Church relationships ought to be growing deep and wide. Loving people with increasing transparency and loving people different than you. Here's a helpful article from the folks at Matthias Media about that second one: loving broadly.
How to talk to strangers
It’s Sunday morning. The church service has just ended and you’re standing around, helping yourself to some morning tea. You see a new person and think, I should go over and talk to them. I’m supposed to be welcoming. But the whole thing is rather terrifying: Even if you did go over, what do you do? What do you say? What if your natural tendency towards social awkwardness turns them off and they end up leaving because of you?
Then someone you know comes over and immediately engages you in conversation. Or someone else talks to the new person. You’re off the hook. You feel relieved. But you also feel guilty that you feel relieved. Maybe you even silently promise God, Next time for sure!—even as you dread that next time.
If this is you, I totally understand. Talking to strangers is hard. It puts you outside your comfort zone. It can make you feel anxious and vulnerable and weird. Maybe you worry that you will make a fool of yourself, that the stranger will be unpleasant to talk to, or that the stranger will judge you negatively. I’ve felt all those things.
Not only am I not naturally good at talking to strangers, I am not naturally good at talking to people. But along the way I learned some people skills—mostly from watching other people who are better at this than I am, but also from continually being thrown into situations where I don’t know anyone. Here are some things I’ve gleaned.
Principles for human relationships
Before we get into it, it’s worth remembering a few important truths. Firstly, a stranger is a human being—created in the image of God with all the weaknesses and foibles of fallen humanity. It means that, in a way, there’s nothing to be afraid of: this person is like you. Not exactly like you, of course; God made us all individuals. But it does mean you have something in common.
Secondly, even though it’s helpful to acknowledge your fears and anxieties about talking to new people, remember that it’s not about you; it’s about them. If we are to follow Christ’s example of other-person-centredness in denying ourselves, picking up our crosses and following him (Mark 8:34), we need to push aside those worries and shift the focus off ourselves and onto the other person.
Finally, you’ve got to remember the goal—and what it’s not. You’re not doing this to score points with God. You’re not doing this to impress your minister, or other brothers and sisters in Christ. You’re not even doing this so that you can share the gospel with this stranger (although that is a very good thing to do!). You’re simply getting to know the other person so that you can better love and serve them in whatever stage they’re at (Christian or non-Christian), because they too are a part of God’s creation. They are the “neighbour” you are to love (Mark 12:31), and everything you do for them must come from this starting point.
The art of conversation
Now that we’ve dealt with the principles, let’s talk about practicalities.
1. Make the most of small talk
Small talk can be boring, but it’s a necessary step in the relationship-building process. It helps the other person feel more comfortable with you, and it gradually opens the doors that lead to trust and empathy. So start by introducing yourself and asking some surface level questions—things like, “Is this your first time here?”, “How did you hear about us?” and even “Do you live/work close by?” Note that these are all questions the other person would find easy to answer because they don’t require much thought.
From there, you can move onto other more general get-to-know you questions—for example, “So what occupies your time during the week?” (less pointed than “What do you do for work?” as not everyone works), “How’s your weekend been so far?” or even “What are you up to today?” The aim is to learn about the other person and fill out your mental picture of who they are and how you can love and serve them. It helps if you can find points of commonality and connection—for example, you’re both teachers, you’re both into Marvel superhero movies, or you’re both parents of toddlers—as these help build your relationship further.
2. Practise curiosity
Small talk is good for information, but it’s less helpful for understanding a person—who they are and what makes them tick. So be open and curious about your new acquaintance. Dig a little deeper where possible. For example, if you learn that your new conversation partner is an English teacher, ask them how long they’ve been teaching, how they got into teaching in the first place, what they like about teaching, and what they find challenging (and why). If they’re a parent of three kids under five, ask them what they enjoy about parenting, what sort of things they find difficult, and what tricks they do to juggle everything.
Notice that these questions are more open-ended and a bit harder to answer because they require the responder to think. (Also, note that the person you’re talking to may not want to think, so tread gently.) But the questions are helpful as their answers reveal more about your new acquaintance’s inner life—their thoughts, feelings and values. That’s the most interesting part for me; they make people endlessly fascinating. And if you find a person interesting in some way, it’s easier to be curious about them. But make sure your curiosity is genuine and not stemming from unhelpful motives. People tend to sense when your heart isn’t really in it.
