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Message 24, Tactics for Discussing Christian Convictions (Youth Seminar):

Gregory Koukl focuses on how Christians can defend the faith in everyday conversations.

Message Transcript

I am so glad! Thank you, Tim, for that introduction. I am so glad to be speaking in the afternoon. I am not a morning person, okay? Some woman said, “Mr. Koukl, you must have a great quiet time in the morning.” I said, “Frankly ma’am, before my first cup of coffee, I’m an atheist.” So, I’m kind of raring to go right now.

Some of you guys, though, I have a feeling, I just know, in conferences like this you’ve got — some of you’ve been going for a day to a day and a half and you feel like that guy in The Far Side cartoon, you know, he’s in the math class and all the formulas are on the board and he said, “Professor, could I please be excused?

My brain is full.” How many of you feel like that, just a little bit overwhelmed? And you know, there’s another problem with having a conference that goes on for a couple of days. You just get filled with all of this stuff and then you wonder, “How do I get this stuff, this great thing, all of this stuff that I am learning, how do I get it into play in conversations with people who don’t know the Lord?” How do I get rolling? The thing that’s missing is a bridge from the content to the conversation or from the scholarship to the relationship.

In the 20 minutes or so that I have with you here, I want to provide that bridge. So, I’m going to make a promise to you that I think I can fulfill in 21 minutes and 49 seconds here, okay? And the promise is this, I’m going to give you the bridge. I’m going to give you a game plan that will allow you to converse with confidence in any situation, no matter how little you know or how aggressive or knowledgeable or even obnoxious the other person happens to be, okay? That’s my promise.

This game plan follows the instructions by Paul in Colossians chapter 4. You might want to write this verse down. Colossians 4 verse 5 and 6, and here’s what Paul says there; he says, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom towards outsiders. Make the most of the opportunity.” In other words, be smart, okay? “Let your speech always be with grace seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you will know how to respond to each person.”

I’m going to give you three words to write down just from that passage, alright? Here’s the first one. Actually, it’s a phrase: “Be smart.” I already said that, be smart. When you engage people, use your heads. “Conduct yourselves with wisdom towards outsiders.” Second, “Be nice.” What a concept! How about that? Be nice.

Let your speech always be with grace,” you know you’ve got this “defend the faith” verse that we use all the time from Peter 1 chapter 3. You know, “Always being ready to make a defense for the hope that’s within you,” and then we trail off there and don’t see the end “yet with” what’s that? “Gentleness and grace.” So, we are to be gracious in the process, but also so you know how to respond to each person, that’s the third thing in that verse, we want to be tactical. We want to be tactical. We want to treat people as individuals. We want to care about their individual circumstance.

Dr. Anderson talked about picking away at the worldview. Each worldview is different. They have different weaknesses. It’ll be helpful if we know what the individual worldview is that the person holds so that we can deal with that, maybe plant a seed of doubt in their mind regarding that, but in order to do that we have to have a game plan. And I want to offer you that game plan here. But really, in order to use the game plan that I have in mind that I think will accomplish the promise that I offered you, I think we want to adjust our sights a little bit.

I think largely when we think of evangelism, we are focused on harvesting, and we’re thinking about going for the gold and trying to get the harvest. And I’m just gonna tell you, and some of you have been around the block a few times on this, the easy pickings are a little bit slim nowadays. There’s got to be a lot more of what Dr. Francis Schaeffer used to call “pre-evangelism,” where we work with people a little bit, we’re a little bit more patient, we take more time. I don’t know if you’ve thought about this, but in any individual’s life before the harvest there has always got to be a season of, let’s just call it “gardening,” okay?

I became a Christian in 1973 as a 23-year-old college student, and I didn’t go from 0 to 60 in 30 seconds, you know? I had a long time of gardening that was happening in my life before I was ready to be harvested on that day and a lot of us think, “Well, we’re not really good harvesters. We don’t close the deal well in people’s lives with the gospel. And so, we just stay on the bench and we don’t get into the game.”

And I have a suspicion that most of us are probably gardeners and not necessarily harvesters. I’m 43 years a Christian, I want to tell you something. I’m a gardener. I’m not a harvester. I’m glad to be part of the team as someone who plants and tills and waters and weeds a little bit in different people’s lives, knowing that I got a whole bunch of other teammates that are doing a little gardening at the same time to bring that person, any individual, to a point of harvest, and then God’s going to sovereignly bring a harvester into their life. And it might be me once in a while, but most of the time I’m gardening.

So, I’m using my game plan not to go for the gold, swing for the fences, I’m using my game plan just to do a little gardening. And I have a very particular goal in mind. And so, when I’m speaking before a university audience, I always tell them what I’m up to. The first thing that I tell them before I start my lecture on whatever the material is I say, “I’m here tonight because my life has been deeply changed by an ancient teacher.

