A conversation, not a recitation

  • Stephen Liggins
  • 11 March 2016

Two men talking on a park bench

Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific

Fain do I contemplate thy nature specific

Loftily poised in the ether so spacious

Strongly resembling a gem carbonaceous

This is an elaborate version of the poem Twinkle, twinkle, little star that my father once taught me. I put some effort into learning it when younger, and have brought it out to good effect over the years in everything from social interactions to sermons.

My father also knew a longer version that commenced…

Coruscate, coruscate, diminutive stellar orb

How inexplicable to me seems the stupendous problem of thine existence!

… and then started to get really convoluted! I rely heavily on Google to inform me of how the verse moves on from there.

Should you search for those two lines on the internet and manage to find the full poem, you’ll be impressed to know that, despite its length and complexity, people such as my father still managed to memorize it. Human beings clearly have the capacity to learn and recite long and complex pieces. The world of acting bears witness to that.

I have argued in past pieces of the inestimable value of learning a gospel outline. However, a gospel outline is not like a script that we learn off by heart and then recite to a captive audience. It is quite different to that.

First, we don’t really learn the gospel word for word, but rather idea for idea. This way we can use language appropriate to the person and situation when communicating the truths of salvation in real life

Second, an evangelistic conversation is not an occasion to simply recite what we have learned at another person. We don’t download our bundle of ideas at a target. Rather the aim is to communicate spiritual truth with a person in a sensitive interactive manner. Note Jesus’ approach with the woman at the well in John 4.

In reality this is simpler than it sounds. Most of us will not need to enrol in a training course to learn to speak this way. In our day-to-day conversations we almost instinctively comment, question, listen, assess and respond in an interactive manner. Most of us already possess the standard skills necessary for this sort of exchange:

“What did you do on the weekend?”

“Really? Well, that doesn’t happen every day, does it?”

“Yes, I once found a kangaroo in the oddest place, too. I found that if you…”

We can do this. We can interactively communicate. So why throw all these skills out the window when we get onto the gospel? Why move into recitation mode?

In the cut and thrust of real life conversations at work, university, TAFE, school, on the train, by the sports field, at the party or in the home, we usually don’t get the opportunity to present the full gospel to another person. Rather, we get to say a bit here or a bit there before the conversation moves on.

Sometimes there is the opportunity to take the conversation further and talk about salvation more fully, but more often than not a person will not sit attentively while we deliver our pre-prepared monologue.

We need to learn the whole gospel, to pray, but then seek to use this information in conversations.

In her very helpful and encouraging book on evangelism, Out of the Saltshaker and Into the World, Rebecca Manley Pippert tells a story about how she and a younger Christian student were on an evangelistic training weekend (p. 60). One day on a beach she and her friend met a number of religious sceptics and had a lively discussion about the Christian faith. At the end they exchanged addresses. Afterwards, Rebecca was feeling pretty good about the interaction until she looked at her young assistant. He seemed a little quiet, so she asked him if anything was wrong.

He confessed that he thought the day’s encounter had been an absolute failure. “There are four major points to the gospel and you only brought in two of them,” he lamented, “and they weren’t even in the right order!”

“What were the names of the three people we met this afternoon?” Rebecca asked him.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Whatever difference does that make? There were two women and a man. Or was it the other way around?”

Many fall in the trap of wanting to recite the gospel within the earshot of another person instead of conversing with them and interactively communicating the message of salvation.

Evangelism is communication, not recitation.