Mar 30, 2015

Reach

The Bridge to the Bridge: Getting to the Gospel


Pastor/author Steve Lutz shares his best practices for taking student conversations from spiritual things to the gospel.

What do Katy Perry, Barack Obama, and the Pope have in common? Well, besides being the start of a promising joke, they’ve all been conversational lead-ins I’ve used to take a spiritual conversation into a gospel conversation.

Spiritual conversations and gospel conversations are not the same thing. The former is anything that connects to spiritual themes or topics. This could be a popular movie or song, the faith (or non-faith) of a public figure, or people’s opinions on the news of the day. You only need to overhear a few conversations in a campus dining hall to know that “God-talk” is surprisingly common.

Gospel conversations, on the other hand, center on the person and work of Jesus Christ, where the good news of salvation and the Kingdom of God is clearly presented. It is only through the verbal proclamation of the good news that people can come to saving faith in Christ. Contrary to modern sentiment in much of the church, words are necessary when preaching the gospel: How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Rom. 10:14).

Spiritual conversations are not-yet gospel conversations, pregnant with possibility, but not sufficient for salvation. But that does not mean they are unimportant! Rather, they present us with the opportunity to meet people where they are at, and to introduce into that conversation the greatest story ever told. When we cultivate our ability to engage in spiritual conversations, we find that 1) they are happening constantly all around us; and 2) they offer us virtually unlimited jumping-off points to move our conversations to the gospel.

If a gospel conversation presents the familiar “Bridge Illustration,” we might say that a spiritual conversation is “The Bridge to the Bridge.” 

The Awkward Middle

After years of training people how to share the gospel—training that is more necessary than ever—I found I was hearing the same lament over and over: “Even if I know how to share the gospel, I don’t know how to get TO the gospel without it being weird or awkward.”

Well, since the average student (or human being) views anything that makes them momentarily uncomfortable as “weird” or “awkward,” this isn’t surprising. Having the courage to voice a gospel message that is often viewed as narrow-minded and offensive can be hard. Like a middle-school dance, some awkwardness will be involved. But if you want to party, you have to ask someone to dance and get out on the floor—awkward or not! And the more you do it, the less awkward it becomes.

Like a chaperone at the middle-school dance, I’ve found that I need to help students along. They need help with talking about spiritual things. They don’t know how to get there, at least not at first. They find it exceedingly difficult to get from the casual conversation about sports and the weather to the presentation of the gospel.

This is where spiritual conversations come in. They offer immeasurable help when working through the awkward middle. One caveat though: the ideas presented here are no substitute for genuine love, care, acceptance, and interest in the person you are speaking with. If these are just tools or techniques to manipulate a conversation, the person will likely see through you. Even if they don’t, you might get decisions for Christ, but I doubt you’ll have many disciples. So make sure you are starting from a place of real care for the person you’re talking to. It’s a conversation, not an infomercial. If you’re putting people on blast, just stop now.

Three Ways to Move Spiritual Conversations to Gospel Conversations

But you want to talk with people. So how can you join in with the spiritual conversations already happening on campus? And are you ready to move those to gospel conversations? Here are three ways I’ve encouraged my students to build those bridges.

The first place I like to start is with pop culture. This is what people are already talking about, after all. And it can be less threatening than “tell me your spiritual back story.” It doesn’t take much looking to see spiritual “God-talk” all over pop culture, every day. One of the little exercises I’ve encouraged students to do is to take that day’s campus newspaper (or substitute a popular website, like Buzzfeed or HuffPo), and look for all the articles that directly or indirectly mention faith. Initially, they assume that only one or two pieces will show up, maybe none. When they’re done, they see it all over the place.

For example, Katy Perry is often in the news. It’s been well documented that Perry grew up in a highly religious family of traveling evangelists and started out her career as a Christian pop singer. While she’s left much of that world behind (rather emphatically), she’s still quite spiritual in her own way. It’s not too hard to get a spiritual conversation going when Katy Perry comes up. Simply asking, “Did you know she grew up with these hard-core religious parents?” or “Did you know she used to be a Christian pop star named Katy Hudson?” and you’re off and running. That might lead to the person you’re talking with saying, “Actually, my story is similar to that, minus the pop star part.” You could share why you’ve held on to your faith, even if you’ve wrestled with some of the same things that caused Katy to walk away.