His name is Jesus of Nazareth, and 47 years ago when I was a student at college myself, I began to think carefully about the claims that Jesus made about Himself, the claim He made about reality, and the claims that He made on my own life, and as I asked a lot of questions, pushed back really hard, and thought about it for a long time I finally came to the conclusion,” I tell the audience, “that Jesus got it right, and that the smart money was on Jesus of Nazareth, and I decided to follow after Him.”

And I’ve been spending the last 40-plus years trying to help other people to follow Him,” I tell the audience, “but I’m not here today to convert you,” I say to them. In other words, I’m not swinging for the fences. Actually, I am not even trying to get on base. I just want to get in the batter’s box. And here’s what I say to them. I say, “I just want to put a stone in your shoe. All I want to do. I just want to annoy you in a good way.”

And they all laugh the same like you’re laughing because if they figure a Christian’s going to annoy them, I tell them, “Okay I’m your guy, but you’ll thank me for it. I want you walking out of here kind of hobbling along because there’s something that I said that sticks at you a little bit. And if I’ve done that, I’m satisfied. If I have done that small thing, if I’ve put a stone in your shoe, I’m satisfied.” If I garden a little, to follow that metaphor, I’m satisfied.

Now along that line, and all we’re doing here is laying out a goal for the game plan I’ll share with you in just a moment. But along that line, I want you to think about something that Jesus said in John chapter 4, and I’m very familiar with this chapter and many of you are, the woman at the well, but this particular point did not occur to me until about a year ago, and I’ve read it many time — you ever had that, where you read through a passage lots of times and all of a sudden something jumps out of it that you haven’t seen before?

So I’m reading, it’s after the encounter, she goes off to Sychar. The disciples come up, they’ve got the food. And Jesus says to the disciples, he says, “You say there are six months and then comes the harvest. I say to you, look at the fields and they are white for harvest.” I don’t think Jesus was saying every single field was white for harvest.

I think he was saying that field that day in Sychar was white. He was probably referring to the white robes coming across the field, being led, the people being led by the woman at the well. And then Jesus says this, he says, “You are about to reap where you did not sow.”

Notice the two groups of people? You’ve got reapers, you’ve got sowers. You’ve got reapers, you’ve got sowers. One team, two different kinds of workers, reapers and sowers, and it turns out the disciples are going to get the easy pickings. Somebody else did the heavy lifting, and they’re going to bump the ripe fruit, and it’s going to fall into the basket.

And then Jesus says this, “So that the one who reaps and the one who sows can rejoice,” what? “Together.” Some of you’ve been thinking, “Man, I’d like to do the kind of things that these gentlemen are talking about here on the stage, and I’d like to share my faith more but I’m not a good closer, and that kind of scares me.”

And it may turn out that you’re not a closer. Maybe you’re not a harvester. Maybe you’re a gardener. And I have a feeling we need a whole lot more gardeners than we need harvesters. That is because before there is a harvest, there is always a season of gardening. So, we need you. We need you off the bench, but what you don’t have is you don’t have a game plan.

And that’s what I wrote this book “Tactics” for. It’s subtitled “A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions” to be able to put in place something that any person in this audience can follow regardless of your level of education, to get you involved in productive conversations with people, okay? Now I mentioned that from Colossians 4, “Be smart.” Be what, is the second one? “Be nice.” Third one, “Be tactical.”

And let’s talk about being tactical now. I want to talk about the game plan. At Stand to Reason we have lots of different tactics that we use, and I have them in the book, and they have names like “Suicide,” Taking the Roof Off,” “Just the Facts Ma’am,” “Rhodes Scholar;” those kinds of things. But there is one tactic that is really the core of the game plan. That is the easiest tactic imaginable to stop a challenger in their tracks, to turn the tables, to get them thinking, and to keep you in the driver’s seat of the conversation, and that’s my goal with the tactical approach.

Not to overwhelm people, not to manipulate people, not to get in fights with people. I don’t want to get into fights with people. My basic rule is, if anybody gets mad I lose, right? If I get mad, and they don’t get mad, I lose. If they get mad, then I lose. I don’t want anybody to get mad because people who are angry are not listening. I want to avoid that if possible.

So, I employ this tactic that is the core of the game plan, and the tactic has a name, and the name of the tactic is “Columbo.” Some of you know this guy, the infamous Lieutenant Columbo. See, I’ve got my Columbo jacket here. Now I know this is a younger crowd, right, but I see a lot of gray heads here. And you guys know who Lieutenant Columbo is.

Now, this is like three decades ago on TV, but you can still catch him on YouTube and Nick at Night or whatever, and Columbo is the guy who shows up at the crime scene wearing this — he’s a detective, right? — he’s wearing a trench coat like this. It looks like he slept in it, maybe he did. I got mine at Salvation Army, and whenever you buy something at Salvation Army, you always got to check the pockets because you never know what you…wait a minute. Oh my gosh, look at that! How did that get in there?

