We’ve just finished dinner, and all I want to do is to turn on the TV and chill. But there’s a huge mountain of dirty dishes in the sink. The pile is so big. The task is too monumental. It’s simply too overwhelming. I don’t know where to begin.
That’s when my wife, Steph, steps in. She tells me to relax and break it down into concrete, bite-sized, achievable steps. “Here,” she tells me, “begin with a fork. Now here’s a glass.” And bit by bit, the dishes are done. All I had to do was break down a large, complex task into concrete, bite-sized, achievable steps.
It’s the same with evangelism. The task of telling our friends about Jesus seems too big. It’s too important, too monumental, too overwhelming. Where do we even begin? Relax! We can break it down into three concrete, bite-sized, achievable steps. Here they are:
COFFEE → DINNER → GOSPEL
The Progression of Conversation
To understand why the above steps—coffee, dinner, gospel—work so well, we need to understand that there are three layers to a conversation:13
INTERESTS → VALUES → WORLDVIEW
Coffee: The Interests Layer
Everything begins with coffee—including evangelism. Coffee is a safe invitation. It’s easy to say yes to. It’s an investment of ten to twenty minutes. You and your friend will be in a public space.
Your conversation at this coffee stage will usually stay within the first layer of interests. Here we talk about things like the weather, what we did on the weekend, and what we’re watching on TV. In this layer, the statements will be descriptive. They merely describe factual statements that are, by and large, easy to verify. For example, I won’t disagree with you when you tell me that the sky is blue; you had a picnic on the weekend; and you’re watching K-drama on TV. This is a safe layer for conversations. The talk will be civil. There will be little chance of disagreement.
Many of us are afraid of so-called “small talk” that typically defines the conversation at this stage. But we don’t need to be. Small talk is merely talk that’s in this interests layer of conversation. It sounds superficial, but it functions as a safe area for conversation that won’t lead to disagreements or conflict. And if we are good at listening and earn enough trust while talking about interests, eventually we’ll be ready to move the conversation to the next layer.
Dinner: The Values Layer
After you’ve done coffee a few times, invite your friend for a meal. This is a bigger invitation, because now you’re looking at a time investment of potentially one to two hours. You and your friend will be in more of a private space.
Conversation is now entering the world of value statements. In this layer, we make statements about preferences, ethics, values, and beauty. Here we make statements like, “chocolate is better than vanilla,” “James Bond movies are better than rom-coms,” and “football is better than hockey.” On a more serious note, we might talk about where we’re going to send our kids to school, who we’re going to vote for, and why American cars are better than Japanese cars. The statements in this layer are prescriptive. They have a sense of oughtness. They make claims that are, by and large, difficult to verify immediately. As a result, there will be a high chance of disagreement. You may want to take the opposite side of the argument!
While many of us are uncomfortable with small talk, we are even more uncomfortable with conversations that go beyond small talk. It’s not because we lack courage or opportunities; it’s because, in general, these conversations can end badly. There will be conflicting views. And there are friendships at stake.
But this is the art of conversation. If we show it is safe for them to express themselves and be vulnerable and that we’re listening empathetically, we are preparing the way for the next layer of the conversation—where conversations about the gospel can take place.
How do you know when you’ve reached this point? A friend of mine who was training as a hospital chaplain told me that people will often drop hints that they’re ready to move the conversation to the next layer. Our job is to listen intently, pick up on the cues, and simply ask questions like, “Tell me about that,” or “How did that make you feel?” That will give them permission to move us into a deeper conversation.
Gospel: The Worldviews Layer
At this point, we can try to enter the third layer of conversations, where we start talking about worldviews. Here we make statements about what we believe. What is real? What’s wrong with the world? Is there a God? Do we pray? Is there life after death? Are humans essentially good or evil? This is the “gospel” step of evangelism because it is in this layer that conversations will naturally, and organically, present us with opportunities to talk about Jesus.
In this layer, our statements will be the frameworks for how we view all of the world around us. This is because our worldviews are the engine room that generates and drives our values. Our worldviews shape how we understand facts, evidence, and data. Our worldviews determine how we interpret our personal experiences.
Conversation here can be especially tricky. Our friend may believe in reincarnation. Or that there’s no such thing as good and evil. Or that there is no God. In this final layer of conversation, if our friend has a different worldview from ours, we don’t just disagree; we actually disconnect. We are sitting on two different mountaintops with two different ways of understanding reality, two different ways of interpreting the same evidence.
Moving through the Layers
Typically, as we engage in conversation, we’ll naturally progress through the interests and values layers to reach the final worldviews layer. If we earn enough trust in the interests layer, we’ll be allowed to progress to the values layer. If we navigate the values layer well, we can look for opportunities to progress to the worldviews layer. There, gradually and organically, gospel conversations will occur. The key to navigating the layers is this: pay attention.
At dinner one time, my friend dropped into the conversation the news that his mother had died earlier that year. I missed the hint. Later that night, he again mentioned that his mother had died. I again missed the hint. Before the evening was over, he mentioned it a third time. And I missed the hint a third time. On the way home, my wife said, “Do you think he wanted to talk about his mother dying?” I felt like a doofus. All I had to say was something like, “How do you feel about that?” and take his invitation to the next layer of conversation.
Like my friend, people will often offer hints that they’re ready to progress deeper. But if our friend isn’t giving out any clues, we also have the option of moving the conversation to the next layer ourselves. We do this simply by asking questions. For example, if we ask them what they did on the weekend and they say they played basketball, we can follow up with a values-based question like, “Why do you play basketball on the weekends?” They may respond, “It keeps me healthy.” Then we can ask a worldviews-based question like, “Why do we value health so much?”
If we want to expedite the process, we can simply move straight to worldviews. In the same way that questions such as “What did you do on the weekend?” immediately lead to the interests layer of conversations, other questions will immediately lead to the worldviews layer of conversations. For example, try these questions: “Do you have a faith?” “What religion did your parents raise you with?”14 or “Do you pray?” I’ve found that these questions are safe ones to ask because, on the surface, they are still descriptive. We’re merely asking a factual question. But they also invite the person to share with us their worldview—in particular, their views on the spiritual and the sacred. Sometimes the person will show that they simply don’t want to talk about this, and that’s okay. We offered them a chance, but they didn’t want to open up to us yet. On many other occasions, I’ve found that people welcome the opportunity to talk about the things that are deepest and most valuable to them.
Chan, Sam, and Ed Stetzer. 2020. How to Talk about Jesus (without Being That Guy): Personal Evangelism in a Skeptical World. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
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