In a similar way, President Obama’s personal faith has often been in the news. This is a great topic for someone who’s less into Katy Perry and more interested in serious news. “What do you think of the way some of those people have been questioning Obama’s faith? What do you think qualifies someone to be called a ‘real Christian?’ How should that be determined?” Talking about what makes someone a “real Christian” would be a great way to talk about the Gospel as opposed to a religion or inherited tradition, about grace vs. law, or something along those lines.

In both of these situations, I would avoid offering my own opinions on the faith of the individuals mentioned unless directly asked. I don’t desire to have (or win) an argument about Katy Perry’s faith; what I’m interested in is the faith of the person I’m talking to! And if Katy Perry or Obama gets them talking, so be it!

Other people or topics that easily lead into spiritual conversations include:

  • Pope Francis
  • ISIS and Christian martyrs in the Middle East
  • the highly religious rituals surrounding football and/or basketball at many colleges
  • that “Take Me to Church” song by Hozier

The topic doesn’t have to be overtly spiritual to become a spiritual conversation. For example, the 50 Shades of Grey movie provoked a great deal of discussion about sexuality, sexual violence, and human dignity—by Christians and non-Christians alike. Meanwhile, many of our campuses have been having conversations about alcohol and sexual assault. Simply pointing out the irony that we’re fighting sexual exploitation on campus, while millions buy books and movie tickets for 50 Shades is enough to get a good conversation going. And asking why someone thinks sexual violence is wrong—that is, going beyond “Because it just is”—can lead to sharing why the Christian worldview offers coherent reasons to be against sexual exploitation of any kind, grounded in our belief that all human beings are created in the image of God. Talking about a God who has created sex as a good—no, “very good”—thing leads us to talk about sin, and how it has corrupted everything. But that then gets us to talking about our need for a Redeemer who can rescue us from our bondage and slavery to sin (50 Shades pun intended).

By the time you read this, all the things I’ve just mentioned may be old news. But that’s kind of the point—there’s always something new to talk about!

The second thing I like to do is ask about their story. Quite often, this flows pretty naturally out of the pop culture conversations. People frequently volunteer information about their background, which can be drawn out by asking good follow-up questions. Unless they are utterly opposed to talking, people respond to good questions coming from genuine interest.

I often ask about family history:

  • Did you grow up going to church?
  • Why/why not?
  • If you used to go and then stopped, why was that?
  • Who in your family is most religious? How did that impact you?
  • When you went to church, what did you think? What was your experience?

I go deeper into personal experience:

  • Do you believe in God now? Did you used to?
  • Why/why not?
  • Have you ever experienced God? Where? How? What was it like?
  • Studies show lots of people pray. Do you? What do you pray about?
  • Has God ever answered your prayers? Has God ever helped you?
  • If I say “God, Jesus, Church” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

These are just starter questions—it’s in the follow-up that the real conversation takes place.

Finally, after hearing someone share their story, we can move to sharing our story. After listening to them and asking good questions, it’s not forced or unnatural to say “Can I share what has been helpful to me?” As you share your own story, you can very naturally bridge to THE story, the Gospel conversation about Christ.

These three spiritual conversations are not necessarily linear (pop culture —> their story —> your story). You can start at any one of these and get to the Gospel. All can be fruitful at fostering a conversation of depth and significance. And all of this really isn’t so much a technique, as a way to train your mind to see opportunities for spiritual conversation all the time, all around you. So let’s listen for the spiritual conversations that are already happening, join in, and introduce people to Jesus!

 

 


about the author

Steve Lutz


Steve Lutz is the lead pastor of Wellspring Church in State College, PA Penn State University. He is also the author of two books, King of the Campus (2013) and College Ministry in a Post-Christian Culture (2011). He frequently speaks and writes on college ministry-related issues, and consults with college ministries across the country.