The fifth core spiritual habit shifts the focus from ourselves and the church, and puts it where it ultimately belongs – on others.

Jesus’ last commandment was to make disciples and to be a witness to what we’ve experienced in Jesus Christ (as opposed to what we’ve experienced in the church). In general, the church has labeled this practice “evangelism,” but that word has so much baggage and is so often so narrowly defined that I’m certain there’s a better word to describe what Jesus was saying (that is, what he meant). Unfortunately, I haven’t found that word yet, so I’m stuck with a descriptive phrase: authentic spiritual conversations.

For over 300 years, the primary paradigmatic practice of evangelism has been based on a conversion model. The Great Commission was less about producing faithful, practicing disciples of Jesus than it was about getting people to assent to a particular formulation of the faith: to assent to the nearly magic words, “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and I take him as my personal Lord and Savior.” (Or words to that effect.) The problem with that paradigm is that it has largely gotten us to where we are today. Christianity has been relegated to assenting to a minimal package of dogmas and/or doctrines.

A “Christian”, in the West, is pretty much anyone who says they are a Christian, regardless of their life choices and behaviors. If you believe correctly, then you’re a Christian, even if you consistently behave badly. The obedience part of Jesus’ teachings have largely been expunged from the New Testament  as if they are an optional component of being a “Christian.”

So if conversions, as we’ve defined them for the past three centuries, aren’t the end goal, what is?

Jesus said we’re to make disciples and that his disciples were to bear witness to their experience in him. Although there are many ways a disciple can bear witness, ultimately it comes down to having authentic spiritual conversations with those who aren’t yet disciples and sharing our faith with them.

Let me be perfectly clear here, though. By faith sharing I don’t mean rolling out a litany of beliefs. Faith sharing is synonymous with witnessing, that is, to share your personal experiences with Jesus in conversation. There are two keys here: personal experience and conversation.

Over the past few years I’ve discovered that when I ask the average church leader to tell me about their relationship with Jesus that they respond passionately… about their experience with the church. That’s all well and good, except that your neighbors and coworkers really aren’t that interested in your church – on the other hand, many of those same neighbors and coworkers are vitally interested in your God. It’s tragic that so few Christians are able to articulate their relationship with Jesus, since in this postmodern, post-Christian culture, that’s the primary way to authentically and effectively share faith.

Those few whom I speak with who can articulate their experience with the Divine are often hard pressed to recall an opportunity they’ve had to share it with someone outside the faith. Part of that is because the church is still largely hung up in the conversion model of evangelism. In a “freedom of religion” culture, it’s socially not okay to actively try and convert someone of another faith. That rules sharing faith with, literally, 98 percent of the culture. It turns out that less than 2 percent claim to be atheists or agnostics. It’s no wonder our churches are rapidly shrinking… there’s almost no one we can “witness” to while being culturally sensitive.

The solution is to have authentic spiritual conversations with anyone who is outside the faith. Although religion has been considered one of the conversational taboos, the fact is, in today’s world it’s perfectly okay to have a conversation about spiritual things. The problem is, I meet so few Christians willing to put their faith on the line who have a clue about having a spiritual conversation. Christians, by and large, are more interested in sharing than they are in listening. Apparently, our agenda outweighs real conversation, so we end up having discussions instead (a discussion is a verbal exchange where one of the parties has an agenda outside of conversation). 

One of the most effective evangelism practices I’ve seen lately was shared with me by a campus mission’s trainer. On a regular basis, she wanders across a campus and when she has an opportunity to start a conversation she’ll say, “I’m here looking for people who are willing to share their views about God – and I’ll just respectfully listen.”  And she does. She just listens (and makes the occasional affirming sounds to let them know she’s listening).

When they finish, most of the time she thanks them for sharing and they go their way. However, sometimes they ask her to share her view. And she does, just like Peter suggested in 1 Peter 3:15 – with gentleness and respect. She doesn’t tell them they’re wrong. She doesn’t even reference their part of the sharing unless it’s positive. Instead, she just shares her experience. Ultimately, she said that this one conversation generally leads to future conversations. And she’s started many campus churches by having these conversations.

Faith sharing – having authentic spiritual conversations – is about being authentic first, conversational second, and spiritually open last. It means listening more than talking. It means having the ability to articulate your experience with Jesus. It means being willing to build a longer-term relationship so you can have additional conversations. And finally it means letting the Holy Spirit do the work of “conversion” in the midst of your spiritual conversations.

Question: Who did you have an authentic spiritual conversation with this week, and what was the result? Share your thoughts in the Comments section below.