According to the Pew Research Center, in 2007 78% of America’s 227 million adults identified as Christians. By 2014 the overall size of the US adult population increased to 245 million while the percentage of those self identifying as Christian dropped to 71%.*
Although we are in an increasingly non-christian or post-christian culture, this does not mean that people today are less interested in the spiritual world. Perhaps this is particularly true of our Eugene and Pacific Northwest neighbors. Meeting someone who identifies as “believing in a god or a higher power” seems more common than meeting someone who aligns with a mainline denomination's set of beliefs like in the past. How do we increase our ability to enjoy spiritual conversations with our friends and neighbors, while genuinely being able to “share the hope that’s within us with gentleness and respect?” (1 Peter 3:15)
Let us consider a couple of practices that can help us build better bridges instead up putting up stronger defenses.
“Sinner.” “Saved/not saved.” “Lost.” Have you heard this divisive, exclusive language used before? The words we choose or the insider “christian-ese” jargon we use can quickly cut off productive conversations before they even get started.
“Getting Preachy.” Isn’t it too bad that our reputation as Christians has gotten so bad that when someone gets heated about a subject they are considered “preachy?” The reality is that when we talk down to someone about their beliefs using a “parent voice,” then we are going to elicit the listener to use the same tone as a teen who doesn’t want to hear it "child-voice". Mutual give-and-take is paramount in an authentic spiritual conversation. If we hope to be heard, then we first must be ready to ask questions and listen.
Finally, consider the importance of timing. Or at least time spent together. Spiritual conversations are rooted in one’s deepest sense of morality and experiences of truth. These types of conversations can’t be forced, nor can they be fabricated. Like picking fresh raspberries, after all the tilling, planting, and watering, the gardener knows the berry is ripe when it falls in his hand without yanking on the bush. Being ready to gently and respectfully provide an answer for the hope within us, is being ready when God orchestrates the timing. Not us.
We’ll faithfully trust God to work as we do with the other arts. We will get to practice love by rearranging our lives to become more aware, more empathetic, and to even be more active and present. So, when the conversations turn from “Did you see Duck game?” to “My dad loves watching football”, to “My dad and I don’t really talk any more,” we’ll then be ready to continue talking in that sacred space and maybe even give hope about the Heavenly Father who is quick to love.
Having a spiritual conversation is walking in the sacred ground of both you and your neighbors’ hearts. It is a privilege to be let into these deeper parts of one another’s lives. We get to share the same deep part of ourselves. Do not take this for granted. Do not force these conversations before they are ready. People won't care how much you know, until they know how much you care.
Consider Dr. Tim Kellar’s thoughts on the connection between word ministry and deed ministry in light of The Art of Spiritual Conversations.
*Paraphrased from “The Neighboring Church” page 8. You can purchase a copy at church.
- Start by engaging spiritual conversations with fellow Christians.
- Reduce internal jargon or “christian-ese” when talking about your own spiritual experiences.
- Go to a religious gathering different from your own.
- Ask the Holy Spirit where He is orchestrating and how you can be a part of it.