3. Listen, listen, listen
Thirdly, be quick to listen. This seems obvious, but some people are more interested in getting to the part where they get to speak. Reiterating what I said earlier, it’s not about you; it’s about them. You’re getting to know them. So get out of the way. Listen to what they have to say (even if you disagree with it). Make sure you’ve heard and understood them. Practise active listening where appropriate—making eye contact, nodding, and even repeating what they’ve said back to them so that they know you’ve heard them: “So for you, the best part of being a teacher is getting to introduce new things to your kids and inspiring them to be creative. That’s so cool!” Ask more questions—for clarification or about things you’ve always wondered. Remember the goal of loving and serving the other.
That said, try not to make the conversation an interrogation. If you’re the one continually peppering them with questions, things can feel a little one-sided. It’s okay to back off a bit and volunteer something about yourself—particularly if it connects with the other person’s experience: “I love it when teachers do stuff like that! My Year 5 teacher would get us to do these drawings and then encourage us to write stories about them.” If that leads to them asking you questions, all the better.
4. Bring it back to Jesus
It’s tricky in an initial conversation, but try to discern whether your new acquaintance is a Christian or not. In a church setting this topic arises more naturally than if you’re meeting in a park or a school’s parents night, because you can ask questions like, “Are you looking to join a church?” or “Are you interested in finding out more about Christianity or meeting up to read the Bible with someone?”
If it turns out that they’re already a Christian, that’s good news, because you’ve just connected with a fellow sibling in Christ. Maybe ask them for their testimony—how they became a Christian and how God has been at work in their lives.
If they aren’t yet a Christian, that’s also good news, because now you’ve got a natural path into a conversation about Jesus and what they think of him. Again, the important thing is to listen and understand where the other person is coming from, and why they think what they think. God may bless you with an opportunity to share the gospel—but he might not, because the person may not be ready for it. That’s okay. The important thing at this stage is that they know that you’re a Christian and that you’ve heard what they think about Christianity.1
Some people may not be responsive to your efforts. Some may even be hostile. But that’s okay: your job is to be faithful and let God do the rest. After all, he’s the one who’s truly in control. Remember the goal and make the most of the opportunities he gives you.
Dealing with challenges
Not all conversations go well. Here are a few tips for when things become tricky:
- If the person is difficult to talk to—closed off, disinterested or even hostile—don’t take it personally. Feel free to end the conversation, particularly if you’re running out of things to say. Make a graceful exit—“Please excuse me. I need to speak to Laura before she leaves. It was lovely meeting you!”—or introduce them to someone else.
- Look for other directions to take the conversation when it starts to peter out. Often it will—particularly if the two of you don’t naturally click, your new acquaintance doesn’t reciprocate your interest, or they aren’t a particularly good conversationalist. Mentally tuck away little tidbits you find interesting and return to them in due course.
- Don’t feel like you need to talk to everyone. That’s too overwhelming. Talk to just one new person and get to know them. It’s achievable and it removes some of the pressure. Also, if you don’t feel like talking, make use of the classic tactic of keeping the other person talking.
- Know your limits. Meeting new people can be tiring, even for those who enjoy chatting. Pay attention to signs that you’re flagging and give yourself a break. Remember, the goal is not to work the room; it’s to love.
- If you, like me, are bad with names and faces, make sure that later on you write down the name of the person you were talking to and any other things you learned about them. Put it in your phone or Growth Group Notebook—somewhere you can refer to when, next week, you inevitably forget the person’s name and everything about them.
- Pray for your new acquaintance and for the struggles they are currently facing (if they shared those things with you). That also helps you remember them, plus it gives you something to talk to them about the next time you see them.
It’s hard to talk to strangers. But the Christian life is often about doing the hard thing for the sake of others, because that’s what Jesus did: while we were his enemies, he died for us in order to reconcile us to God (Rom 5:10). As we follow his example and lay down our lives for others—loving and serving those around us, Christian and non-Christian alike—God is at work, changing and shaping their hearts and ours. You never know what may happen when you connect with strangers; some of them may actually end up as your friends.
1. These two things are actually points 1-2 in Tim Keller’s list of tips for evangelism. The points are all steps along a continuum: Keller says to focus initially on 1-4, and then, if appropriate, move onto 5-8 and even 9-10.