The famous eighteenth-century French writer Voltaire is widely believed to have suggested that one should “judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” I very much agree, although I do wonder what Voltaire might have made of some of the typical questions that get asked in the Bannister house, especially at mealtimes. In the last few days alone, I have found myself asking, “Why are you trying to inhale your spaghetti?” and “What is a dinosaur doing fighting a ninja on the dinner table?” to name but two.
More seriously, when it comes to matters of faith, my wife and I have also learnt that asking questions is a great way to inspire our kids to think about the Bible and about Jesus—to begin making their faith in Christ their own, rather than just something they do because their parents do it. There’s nothing quite like a discussion about “How do we know the Bible is true?” or “Why do bad things happen like pets dying?” whilst trying to extricate a plastic tyrannosaurus rex from the salad bowl.
Similarly, when it comes to evangelism, if we can learn to ask good questions, I believe we will find it much easier to have helpful, more relaxed, and more fruitful conversations about our faith in Jesus. In particular, there are six things that good questions do really well.
First, questions help create conversations. It is far easier to talk about Jesus in the context of a conversation, yet we live in an age when people are increasingly losing the art. Numerous reasons have been cited for this, but one of the most likely is the time we spend endlessly distracted by the black mirrors of our phones and tablets. Blaming digital devices for our struggle with conversation is, I admit, a bit like shooting fish in a barrel (having first glued the fish to the side and painted target symbols on them), so can we be a bit more specific? What precisely is the problem with technology when it comes to conversation? The key issue seems to be one of distraction, as Sherry Turkle points out in her bestselling book Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age:
We say we turn to our phones when we’re “bored.” And we often find ourselves bored because we have become accustomed to a constant feed of connection, information, and entertainment. . . . There is now a word in the dictionary called “phubbing.” It means maintaining eye contact while texting. My students tell me they do it all the time and it’s not that hard. . . .
[All this] adds up to a flight from conversation—at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, conversation in which we play with ideas, in which we allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable.
When it comes to conversation, what most people really want from their friends, family, and coworkers when they talk to them is that sense that they are being listened to, that their views matter, that they’re being heard. What shows that we value somebody is that we give them our attention. And asking good questions—taking a genuine interest—is a brilliant way of doing that.
Of course, as Christians concerned with telling others about Jesus, we don’t just want conversations about the weather, sports, or what our kids did with plastic toys at dinner last night. We also want conversations that lean towards spiritual topics. And the good news is that people seem increasingly open to those kinds of conversations. During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, The Guardian, a British newspaper whose attitude towards Christians is traditionally akin to that of sharks towards swimmers, stunningly led with a story reporting that 33 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds had watched religious services online. The New Statesman, another secular political magazine, went one further with an article titled “How Coronavirus Is Leading to a Religious Revival.” Meanwhile, the comedian Russell Brand, wildly popular with younger audiences, posted a video to his social media feeds answering the question “Why are so many people googling ‘how to pray’?” and hundreds of thousands watched.
Something fascinating is going on right now. Despite increasing secularism, it only takes something like a pandemic or another national crisis for people to begin pondering life’s deeper realities. And asking questions is a great way to start conversations around spiritual issues and create a space to talk about Jesus and the gospel.
At the same time as helping to create better conversations, questions can also help us avoid the common temptation to look for quick-fire shortcuts that allow us to do random bits of evangelism and then run away. As a teenager, it was things like sticking gospel tracts under the windscreen wipers of cars in parking lots. This plan was abandoned after some friends and I accidentally leafletted attendees at a funeral with a tract that read “Many Who Plan to Seek God at the Eleventh Hour Die at Ten-Thirty.” Somebody complained to the pastor, and we made page 7 of the local newspaper for all the wrong reasons.
Technology has made drive-by evangelism much easier. We can post an evangelistic meme to our social media feed and hope that “the right person will see it,” or we can email “helpful Christian videos” to our non-Christian friends and family, praying that some sort of one-click conversion might be the result. At the Q and A after one church event I spoke at, a woman asked for advice, saying, “I’ve been sending Christian videos to my unbelieving sister every week without fail for the last five years. Now she’s asked me to stop sending them. What should I do?” I admitted that I was amazed it had taken 260 videos before her sister had finally had enough!
