Apparently, Sisyphus was a jerk; but as myths go, he is the best. Before Sisyphus died, he tested his wife’s love. He made her promise (she didn’t want to do it) that, after his death, she would dump his naked dead body (trust me, she didn’t want to do it) in the town square. She didn’t want to do it; but he made her promise, and so she did it. Sisyphus thought that if she would do this terrible thing that went against all human decency just because he asked, she must truly love him. As I said, he was a jerk. In any case, Sisyphus woke up on the shores of the river Styx, naked and ashamed (but that’s what happens when your wife dumps your dead naked body in the town square). So, Sisyphus complained to the dark-powers-that-be that he ought to be allowed to return to the land of the living for a time to scold his wife for such disrespect and for such blatant lack of love. And the powers-that-be agreed, and Sisyphus was sent home. But the deal was, one scolding and then straight back to Hades he would go; but Sisyphus decided he liked it here better, and so he stayed. Finally, one of the gods dragged him back to Hades. As a punishment for this ploy, Sisyphus was made to roll a huge boulder up a steep hill. But that wasn’t the punishment. As Sisyphus neared the top of the hill, the incline grew increasingly steeper; and when Sisyphus reached that point, the rock would always slip out of his grasp and roll back down the hill. Sisyphus would then walk down the hill, gather his rock and start all over again; and he would do this day in and day out for all eternity. That was the punishment: unending drudgery and despair without any hope of salvation. Here is the moral: Sisyphus should never have tested his wife like this. He should have just asked her if she would myth him when he was gone.
Don Everts has written a small book entitled, The Reluctant Witness: Discovering the Delight of Spiritual Conversations (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Il, 2019). The book features new research from the Barna organization on such topics as: “Changes in spiritual conversations over the past 25 years,” “How many Christ followers regularly share their faith (and how many don’t)” and “How the focus of our sharing has changed over the years.” In other words, there are a lot of interesting tidbits in the book. But the best part about the book is when Everts debunks five common myths that most Christ followers believe about sharing their faith (and just like that, using Sisyphus to introduce this post makes sense!). While Everts shares five myths, in this post I will focus on just three of them.
But before we get into the myths, note the title again. The book is intended for those of us who are hesitant to share our faith with others. He does also speak to those who are eager to share (he labels them “eager conversationalists), but most of the book is designed to encourage reluctant conversationalists to enter into spiritual conversations. And note the very first way he does that. He invites us to have “spiritual conversations.” He does not invite us to “do evangelism.” He doesn’t even invite us to be witnesses to the people around us. He doesn’t even invite us to share our faith or to share the gospel. Instead, he invites us to have “spiritual conversations,” by which he means part “evangelism” (but without the pressure of asking for a decision), part “being a witness” (but without the stress of following the outline of the four spiritual laws), and part “sharing your faith” (without the trauma of having to know things beyond your own experience). In other words: it’s a conversation and only a conversation. It is not a sales meeting or a high-pressured debate for the person’s soul. If I asked you if you could go out and do evangelism or witness to your unsaved neighbors or share your faith with a stranger, most of you would balk (if not downright refuse). But if I asked you to have a spiritual conversation with a friend, you might be willing to do that. Oldsmobile used to have an advertising tagline: “this is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Everts wants us to know that “having spiritual conversations is not your father’s way of doing evangelism.” In a nutshell, it’s sharing your faith without the stress; and who would object to that. Okay, on to the myths!
Myth number 1: “Spiritual conversations take place in special places, during special moments, by special people.” And this myth is busted! Here’s the truth (page 69):
“More often than not, spiritual conversations happen with the regular people who are in your life. In fact, 9 out of 10 folks who have had a life-changing spiritual conversation say they had it with someone they knew well (31%) or very well (57%). In other words, life change happens because they have a spiritual conversation with everyday folks in their lives.”
Most people fear sharing their faith. They feel religious conversations always create tension and arguments. They dislike how Christianity has been politicized. They feel like they don’t know enough about their faith to share it well. They fear they will be labeled as a religious kook. They struggle because they don’t know how to talk about their faith without sounding weird or judgmental. As a result, the whole process seems way beyond our capabilities and even scary. But what if you were talking, not to a stranger, but to someone you know? What if you weren’t trying to hurry them along to say the prayer, but simply to have a conversation about life? What if you didn’t have to be specially trained and armed, but could just be yourself? Here’s the good news: the most effective spiritual conversations happen between two ordinary people simply having a conversation in the backyard. There is no prep needed. There is no four-spiritual-laws booklet hidden away, waiting for the right minute to make its appearance. There is no stress beforehand. It’s just a conversation between friends in which you insert how Jesus makes a difference in your life. And anyone can do that.
