Let's face it. Times are getting tougher for Christians.
In spite of what happened on 9/11, Islam now has most favored religious status in our country (what other religion has the suffix "phobia" attached to its name to protect it from criticism?). And Christians? Well, we're narrow-minded, judgmental, intolerant, and bigoted. In a word, dangerous. We haven't earned it, yet there it is.
So now what? In his first epistle, Peter has advice for times like these: "Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15). It's the apologist's favorite passage. But there's a problem. Them's fightin' words to many people, and most don't like conflict. Plus fighting is not productive. Defending means confronting, and confronting means conflict. The simple fact is, if anybody gets mad in a conversation, we're going to lose because hostile environments are not persuasive ones. We need to do everything we can to keep cool, calm, and collected. But how?
Peter tells us, but his advice is easily overlooked. Sometimes we focus so much on one popular phrase ("make a defense"), that we miss an important point in the larger context. To avoid overlooking something critical, I use a simple rule that keeps me alert: Never read a Bible verse. Rather, I read a paragraph or more to make sure I get the flow.
So what's the flow here? Peter is talking about bearing up while suffering for righteousness. When blasted by culture, it's tempting to blast it back. Peter says, don't. Instead—before he says make a defense—he says, be nice: "Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless" (1 Peter 3:9); "Seek peace and pursue it" (1 Peter 3:11). Then—after he says make a defense—he says again, be nice. Make your appeal "…with gentleness and respect…" (1 Peter 3:15).
Here's what's often overlooked: This verse is not so much about being a confrontational apologist as it is about being a diplomatic ambassador. In tough times we bless, and when blessing others still brings persecution, we hold fast to Christ, speak our mind intelligently and graciously, and shame the harsh opposition because of our genial diplomacy. That's the flow of thought in 1 Peter 3:8-16.
So far, so good. But how do we do that in practical terms? How do we make our conversations with those who disagree with us look more like diplomacy than D-Day? It's actually easier than you think. Here's my suggestion: Use questions.
Remember that TV detective from three decades ago, Lt. Columbo? He shuffled around the crime scene in a beat up trench coat, mumbling, rubbing his brow, scratching his head—apparently inept and harmless. Then he made his trademark move that eventually bagged the bad guy: "Do you mind if I ask you a question?" One query led to another, then another. "I can't help it," he'd shrug. "It's a habit." This is a habit you want to get into: going on the offensive in an inoffensive way with carefully selected questions that move the conversation forward.
Why questions? There are lots of reasons. Questions are polite. Questions get you important information and buy you valuable time. Questions take the focus—and the pressure—off you. Most importantly, questions keep you in the driver's seat, helping you gently direct the exchange without being obnoxious.
Here are two easy ways to use questions. They function as a kind of game plan allowing you to converse with confidence in any situation. They work no matter how little you know, or how educated, articulate, or aggressive the other person may be. Sound intriguing?
Here's the first step. Start every conversation by gathering information, just like Columbo does. Be friendly. Draw the person out. Find out what he believes and how he thinks. See if you can use questions alone to subtly steer the dialog towards spiritual things. If you're already on the topic, use some form of the question "What do you mean by that?" to press for clarity.
If someone says, "Everything's relative," ask, "Really? In what sense?" If they claim, "Belief in God is irrational," ask, "What, specifically, is irrational about it?" If they offer, "I'm spiritual, but not religious," say, "I'm not sure what the difference is. Can you clarify?"
You get the idea. Always start out in fact-finding mode. Gently probe every ambiguity. Make them clarify their own view—something they may never have done before, even for themselves. Let them talk while you listen carefully.
Sometimes you'll see an opening you can move towards. Otherwise, let the conversation die a natural death. No need to force things. Bare minimum, you've been polite and that by itself is a big plus.
Sometimes, though, the other person will respond to your invitation and press their own point of view. Time for step two: Ask them for their reasons. "How did you come to that conclusion?," or "Why do you think that's the way it is?," or "I'm curious about your reasons for that?," or something similar is all that's needed. Then listen some more.
Notice what's happening? The first question starts the process. You immediately engage your friend in an interactive way, showing a genuine interest in his view. Your queries force him to think more carefully about exactly what he does believe and why. The more you ask, the more you learn. And since he's doing most of the talking, there's no pressure on you.
You might be wondering, "But when do I get to the gospel?" Frankly, you can get to the gospel anytime you want. I'm simply suggesting a tactful way to ease into it that gives you valuable information so you'll know how best to proceed.
These two questions—"What do you mean by that?" and "How did you come to that conclusion?"—are engaging, yet conversational; probing, yet amicable. And they keep you in the driver's seat while the other person does the work.
So here's my challenge to you: Make "Columbo" your game plan. Don't swing for the fences in every conversation. Just get into the batter's box with these two questions and see what the Holy Spirit does.
If you want to move forward effectively in a hostile environment, you don't have to be an expert. Just take a tip from Lt. Columbo and always ask questions. It's the best way I know "to make a defense to anyone who asks…yet with gentleness and respect."
Gregory Koukl is president of Stand to Reason and the author of Tactics—A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions. He will be joining us at our 2016 National Conference in Orlando.