayer from the pastor, the greatest opportunity for Jesus to call to the souls of our guests lies in the table talk the remainder of the hour. The only problem is, most Christians are only used to talking to other Christians about anything deeper than the weather or football. The knowledge that talking about Jesus is a welcomed thing among seculars should be helpful to any group wanting to reach the lost. There remains an obvious difference in the value systems, however, between seculars and Judeos. The longer someone has been ingrained in the church world, the more he or she will have to learn and unlearn some things.

Something most people will need to learn is to let lost people take the lead in the conversation and steer how deep they want to go. After hundreds of hours of table talk in Seattle, we noted that almost every conversation with our new friends followed a similar outline: life, limitations, and spirituality.

Talking about Life

Like an onion skin, the outer layer of conversation is almost always about people’s lives: jobs, family, hobbies, jokes, to-do lists, and interesting things they’ve done in their past. While guests are talking on this level, it is time to listen to their life stories, laugh when things are funny, and be sober when things are serious. It is also key for each of us to share things about our lives in a back-and-forth way. Inviting them into our lives is as important as them inviting us into theirs.

Talking about Limitation

After a while, most guests will shift the conversation to the deeper onion skin layer of limitations. It is at this point that they begin to speak of something in their lives that is not going well. Maybe they feel limited because of a lack of money, lack of friends, frustration with family relations, struggles in finding jobs, inability to quit being angry at someone, or inability to control their intake of alcohol. It is a great honor to be trusted with a new friend’s frustrations and limitations; treat it as a holy thing to be invited to this level. Many Christians must learn to practice some great discipline at this level and not start giving spiritual answers. Instead, now is the time to share some of our limitations with emotional honesty and, again, in a back-and-forth manner.

Most Christians assume that sinners feel guilt, and come to God for forgiveness. While this is true for some because of an egregious act they have done to someone else, typically seculars make their way toward the spiritual level because of limitation, not because of guilt. Guilt requires some polishing of one’s conscience through spiritual teaching, which is something most seculars have made no time for. So, when a secular invites us into their limitations, they are inviting us into a very deep place, and they are not far from touching Jesus. This is a big turn in the conversation, and should be respected.

Talking about Spirituality

Finally, a guest might invite us into the deepest onion skin level of conversation, which is spirituality. While this might be veiled at first, they might begin sharing some soulish answer they have investigated to address their limitation. Remember: people are driven into spiritual depths because of their limitations, so they are looking for answers to explain their lives and alleviate their frustrations. They might start talking about Buddhism, mythology, drowning their frustration with drugs or alcohol, sexual distractions, religious studies, meditation, and so on.

At this point, we, again, have to practice some restraint, and let them talk freely about their spiritualities. Further, we must be interested and inquisitive about how they approach their spirituality and how well it is working for them. Then finally, after all of that, we are able to share a bit of our spirituality—which, of course, is Jesus. This is not a time to upstage or correct their spirituality; it is a time to share our most meaningful Christ-stories and encounters. But keep it brief and quickly turn the conversation back to their spiritual investigations, so as to maintain the back-and-forth conversation format.

Once a spiritual conversation has begun, the last thing we want is a well-meaning believer pulling out a trump card or doing a hostile takeover of the conversation. If that happens, our guests’ journey toward Christ will be undercut, and they won’t trust us again with the deeper regions of their soul.

Let Them Shift the Conversation

Not long ago, a man walked up to me and asked me to sit by him that night at dinner so we could talk about Christianity. I was surprised. I had sat next to this man probably twenty times over the past few years, and the deepest we ever got was that he liked to drink, and was always waiting for his next paycheck so he could buy more alcohol. But that night, for some reason, he was ready to shift the conversation directly into the spiritual arena. I am sure the many conversations we’d had about his life and mine, commingled with the stories about Christ and the prayers, had led him to open up the deepest level of his soul—and in a blunt way at that. And did we ever talk about Christ that night! After much discussion about what Jesus might say to him if he were to ask, I left him with a prayer to pray. He said he would, and I am still waiting to hear how his conversation with Jesus went. But after several years, suddenly Jesus was on the docket.

Talking to a secular about life, then about limitations, then about various spiritualities, all the while letting them be the ones to shift the conversation, is a very rewarding part of the dinner church experience. It is great when Christians have learned to relax and enjoy the new friends that the Lord has given them. Then one day, without warning, they will find themselves talking comfortably about Jesus with a dinner friend. And, of course, it will be a comfortable conversation, because they were invited to be there.

Did you find this article helpful? It is an excerpt from Verlon Fosner’s book, Welcome to Dinner, Church. In it, he lays the foundation for how the church can engage with and reach neighborhoods in a secular age. “My church started a Dinner Church about half a year ago, and it has brought a new and fresh way to love our community and engage in evangelism. This book will give you the biblical, theological, and practical grounding you need to plant a Dinner Church.” (Chris S.) Get it from our store here.

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Dr. Verlon Fosner leads a multi-site Assemblies of God dinner church in Seattle, Washington with his wife Melodee (www.CommunityDinners.com). He is part of the Fresh Expressions team and leads the Dinner Church Collective.

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