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.
The Power of Questions
For eight years, I’ve been the speaker at a CRU (crucamps.com.au) ski camp for teenagers.15 Every year, my knees tell me I’m too old to be skiing, but I keep coming back because I end up having the most amazing conversations with teens about Jesus.
But how do you get a non-Christian teen to talk about Jesus? One of the camp leaders, Stephanie, asks certain questions when she talks to campers one-on-one. First she’ll ask them, “What are you hoping for in life?” or “Where do you want to be in five to ten years’ time?”
Sometimes the camper will say “I don’t know” or laugh off the question. And that’s okay—it simply means they’re not ready to make themselves vulnerable by revealing their deeper, true selves to her.
But other campers will give thoughtful responses that reveal their dreams, hopes, goals, and ambitions. With these campers, Stephanie can follow up with, “Why is that important to you?” This invites the camper to explain what is at the core of his or her life: experiences, escape, success, financial security.
Then Stephanie follows up with another question: “What will you do if that doesn’t happen?” To answer this, the camper will reveal what is deepest and most important to them. Who are they really? What are they looking for? What is most real to them? What are they most afraid of? What is the one thing in this life they must have?
Stephanie is now in a great position to introduce religion into the conversation.
The type of questions Stephanie asks are what I call “nudge” questions. The nudge question nudges the conversation into the next layer. From interests to values. From values to worldviews. And from there we nudge the conversation from secular conversation to sacred conversation.
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.
Check out our Bible Study on Sam Chan’s book How to Talk About Jesus. It is on Amazon as well as part of the Good Questions Have Groups Talking subscription service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.