Is it wrong to talk to strangers?

22 Apr
Run. Always run.

Run. Always run.

Last week I got into a conversation with a friend about whether or not Christians should approach people with whom they have no relationship in order to share the Gospel. We got onto the subject in the context of a training I assigned, asking students to go find someone and simply ask “What do you think about Jesus?” using questions rather than statements to steer the subsequent conversations.

The argument against talking to strangers was rooted in several factors, but the ones that emerged as the most deeply felt were: possible harm done by freaking people out/upsetting them, no relational context for follow up, ineffectiveness of the strategy, no prompting from God to do it – an arbitrary task, and a lack of scriptural precedent.

If these things were all true then I would agree that we should probably not talk to people we don’t already know, however this just doesn’t seem to be the case in my opinion. I’ll briefly look at each objection.

Damaging the cause of the Gospel

The type of person who could do damage in a 2 minute conversation is probably the same type who would do it in a relationship. Similarly, a humble and winsome approach should diffuse any tension – even if the conversation is awkward. In the worst case scenario, the approached person should walk away saying “Well, at least that Christian was less annoying that the usual type.” It’s not the duration of the conversation or our relational status entering the conversation that matters but how we treat the person we’re in dialogue with. (SPOILER ALERT: we should treat them with dignity and respect)

Some object that a particular church does contact evangelism and their ministry is doing more harm than good. The same response works here though: that church we have issues with probably still prays and reads the Bible. We aren’t going to abandon those core pillars of the faith because someone we disagree with practices them as well, and I don’t think we should abandon the practice of approaching folks we don’t know just because some churches may be terrible at it.

No relational context

This is an easy fix: give them your email address. If they don’t live in the same town, and they’re actually interested in following up you can help connect them with a local church in the area if you know anyone there, or at least use your network to try to find one that would be welcoming. Even in the worst of “hit-and-run” scenarios the seed sown might be cultivated by someone else. It might be less effective, but that doesn’t make it wrong or totally ineffective.

Ineffectiveness

Being a witness is not like being a middle manager at some company: our goals aren’t efficiency and results. Our goal is obedience. I agree that sharing the faith in the context of an established and ongoing relationship is more effective, but again this doesn’t render talking to a stranger ineffective or pointless. Part of the intended outcome of the exercise was for the student leaders to grow in their conversational evangelism skills in a low stakes environment. Even if the folks they engaged with remained uninterested, the students took a risk, became more comfortable in conversation, and maybe heard something they weren’t prepared to deal with that will spur reflection and study.

No prompting from God

The simple truth is that we rarely hear the audible voice of God commanding us to do something, and we rarely find ourselves drawn to something that is unnatural and risky for us. If we are waiting for that moment where we feel totally compelled we will likely wait in perpetuity. I consider being a witness a discipline just like praying and reflecting on the Word. There are times when I don’t feel like doing those things but know the outcome will be good (even if I don’t have a mind blowing God moment), and so I do them. In the same way it is worthwhile (though not necessary) to be in the habit of occasionally risking some comfort to engage with a person who you otherwise would not. It will grow and stretch you and can possibly impact the person who you speak with.

Lack of Scriptural precedent

This one surprised me because I feel like there is scriptural precedent all over the place. Jesus sends out the 72 in Luke 10, Jesus talks to the random woman at the well in John 4, Jesus talks to Zacchaeus in the tree. Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. There are probably more, these are just the examples that occur to me off the top of my head.

Jesus commands us to go into all the world and make disciples. Paul explains that people can’t believe unless there is someone to teach them the truth. These are universal commands that always apply and aren’t nullified simply because we haven’t already met someone.

Conclusion

It doesn’t invalidate your faith if you don’t talk to strangers, and I know some people have done an awful (read: “super, duper, awful!) job of approaching people in the past – but we don’t have to own that. It will grow you as an individual and could impact someone else’s spiritual trajectory. There is no downside other than fleeting embarrassment as long as you remember to not be a jerk.

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2 Responses to “Is it wrong to talk to strangers?”

  1. Myron April 22, 2013 at 12:14 pm #

    Great post (as usual), Steve! On the point of “relational context,” I’d like to throw something out there. When I ministered on college campuses, my students and I did lots of contact evangelism (or whatever the kids are calling it these days). We realized that the lack of a relational context is a huge hurdle for this kind of evangelism. In response to this, my supervisor came up with a “Three Questions” model of approaching folks. After introducing ourselves to people (including our names and our organization), we would tell them that we were going around campus and talking to people about Jesus (thus giving them the opportunity to bow out). If they were cool with talking to us, we’d present three questions:

    (1) Who do you think Jesus is? (2) Where do you get your ideas about Jesus? (3) What difference (if any) do your ideas about Jesus make to your life?

    Here’s what we found:

    * Most folks wanted to talk to us. I attribute this to the fact that we were asking questions rather than giving them answers that they had no questions for.

    * Many folks said that they hadn’t really thought deeply about these kinds of questions, and they believed that–whatever their ultimate response–they were worth pondering.

    * Most conversations we had with people went beyond your normal drop-the-Gospel-like-it’s-hot/quickie-conversion model; folks normally talked with us for 30min to an hour.

    * Non-Christians did most of the talking.

    * After expressing themselves (usually at length), non-Christians usually asked us what we believed (I’ll give you ten guesses what we said to that!).

    * Even folks who didn’t ultimately turn to Christ in that conversation told us, “Hey, we don’t agree on everything, but I really like the way you guys did this.” This was often followed up by “Thank you.”

    * Oh, and some people came to either place faith in Christ just after the conversation or some time later. And yes, we followed up with folks beyond the conversation.

    * In some instances, this kind of conversation was the beginning of long-term relationships with non-Christians (even those who, to the best of my knowledge, never ended up trusting Christ).

    * And some folks turned us down flat (but only a small number did so with any antagonism).

    The upshot of this overly long comment: You can create a relational context for evangelism to strangers with the right approach. I’m not saying that this model is the end-all/be-all. All relational contexts are made not born. Why relegate the creation of said contexts to the front end of evangelism? We can do this while we’re in the act.

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