When it comes to talking to people of other religions, Christians often take one of two approaches, both of which hinder true friendship: Either we avoid any mention of religion, afraid to cause awkwardness or tension; or we view people with different beliefs as projects, potential believers we have to push toward Christ by pointing out the flaws in their thinking.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to live and work alongside men and women from different religious backgrounds from my own, and I’ve learned a lot about how to engage in conversations about faith—and how to form real, lasting friendships—with those who disagree with your beliefs.
Put a Pause on Assumptions.
Stereotypes always minimize meaningful conversations. When I began working with students from the Middle East as an English tutor, I was nervous about revealing my faith because I assumed that they might be bitter toward Christians like many of the Muslims I saw on TV. It wasn’t until one of them invited me to lunch and we both started talking about culture and religion that I realized how completely off-base I’d been.
The truth, which so many of us don’t realize, is that people have very personalized ways to express their faith. This is something we see in other Christians. Now, rather than assuming that I know, I just try asking others what they think or believe or, even better, wait for them to tell me. Understanding through listening is a common theme in the Scriptures (Proverbs 11:12) for good reason.
Besides, we can’t expect people to hear what we have to say when we haven’t even tried to listen to them.
They’re People, Not Projects.
I’ve heard many sermons calling Christians to make the most of every opportunity to share Jesus with everyone we share life with. While I don’t believe we’re called to anything less than this, I think the heart of the message often gets lost in transmission.
Sometimes, rather than loving everyone we stumble into, we start to analyze them as investment risks and start to look at our neighbors, coworkers and classmates as tasks instead of human beings. Not only can people tell when we’re not truly invested in them as friends, but by treating them as life-goals, we make God’s love for them look cheap and shallow. As John said, we need to love with our actions and not just our words (1 John 3:24).
Don’t Force an Agenda.
Nobody likes feeling manipulated by someone who asks them personal questions only to lead them into a “buying mood.” People can tell when you’re sharing something personal with them and when you’re giving them a spiel.
When we see the opportunity to talk about God, we shouldn’t jump into “gameplan” mode. Instead, let’s use our heads and a lot of prayer. Let the conversation follow its own path. If you can summarize the Gospel or your testimony at the same time in a non-forced way, fantastic. If not, trust that God will give you the right words like He said He would (Luke 21:12-15) and just focus on loving the other person. The friendship shouldn’t be contingent on the other person eventually converting.
I have a friend who was raised Hindu. He also was the first guy to get me to start drinking tea, deciding what I liked about music, and using the word “dope” as an adjective. We spent a couple years living together, and I learned that the more interested I was in what he thought about life, the more he began to spontaneously engage with me about my life; including my faith. This didn’t come from my tapping my fingers together and plotting, Mr. Burns style, but by being interested in who he was and what he thought.
One day he asked me to explain Christianity to him, which opened up a beautiful discussion on spirituality with the two of us eventually checking out a worship service together. When you show that you value others, really value them, they’ll naturally want to know more about what’s important to you.
Working with international students for six months taught me something that 22 years among Americans never did: People feel more comfortable around those who are willing to open up a little.
While it’s very easy to believe that your personal experiences hold less water than Scripture or theology, nothing could be further from the truth. God’s Word is wonderful and transforming, but it reaches deeper into people when you can show them how it has changed your own life. Even if a conversation about Jesus isn’t on the horizon, simply being comfortable talking about what you do in your free time or what you think about things like dating will not only show that you’re a real person but also that you trust someone enough to let them in.
The main idea here is to be aware that in conversations with people—regardless of what they believe—the things we should prioritize the most are loving them and trusting God, not trying to force an agenda. This is where not leaning on our own understanding is truly fleshed out. It’s where we have to believe that the One who put us in these situations knows them better and has something specific to that moment to share through us.
Alec Hibbs is a Jesus follower, writer and coffee drinker from Boise, ID. When he's not writing, he enjoys sharing meals with friends and talking about life and God. You can find him blogging at alechibbs.blogspot.com or follow him on Twitter @AlecHibbs.