Lieutenant Columbo’s got a cigar, right? Now, look at this. It’s just plastic, okay? No worries. I know it’s a Baptist church, and I hate cigars personally. Whenever I find a real cigar, I always destroy it…by fire, completely. I don’t want anybody to stumble, right?

Now Lieutenant Columbo, he’s also got a pad of paper, right, but he can’t use his pad of paper. Why not? Tell me. He doesn’t have a pen or pencil. He’s the kind of guy to bum a pencil off. And you see him walking around rubbing his brow, you know, deep in painful thought, like he can’t think his way out of a wet paper bag, you know, he’s stupid. But he’s stupid like a fox, right?

Because he’s got a method. And at some point he’ll pause, and he’ll rub his furrowed brow, you know, say something like this, “I don’t know. There’s something about this thing that bothers me. Do you mind if I ask you a question?” You know how he does that, right? He asks the question, gets an answer, “You’re very intelligent. One more thing…” And then he one more things them to death, right? Question after question after question. Then they get upset and he says, “I’m sorry. It’s because I’m asking all these questions, but I can’t help it. It’s a habit.”

And this is the habit that you ought to get into. The key to the Columbo tactic, and the key to our game plan, the key to fulfilling the promise I made to you a few moments ago is that the Christian goes on the offensive in an inoffensive way with carefully selected questions that advance the conversation. Let me say that again: the key to the tactic and the key to our game plan is that the Christian goes on the offensive in an inoffensive way with carefully selected questions to advance the conversation.

Now, in the book I talk about three strategic uses of questions, okay? I’m only going to cover two very briefly, but these two will fulfill my promise to you to give you a game plan that will allow you to converse with confidence in any situation. So, we’re going to have a game plan that is using questions. So, what this means then is when you find yourself in a circumstance where you’re encountering somebody on whom you want to have a spiritual impact.

That’s all you’re thinking, I want to do some gardening. I hope the Lord will use me here. I don’t know where that’s going to go. I don’t know if it’s gardening or harvesting, we don’t know that, do we? The Lord knows that. We might see it, but let’s just say all we want to do is just try to put a stone in their shoe.

So, what do we do first? We do the first thing that Columbo does, and he uses questions to gather information. So, there’s your first step. Write that down. To gather information. The first step in your game plan, you want to solve the crime, Lieutenant Columbo? How are you going to find the killer? You’ve got to gather some information.

We encounter somebody new, or maybe if it is not somebody new, maybe somebody we’ve been around for a while and banged heads with for a while, but we actually never spent much time to gather some information and listen to them to be able to know how to position ourselves further in a conversation. So, maybe we just start with gathering information, okay? And we’re going to use a question to do that.

Now, I’m going to give you a model question. Here’s the question. “What do you mean by that?” What do you mean by that? Now, this is a very, very general question. In the book, I talk about an encounter I have, as it turned out, with a witch in Wisconsin who is managing film or we were getting some film taken care of many years ago before my digital days, and she was wearing a pentagram hanging around her neck.

And I asked her, “Does that jewelry have religious significance?” And then, she went on to talk about it. We got into a great conversation because I’d asked this question to gather some information. How did I know she was a witch? She told me. How did she tell me? I asked her. And I didn’t go, “Ah witch, a witch! Stand back!” You know, we’re not doing the Monty Python. No, I just kind of took it all in stride. It was okay. We were relaxed, but I’m getting information.

First, I asked her about her jewelry. It was a pentagram, five-pointed star. She explained about that earth, wind, fire, water, spirit. Oh yeah. “I’m a pagan,” she said. Actually, it was a little embarrassing at that point because my wife was standing next to me and I’m a trained professional, you know. And this woman said, “I’m a pagan,” you know? And I’m thinking, “Alright, I can handle that.” And my wife got caught by surprise.

She started laughing. Then she said, “I’m sorry, I did not mean to be…I just thought I’d never heard anybody admit it before.” That’s what my wife said. She’d only heard the word “pagan” when, you know, her girlfriends would call the kids in, “Get in here you bunch of pagans,” you know, that kind of thing. But what happened is we had a really great conversation, as it turned out. Why? Because I asked a question. Notice what happens when you ask a question. Every time you ask a question, what happens next?

The other person gets to talk, which means there’s no pressure on you. You guys that are sitting on the bench, it’s because you don’t like the pressure. I get it. You ask a question, there’s no pressure. They’re doing the talking. What’s happening with you? You’re getting an education. What do you mean by that? Draw the person out. Find out what they’re about, what they believe in.

