Many individuals are leaning about soul-winning at special Bible schools. This is wonderful and I heartily commend these efforts. However, not everyone can attend such a school.
I wish witnessing training would be available to all, and in fact believe it should be! I wait for someone to come up with a plan where soul-winning pastors would routinely have young adults and other interested individuals working with them on a short-term basis, learning about soul-winning, watching soul-winning take place, and developing and honing practical skills.
Needless to say, the same approach won't work for every person or situation. Recently I was driven to and from a retreat by a young adult who attended one of these Bible schools and did well there. But the skills gained pounding the streets and knocking on doors seeking Bible studies, while good, would be less effective in the regular workaday world where company policies might forbid, and personal preferences mitigate against, what might be considered by some people, too aggressive, in your face, witnessing methods.
After trying to have spiritual conversations with seat-mates when traveling, and failing for a long time, I happened to read the book “Taking Men Alive,” a rewrite of an earlier book by Clay Trumbull, by his son Charles Trumbull, where witnessing for souls is considered using analogies from fishing.
He speaks of the importance of seeking out the fish, using a hook, selecting appropriate bait, landing the catch, etc., and takes a lot of mystery out of the “fishing” quest.
For me, however, the eye-opening chapter was the one on “honest commendation.” He explains that non-Christians fear being judged and criticized by Christians, and thus fear, resist, remain closed to, meaningful discussions on Christian spirituality. Following his line of reasoning, as a result, when we pull out our Bibles as the first step, we often cause our fishing prospect to dig in and resist anything we say. Instead of sharing a Bible verse or suggesting a Bible study right off, he suggests we find a way to “honestly commend” the person-nothing fake is allowed since disingenuous interest picked up right away. Rather, by sincerely affirming the other person, we open their spirit to a deeper conversation.
Trumbull speaks of taking a train from NYC to CT. Sitting next to him was a younger man, who occasionally pulled a flask of alcohol out of his case and took a swig. From time to time the young man offered Trumbull a drink. Each time Trumbull responded “No thank you.” This went on for quite some time. Finally the young man turned to Trumbull and said,
“You must be a Christian. What do you think of someone like me?”
Trumbull paused, and then said, “It is obvious you are a generous man. Paused some more. “But is that what you want?”
Trumbull could have availed himself of the opportunity to lecture on the evils of alcohol, the poor example he was giving, the negative impact it would make on his heath, lines of reasoning which would have probably closed the man's spirit. But instead, he affirmed the younger man, asked a key question, obtained a sincere, “I don't want that” response, and spent the rest of the trip discussing how the young man could return to his family and start rebuilding his life.
As a result of reading Taking Men Alive, I now look for ways to honestly affirm the people I am next to-and there are always good things in the people around us that can be affirmed-and more times than not we end up discussing spiritual matters. It isn't 100% of the time, and I don't always feel that confident, but God seems to work in spite of my feelings. Trumbull mentions, by the way, that though he did personal soul-winning all his life, it never became easy!
Learning from Trumbull that sharing a Bible promise or giving a Bible study wasn't the first or only goal, I have learned to focus on the person next to me, ask questions, and listen seeking to find that area in which I can genuinely affirm. Starting there, it isn't usually too hard to eventually have the desired conversation. Some of my conversations have been wonderful, and I usually end up knowing the people, have contact information, and sometimes they become my friends on facebook.
The important challenge now is getting contact information to continue the conversation, having something meaningful on hand to give them, and sharing my web site address. I am mainly working on the written stuff right now. Because of weight limitations, I prefer to take something light with me-something printed on two sides, folded in half, for example.
Now for some examples.
Riding home from Alberta, my seat-mate was obviously a Mormon since he was reading an LDS devotional book the entire time I was next to him. I started the conversation by saying, “It isn't every day that I sit next to someone who spends all their time reading a Mormon devotional book. Tell me more about yourself. I quickly learned he was a Mormon Bishop, and I plied him with many questions about his faith and the structure of his church. Eventually he asked me what I did, and asked that I send him info on the church. I have already written him once, and will continue doing so.
On another trip I was sitting next to a young woman flying back from NYC. I asked what she was up to, etc., and eventually we were talking about her life and goals. In the course of the conversation she mentioned she was a Christian. I told her about myself. We talked most of the three or so hours we had. I had her contact information by the time we arrived in Chicago. We have written back and forth several times, and she is a friend on facebook.
