Go to any Christian church in America on any Sunday, and one of the core messages you are certain to hear is how we need to share Jesus with those outside the church. Jesus wants us to do this!
However, in today's ultra-divided nation, it's harder than ever. Something as simple as having a chat can easily be perceived as our being judgmental or intolerant, while strangers may not feel comfortable sharing that kind of personal information with strangers.
As a senior pastor, it's my responsibility to set a good example. So, with the goal of demonstrating that we can still share Jesus and better serve our community, I did the obvious thing: in 2019, I rode my bicycle across America – over 3,000 miles - with the intention of having spiritual conversations with as many total strangers as possible along the way. Well, this idea was obvious to anyone who knows me. Cycling is one of my big passions and I've always had a dream to ride across the country.
Starting in Santa Monica, CA, I rode all the way east – through the desert, over the mountains, down Route 66. During this trip, I had 116 conversations, with people from all walks of life: from bikers and bartenders to a descendant of Daniel Boone, Amish farmers, a cake decorator, a ferry owner -- and people from every persuasion imaginable: Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics.
What surprised me the most about the conversations I had is that the more removed people were from the church, the more open they were to sharing their hearts. They wanted to talk about deeply personal spiritual beliefs, and yes, about Jesus. Best friends and even married couples I encountered, who had never spoken to each other about their faith, opened up to me and talked to me about Jesus.
Of course, this was only possible when they were approached the right way. When someone felt listened to and cared for, it made all the difference in our being able to connect. We've all seen – or been in - conversations where neither person was truly listening to the other. The best way to talk about Jesus with others is to genuinely listen to them.
Here are some things I learned on the road about listening that may help you.
Be curious. I believe this is the most helpful thing I have to share with you: be curious about people you encounter every day. When you demonstrate that you have a genuine interest in someone, they are far more likely to want to have a conversation with you.
Ask another question. If you don't know what else to do in the conversation, just ask another question. It doesn't even have to be a question that you think is going to lead you to a spiritual conversation. One of the questions that elicited the best response for me was: "Do you have anybody you talk to about spiritual things?" This question gets people talking about conversations they've already had, and it feels comfortable for them.
Look for a place to agree. So often, when conversations move towards spiritual things, immediately people want to start disagreeing. Instead, respect where others are on their own journey and focus on making a positive connection that you'll both want to return to. Listen with grace.
See Jesus in the person you are talking with. Recognize when someone shows you grace or goes out of their way to help you in some way, no matter how small. Tell them they are setting an excellent example of serving others like Jesus did. Every time I did this on my trip, it ended up sparking a great conversation with the person.
Get fluent in talking about Jesus. I can talk about bikes with others endlessly, from derailleurs to disc brakes to carbon frames. When you make Jesus your everything, you can more easily have fluent conversations about Him with others.
Lastly, try to leave each conversation in a way that encourages a second conversation. Do not try to close a deal or get a certain truth across in that first conversation. Most relationships we have are going to require second, third, fourth, fifth conversations and on and on.
Keep the conversation going on your own journey. May God give you lots and lots of conversations about Jesus.
Neil Tomba is the senior pastor of Northwest Bible Church in Dallas, Texas, and author of the new book, The Listening Road: One Man's Ride Across America to Start Conversations About God.
Who is Jesus? Is he really God’s Son? And what does Jesus have to do with Heaven? Your questions are answered here.