When I’m coaching or consulting and make the recommendation that pastors need to spend significant time hanging out wherever it is their targets are hanging out, it tends to raise a host of questions. Where should I hang out? When? What do I need to stop doing so that I have time?
All those are the easy questions. The hard question to try and answer is how to strike up a conversation with a stranger without being creepy, acting like a stalker, or sounding like a desperate preacher trying to convince someone to come to their church. The short answer is to pay attention to what’s going on around you. The longer answer is to look for the opportunities while you’re paying attention.
Just about everyone knows that the Northeast is a tough nut to crack. I was warned when I got on the plane to LaGuardia that I was heading to a land where no one meets anyone’s eyes, that I should keep my head down, and that all that church-growing advice about starting up conversations with strangers just wouldn’t fly in New York.
Do you remember back in the day when Apple released the iPhone 6? I was doing the Only Four Things Grow Churches tour with Bill Easum that week. We finished the conference Saturday afternoon and we were heading back to the hotel. Bill and I were in Queens and on the way we read a review about a world famous Chinese restaurant that serves the best dumplings on American soil – according to Yelp! It sounded like an adventure, so away we went. It was a crowded restaurant and the ambiance left much to be desired. But the food was supposed to be great. We were seated, we ordered, and we waited.
At the table next to us was a woman about my age eating with her annoyed very young-adult daughter. The daughter was annoyed because it was clear mom had got the new iPhone 6 and mom was not only gloating but demonstrating all the new features. The daughter rolled her eyes (not for the first time) and I leaned over toward the mom and asked, “New iPhone?”
The woman’s eyes lit up and she began telling me her story about standing in line to get her newest prize possession… and of her daughter’s disdain for “seniors” who’d do that for a stupid phone. The mom laid it on thick about her daughter’s desire for an iPhone 6 (clearly teasing the daughter) and the daughter took it in stride with a gracious smile. The conversation switched when she asked what we were doing in New York (I think my “y’all” gave it away that we weren’t natives), and we shared a bit about the conference, and then our dim sum arrived and the moment passed.
But here’s the takeaway. I don’t care where you’re from. People are people. They want to talk about themselves and their experiences – and the truth is, most don’t really care who it is they share with. They just want to share with someone who’ll listen.
So remember, if folks will open up at a restaurant in Queens, they’ll open up in your neighborhood too.
Question: What’s the best conversation starter you’ve used with a stranger? Share your responses in the Comments section below.