On the same trip I decided to take the train from Chicago to South Bend. Just south of the downtown area, a young many entered the train and began looking for a seat. Every seat had someone and no one was moving. I moved over and invited him to sit with me. We began talking. I learned he was from South Bend, but attended a Catholic University in Louisiana. I also learned about his family life and the challenges of a divided home, and the neediness of his mom who is disabled. We talked for the entire trip home, which was three hours. We were still talking when we got off the train. By that time I had his contact information. He is also a friend on facebook and kindly refers to me as his “spiritual mentor.”
Another time I sat next to a Canadian of oriental origins flying from NZ to LA. A university student, we talked about everything under the sun for for many hours. It was easy since we were the only two in an exit row. However, there wasn't a word about God-any god or belief system. Finally she drifted off to sleep. I read for a while and then also drifted off. She woke up about 1.5 hours out of LA and we began talking again. This time I became more assumptive, and stated, “We have talked about everything under the sun and I think I know you a bit by now. But I notice that you haven't said anything about God, which is exceedingly rare these days. Everyone believes something. Where is God in your thinking?” She explained that though her family was Buddhist, she didn't really believe in much of anything. I didn't push anything hard with her, but did my best to encourage her to think clearly and carefully about what she believed since it was only a matter of time before she would believe. Once again, I had her contact information before we parted.
On another trip I was flying from Christchurch, NZ to Auckland. Seated next to me was a young woman. I asked her if she was leaving home, or returning home. She explained it was the former, and asked what I was doing. I explained that I was finally returning home after having spoken on the subject of prayer in churches. She told me of her interest in prayer. I asked if she would be open to some stories about answered prayer. She was. The next 1.5 hours were spent telling her stories virtually non-stop. Finally we were landing. Her response to the stories was that she never realized God had such personal interest in us, and was so willing to answer personal requests.
Another time I was signing up students for a Bible Club at Canterbury University, a secular school in Christchurch, NZ. Many students were coming by and showing interest since we were offering a free “Up and Go” from Sanitarium Health. One young woman came by and bristled at the invitation to join our club. Sensing something was wrong, I asked her if she'd had a bad experience with religion. This quickly elicited a, “You wouldn't believe in God either if you had a Dad like mine. There are eight of us kids, but he is in jail for good reason. A true god would never allow someone like him.” I thought for a moment, and then asked, “How would you like it if someone I was talking to said nasty things about you that were untrue. Would you say that was fair?” “Oh no! I wouldn't like that at all” she declared. “Why,” I asked, “do you believe nasty things about God that are untrue? God had nothing to do with your Dad's actions.” I could tell that her eyes were opening and her spirit was softening. Then she retorted, “But I'm an evolutionist,” as if that would somehow end the conversation. I quickly responded, “I don't have enough faith to be an evolutionist. In fact, as you are standing there, you are living proof there is a god! No doubt about it!” I focused on her. I think she could tell that I cared about what had happened in her life. By the time we stopped talking, I also had her name and contact information.
Another time I was flying from Phoenix, AZ to Chicago. Sitting next to me was a middle aged woman-I no longer know how to describe people since I don't know whether to call my myself “middle-aged” or “old,” which means I tend to call everyone “young”:). We got to talking and I asked her about the purpose of her trip. Learning she was attending a business school in Phoenix and going to a wedding, I inquired about her background. She explained that she had previously worked for one of the premier healthcare IT firms-a firm I personally knew about from my days in recruiting. I knew that if she had worked for them, she was among the best in her field. But I was mystified because she didn't look the part, though I didn't say anything. We also talked about everything under the sun. She also asked about me, which I responded to. Eventually we discussed the relative merit of Christianity since she had had little exposure to it. Towards the end of our conversation she suddenly shared with me how two years previously she had contracted a thyroid deficiency, which had caused her to gain weight uncontrollably, and did I have any suggestions for her. We accordingly spent some time talking about her challenge. By this time we were talking far beyond surface level things. Just before she left she asked me an additional question that thrilled me: “Dan, what is the address of your web site? I want to visit it.” I hadn't even suggested it, but she was asking for it.
Being sincerely interested in my traveling companions-I really do like and care about people, and finding a way to “honestly commend” them, has been the key to these conversations.
Perhaps you now understand why I have been so concerned to find good written materials to pass on to them before we leave the airplane.
Now, please understand that I have spoken of a method to INITIATE a conversation. This method would probably initiate conversations whether they were spiritual or not. Please note I am sincerely interested in the people I am riding next to, I heartily believe God guides the people to sit next to me-I could share stories proving that God causes people to accept new seat assignments, that He also works through me in the conversation, and causes the people to be open. I am accordingly convicted that my primary role is to be His humble instrument and make myself available to Him, and only see the honest commendation approach as a method to sincerely begin conversing with people who might otherwise shun any conversation.
Download this document as a pdf: More on Honest Commendation