The problem with these kinds of drive-by evangelism strategies is they inadvertently treat other people like apps. We think that if we just press the right button, then bingo!—we’ll get the response we’re looking for. Thankfully, God himself didn’t treat us like that but sent his Son, not a download, and maybe we can learn a lesson from that. Taking the time to ask good questions helps to avoid the impression that all we are interested in is throwing gospel hand grenades from a safe distance.
As well as helping to create conversations, questions can also be helpful within conversations, especially if somebody raises a challenge about your faith. For example, if somebody asks, “How can you believe in God, given all the suffering in the world?”—easily one of the most common questions that people have about faith—it can be helpful to know why your friend has raised this issue. Is it because they’re a highly sceptical atheist who has heard this is a good question to trip up Christians? Or are they asking because they have just lost a loved one to cancer? So what about replying with something like “Thanks for raising such an important question. Just out of interest, why do you ask?” If it turns out they’re asking because their beloved grandmother has just died, what they may really want, rather than a ten-minute summary of your pastor’s thirteen-point sermon on this topic, is sympathy and a shoulder to cry on.
You might be surprised how often personal circumstances lie behind all kinds of questions about Christianity. I once spoke to a church youth group and taught them some of the material from this chapter. A few days later, I received an email from the youth pastor, who wrote to tell me that the day after my visit, one of the youth group members had been in a science class at school. The student’s classmate had said, “What are you doing in a science lab? You’re a Christian, and isn’t Christianity anti-science?” There were a dozen things the Christian student could have said (or windows he could have leapt out of to run away), but instead he politely asked where the question had come from. That opened up a conversation in which he learned that the other student had recently lost a friend in a car crash, was angry at God, and just wanted to lash out at the first Christian he came across.
So asking questions can help reveal the motive behind what somebody has said. But questions can also reveal assumptions. We can easily forget that our non-Christian friends have their own sets of beliefs about life’s biggest questions, even if they’ve never fully thought them through or articulated them. Thus, encouraging them to explore what they really think about life, the universe, and everything can be incredibly helpful. Over the years I’ve found that these four questions can be used to uncover some of these basic assumptions:
A fourth thing that questions do brilliantly is to challenge the other person in a conversation to think. Too often Christians can assume that if we are talking, say, to a secular friend, then it’s their job to be sceptical, and it’s our job to answer all the questions. But that can be exhausting and boring and can cause you to miss that whilst your friend has thought a bit about why they don’t believe Christianity, they might not have spent any time considering what they do believe. For example, if your friend mentions they’re an atheist, consider asking, “You know, atheism largely tells me what you don’t believe—but what do you believe?” (After all, I don’t believe in roller-skating unicorns, but if I introduced myself with that bit of information, you wouldn’t learn that much about me.) Or if somebody remarks, “I don’t care about religion!” it might be helpful to ask, “Well, what do you care most about?”
I remember on one occasion having lunch with a student who had asked if we could meet up so he could ask me “a few questions about Christianity.” I hadn’t realised he was using few in the same sense of the word as “Amazon stock a few items,” and for two hours over burgers, he peppered me with question after question after question. I occasionally tried ineffectually to turn the conversation around to what he, as an atheist, believed but got precisely nowhere. Finally, as we walked from the restaurant to the parking lot and got to our vehicles, an idea popped into my head.
“I hope you found our conversation useful?” I asked.
“Yes, thanks for taking the time.”
“And I hope, as I tried to answer all fifty-four of your questions, I treated you with respect, even though we disagreed.”
“Oh yes, thank you, you’ve been very kind and patient.”
“Great,” I added, “and I must say, even though your ability to ask tough questions would make a hardened political journalist on Red Bull look like a mere amateur in comparison, you were also polite and generous in how you asked them.”
“But just one thought for you to consider. The reason I treated you with kindness was because I believe you are, as the Bible teaches, a person with value and dignity because you are made in the image of God. On the other hand, you said over lunch—three times, if I recall—that you think we are just atoms and particles. Yet you didn’t treat me as just a bunch of atoms. You treated me as a person with value and dignity. In other words, you treated me on the basis of my beliefs, not on the basis of your beliefs. Don’t you find that fascinating?”