Sometimes you’re involved in a spiritual conversation already. And so they’re making challenges, like one student did to me once and actually they asked me. I encountered a friend of mine at university and he said, “Well, everything’s relative.” How do I deal with that? I said, “Well, you never try to deal with it first off.

You always start with, what do you think? Questions. And the first question you start with is, “What do you mean by that?” So, now I wrote a book on relativism. I know what relativism means, but I don’t know that that person knows what relativism means. So, I’m going to ask him, “What do you mean by ‘relative’?” And let them talk and see if they know what that means. A lot of people repeat things they’ve heard, okay?

And if he knows what relativism is and explains it to me, I’ve got another question because he said, “Everything’s relative.” And so, I’m going to ask him, “What do you mean by ‘everything’?” Do you think about that? If everything means everything, isn’t the statement “Everything is relative” part of everything? I’m going to wait for a moment for the change to fall into the meter on that one. That would make the statement itself what? Relative. This is the kind of thing that Dr. Anderson was talking about before about people’s worldviews that are kind of rotten from the inside, but they don’t see it. So, I’m using a question to help them to see that, okay?

So, your first move is always going to be to gather information regarding an individual by asking questions, okay? And it may be that you don’t know anything about what they believe. You’re getting information about what it is, and every time there’s an ambiguity you ask a question about the ambiguity, okay? And it might be that you don’t see any opening.

Now what? My opinion? There’s nothing wrong with just letting it go. Maybe this is an exercise for you to get to know the person better, and an opportunity will show up later. I personally don’t think that every encounter is a divine appointment, okay? But sometimes we don’t know if it is until we start engaging, and the easiest way to engage is to ask questions that draw a person out, okay? So, your first step of your game plan is to gather information. You want to know what their view is. Whatever it happens to be, you want them to clear up ambiguities in certain claims they make, okay?

Second step. Now, I’m going to call this “reversing the burden of proof.” Reversing the burden of proof. And I’ll say this quickly because I’m almost out of time. “The burden of proof,” that phrase means the responsibility some person has to give reason. The responsibility some person has to give reasons.

Now, who is it that has the responsibility to give reasons in any conversation? And the answer is, the person who makes the claim bears the burden. If I say, “God exists,” I’m making a claim and it’s controversial. So it follows then I should give some reasons why I think God exists. But what if I’m not the one who is making the claim? What if somebody else is saying, “God does not exist?”

You know what Christians felt like they had to do? They felt like they had to step up and give all the reasons why God did exist. Well, when they do that, they are giving the atheist a free ride. Because we’re doing all the work, and they have made the claim. So, here’s the rule here: “No more free rides.”

In the immortal words of Ricky Ricardo, “They got a lot of ‘splainin to do.” So, we want to get them to do some ‘splainin, right? And so, we have a second question now. And the second question is, “Now, how did you come to that conclusion?” What are your reasons for that? Why do you think that’s the way it is? You see, we’re not just going to let them say, “I can explain that,” and then tell a story.

And then, it’s our responsibility to unwrap their story and to show that they’re false. We’re doing all the work. Why don’t we, instead of doing that, ask them to defend their story rather than us standing up to try to refute it? And most of us can’t do that anyway. What if we built these two questions into the standard way that we engage people on an ongoing basis? That we’re going to be nice, we’re going to be smart, and we’re going to be tactical.

We’re going to draw them out and find their point of view. Let them do all the talking. We’re going to find out not only what their point of view is, but also their reasons for it.

And then, what do we do? You know what, sometimes you don’t have to do anything. I promise you, I’ve been doing this for a long time and trained a lot of people in this. You will be amazed that if you just asked two questions, “What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” as you work it into the conversation. How many times people will come up with what I call “the Simon and Garfunkel response.”

Remember those two guys back in 1966 wrote that song called “The Sounds of Silence”? You ask them what they mean and why they believe, and a lot of times you’re going to get silence because they’ve never thought about it. And I’m just going to tell you, you’re going to be stunned at watching the Holy Spirit work even though you’re only asking questions.

And see, now I’ve fulfilled my promise to you. I promised that I’d give you a game plan that would allow you to converse with confidence in any situation. No matter how little you know or how articulate or aggressive or even obnoxious the other person happens to be, now you have it, two questions. Gathering information with a question, help me out…”What do you mean by that?” that’s right.

And then, reversing the burden of proof by asking the question, “Now, how did you come to that conclusion?” That’s just a brief sketch. The whole deal is in the Tactics book. I hope that you grab it at the bookstore. I’m going to be there signing books a little bit later, but as you go into the bookstore you’re going to see a table for Stand to Reason. We’d love to send you free training material every single month. There’s a card for that, and this blue thing you can take home, which is a thumbnail sketch of the Columbo tactic, okay?

If you don’t remember anything from what I said this morning, always remember this. Take a tip from Lieutenant Columbo and always what? Ask questions. There you go. Thank you very much.