The big takeaway: it is so important that we as Christ followers who have been commissioned to share God’s good news with the world start by having friends who are non-Christians. So important.
Myth number 2: “In a spiritual conversation, I need to be able to give all the right answers.” And this myth is busted! Without a doubt, allowing people to ask their questions is part of the process, but having the right answer on the tip of your tongue is neither necessary nor good. In fact, it can actually thwart the process. Everts shares the sad story of a couple who went to a small-group meeting at a church. The meeting was advertised as a place seekers could come and ask their questions in a safe and enjoyable environment. But when they got there, far from being a safe place to ask questions, they felt it was a place where the answers were shoved down their throats. They never went back. See, for them, at this point in their journey, they didn’t want answers as much as they wanted to be heard and to have their fears and doubts respected. Everts writes (page 77):
“Asking lots of questions is a natural part of someone seeking more about the faith. Often, rather than getting a crisp, memorized answer, non-Christians are more interested in Christians being willing to give them space to ask their questions and being willing to journey with them honestly and humbly toward answers.”
The big takeaway: Our goal is not always to provide answers, but to help the seeker find the right path so they can discover the truth for themselves. Self-discovery is a far better way to learn truth than being told the right answer right out of the gate. Sometimes, the best approach is simply to listen, to be humble, to be patient and to join the seeker in searching for answers.
Another big take away: Sometimes going slower as we share our faith is the best way to go. We need to give space to allow our conversation partner the time to ask all their questions and to seek all their answers. And as they do this, we can stand alongside them, cheering them on and pointing them in the right direction. Remember, we are not the one driving this bus. Let the Holy Spirit do his job in his timing.
Myth number 3: “Spiritual conversations are burdensome duties that are, in the end, painful and regrettable.” And this myth is busted. Everts goes out of his way to demonstrate that (and he has research to support all of these observations):
- Laughter is a common occurrence when people are having a spiritual conversation.
- Most of the questions that were asked by non-Christians were not threatening or overly difficult; in fact, most people felt they were sufficiently equipped to handle them.
- Many people report feeling peace, joy and even exhilaration when sharing their faith (while stress, shame and embarrassment barely made the list).
- The vast majority of spiritual conversations do not include conflict. They are conversations with friends, not debates with enemies.
- Most people feel a sense of happiness and joy after they have shared their faith with someone.
Not only that, but spiritual conversations are very effective. Everts writes (page 82):
“Spiritual conversations, it turns out, are actually fruitful things. About one-third of all adults in America claim that they have personally made a ‘big change’ in their life because of a conversation about faith–a full 35%.”
In fact, Everts goes on to say that 38% of Christ followers who shared their faith with someone reported that their conversation partner came to faith (38%!). We all know that if you build it, they will come, but now we also know that if you share the gospel, they will believe it at least 38% of the time!
The big takeaway: Relax and enjoy! If Everts is right, our fear that if we get into a spiritual conversation that we will soon find ourselves neck deep in a huge argument is terribly mistaken. Instead, we should look forward to these conversations and enjoy the ride. Remember, we are not engaging people to make them sign on the dotted line, we are there to see where the Holy Spirit wants to take them and to participate in any way we can along the way.
Let me be honest. Most of my life, I have pictured evangelism as something akin to Sisyphus’ rolling that rock up that hill. Evangelism was a type of punishment (or at least a public shaming). Evangelism was a lot of work with no payoff. Evangelism was to be dreaded. Evangelism was no fun at all. But Don Everts and the Barna team paint a very different picture of what evangelism looks like. Evangelism is a rewarding conversation. Evangelism is fun. Evangelism makes you feel good. Evangelism is effective. And all of that happens when we tone down our rhetoric and simply seek to have a spiritual conversation with someone. And that is the point of the book: having a spiritual conversation is not only life-changing and deeply meaningful, but also fun. With that insight, even Sisyphus would say, “Now, we are rocking and rolling!”