For the first time in over two hours, he didn’t have a quick remark in reply, and as he thought about what I’d asked, he admitted for the first time in our conversation that there were perhaps a few issues with his atheism that he hadn’t considered before.
Not only do questions help the person you’re talking with think through what they believe (or don’t believe), asking questions is also crucial because it takes the pressure off you. If you’re not careful, you can end up doing all the talking while your friend struggles to get a word in edgeways. By asking questions, not merely do you create more of a two-way conversation, you also give yourself time to think, to pray, and to listen, getting an insight into what your friend really thinks.
Furthermore, with practice, asking questions can help the person you are talking with uncover spiritual truths for themselves, rather than you simply spoon-feeding them. A friend of mine was once driving to a meeting with a work colleague who remarked casually, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.”
Thinking quickly, my friend asked, “Can I clarify: Are you saying that as long as you believe something passionately and sincerely, you can believe anything?”
“Okay. Do you have life insurance?”
“What? Yes. But why?”
“Well, I sincerely believe I can just close my eyes and run the next red light at sixty miles per hour. I sincerely believe we’ll be okay. Shall we try it?”
“Are you insane?”
“No. But I am sincere. I thought sincerity is what matters?”
Once her colleague’s heart rate had decelerated to double digits, they were able to have a slightly more sensible conversation about how we know if something is true, rather than merely wishful thinking.
There is one final, powerful effect that questions can have—namely that they can help turn what might otherwise be an argument into a conversation. We live in an age when people are increasingly divided, with social media having trained us to take offence quickly. But arguments don’t often get us very far, tending to produce more heat than light. As Christians, we want to get along with our friends like a house on fire as we talk about spiritual things, not descend into lobbing burning embers at each other from across the smouldering ruins.
Within the context of a conversation with a friend, it’s perfectly fine to disagree, but we don’t want to be disagreeable or to have things descend into the conversational equivalent of the Battle of the Somme. Once again, a good question can help, especially if the conversation is getting tense. Asking things like “I can see this gets you very animated; why is that?” may be helpful. On one occasion, my wife and I were having dinner with a relative who had said some extremely negative things about Christianity. My wife smiled sweetly and asked, “You seem very angry at God for somebody who doesn’t believe in him. Why is that?” It turned out that our relative’s scepticism derived from a deep disappointment with the way he’d been let down by some Christians in the past, and his anger at God was a mask for that.
So far we have explored why questions are so useful in creating space for more natural conversations about faith. We have also seen how questions are helpful in navigating those conversations, especially if our friends raise challenges or objections to what we believe. But you may be asking, What if I’m not sure what kind of questions to ask? How can I learn to ask better questions? After all, “Where did we leave the baby?” and “Should the casserole really be green?” are, grammatically, perfectly well-formed questions, but if you’re asking them, arguably something has gone wrong. And there are evangelistically bad questions as well. One of my friends once plucked up the courage to invite a neighbour to a Christmas carol service and was delighted when they said yes. But things went slightly wrong when the greeter at the church door, spying a face he didn’t recognise, met the neighbour with the words, “Welcome to St. Jude’s—have you found Jesus?” The neighbour, trying to parse this weird question, replied with “Er . . . no, have you lost him?” Given that Christians sometimes already have a reputation for being a little bit odd, let’s not add to that impression by asking questions that are downright weird. So how can we learn to ask better ones?
My first piece of advice is to pray. I know this sounds obvious, but sometimes it’s the obvious things that we overlook, like the sunglasses on your head as you tear the house apart looking for them. What precisely should we be praying for? Pray for opportunities for conversations. Pray that the Lord would create spaces in those conversations to ask questions (that way you won’t feel the need to force them). Pray that the Spirit would nudge and lead you to recognise opportunities when they turn up and inspire you when they do. You might also pray over previous conversations and questions you’ve asked. Ask the Lord to help you discern what worked, what didn’t, what you might learn for next time, and how to follow up on those that went well.
Second, learn to really listen. The best questions arise naturally out of what a friend has said, so the more carefully and attentively you listen, the more readily questions will occur to you. Sometimes because we are so passionate about Jesus and want to share him with our friends, we can talk too much and end up dominating the conversation. So remember what the Bible says. It advises us to be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak” (James 1:19). Asking questions helps us avoid twittering away and boring our friends to tears. And a great question to occasionally ask is “I think what you’re saying is . . . (and summarise what they’ve said). Did I hear you right?” The more people feel they are genuinely listened to, the more willing they may be to talk about deeper things.
Third, ask questions as a way of showing that you are taking a real interest in what your friend is saying. Simply inquiring about somebody’s life, family, work, interests, and so forth can sometimes open up opportunities for much deeper things. My friend Richard is very gifted at this and is able to start conversations anywhere. A few years ago, after he and I had both spoken at a conference in Atlanta, we got a taxi to the airport, dog-tired after a really heavy day. All I wanted to do was close my eyes for twenty minutes, but Richard leapt straight into asking the taxi driver questions about his work and his family. Within ten minutes they were chatting like old friends. Toward the end of the ride, the taxi driver mentioned how his son was struggling with an issue at school, and very naturally Richard was able to say how he found, when similar issues had happened with his kids, praying about it had made a big difference. That segue to spiritual issues wasn’t forced; it flowed out of the interest Richard had taken in the man’s life.
Fourth, find points of connection. Especially when talking with somebody new, look for common ground—and use that to ask the other person questions and build a rapport. There’s a beautiful example of this in Acts 17, where Paul is in Athens and uses the Athenians’ interest in spirituality (temples, statues, altars) to open a conversation where he is then able to ask about the Altar to an Unknown God. One way I have found to do this myself is to read and watch widely, taking opportunities to sample beyond my own (often narrow) interests. Over a hundred years ago, the Baptist minister F. W. Boreham wrote a wonderful little essay, “A Slice of Infinity,” in which he encourages Christians to aim at “sampling infinity” in our reading. After all, if you get chatting to somebody whilst waiting at the bus stop and it turns out they are a keen angler, you’ll be grateful you read Fly Fishing by J. R. Hartley a year back, as it gives you some points of connection you can build a conversation from.
Fifth, practice asking open rather than closed questions. A closed question is one that requires only a one-word answer: “Is this your dinosaur in the lettuce?” “Did you enjoy that book?” “Do you believe in God?” The person you’re asking can simply say yes or no and then the conversation is over, or at least at an impasse. By contrast, open questions require the person to give a little more thought. For example, “What’s the most important thing in life for you?” “Why are humans so fascinated by spirituality?” “What does the word God mean to you?” Questions like that are far more likely to open a conversation, rather than reduce it to monosyllables.
Sixth, always be ready with the next question. It’s very easy in a conversation to ask a great question, see your friend really engage with it, and then suddenly find it’s your turn to say something and—doh!—you’re tongue-tied. So as your friend is answering and as you’re listening attentively and quietly praying, think of a follow-up question to ask. Don’t be worried about doing more of the asking and your friend doing more of the talking—the more you ask good questions and listen carefully, the more your friend will feel their opinion is valued and taken seriously and the readier they will be when the time comes for you to say something like “This is really interesting. You know, I’ve often thought . . .”
And finally, take your time and don’t feel the pressure to go too deep too quickly. For example, consider the following exchange. Sally, a very keen Christian, is taking the trash out when she spies her next-door neighbour:
“Hello, neighbour, how are you today?”
“I’m doing well, Sally, thanks for asking. How are you?”
“Great. Just taking the trash out. And I’m so grateful that Jesus has taken the trash out of my life! Tell me, have you found Jesus?”
Arguably there were probably just a few more questions and a longer conversation needed between “hello” and “have you found Jesus?” as well as possibly a slightly less cheesy introduction to spiritual things. Rather than diving straight from the surface level of polite, everyday conversation to deeper spiritual things so rapidly that your friend’s ears pop, practice asking questions that go deeper by degrees. Perhaps, had her neighbour had the time, Sally could have asked about how work and family were going, and if Sally, in the course of that gentle conversation, had found out her neighbour’s child was unwell because they’d choked on a plastic dinosaur during the salad course at dinner last night, maybe there would have been an opportunity for Sally to offer to pray for her neighbour’s family. Don’t be afraid to slow down and learn to engage with people at the speed at which the Holy Spirit is working.
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