How do you have a conversation with someone who is intent on proving Christianity wrong and won’t accept the Bible as a source of authority? How can you artfully regain control of discussions, keeping them moving forward in constructive ways, comfortably and graciously maneuvering through the minefields of a challenging dialogue to get people thinking about Jesus?
Bible Gateway interviewed Gregory Koukl (@gregkoukl) about his book, Tactics (2nd Edition): A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Zondervan, 2019).
What does being a good gardener have to do with effectively defending the Christian faith?
Gregory Koukl: Defending our faith—showing that our convictions are sound, reasonable, and believable—is part of the process of evangelism. It starts with the first words of our first conversation with someone and ends when that person trusts Christ. That process consists of two phases, one long and the other short.
Think for a moment about this obvious truism: Before there can be any harvest, there always has to be a season of gardening. Fruitful harvest, in other words, is always dependent on diligent spadework: sowing, watering, weeding, nurturing. That’s the long season. The short season is the harvest, a task that’s easy once the fruit is ripe.
In John 4:35–38, Jesus himself talks about a season of sowing that precedes a season of reaping. He identifies one field but distinguishes between two different seasons—sowing and reaping, gardening and harvesting. He identifies one team, but distinguishes between two types of workers—those who sow and those who reap, those who garden and those who harvest.
Some Christians are convinced we should try to get to the gospel in every encounter. Go for the gold. Press for the decision. Close the deal. I think the impulse is right-hearted, of course, but it’s wrongheaded for a good reason. Most people we encounter are not ripe for harvest. Don’t get me wrong. Harvesting is critical. There would be no kingdom expansion without it. But there would be no harvesting without good gardening, so without the spadework, there’s no kingdom growth, either.
That’s why when I’m in a conversation I hope will lead to spiritual matters, I never have it as an immediate objective to lead that person to Christ. Instead, I make it my modest goal to try, as I like to put it, to put a stone in an unbeliever’s shoe. I focus my efforts on giving him just one thing to think about. I don’t worry about the endgame, but instead try to do some spadework.
Years ago, I realized I was not a harvester but a gardener, and I’m convinced most Christians are, too, because that’s where most of the important work is done. The more gardeners we have, the bigger the harvest is going to be. Then both “he who sows and he who reaps may rejoice together” (John 4:36) in the bountiful result.
When I realized that good gardening is the key to a good harvest, my approach began to shift. If I could be a better gardener, I thought, and also teach others to garden better, then eventually the harvest will be better too. Pretty simple. That’s the purpose of the game plan I outline in Tactics.
What do you mean that engagements of Christians sharing their faith “should look more like diplomacy than D-Day”?
Gregory Koukl: Fifty years ago, Christian words and Christian doctrines made sense to people, more or less, even if folks didn’t always believe them or, if believing, didn’t live them out. Clearly, the doorkeepers of culture back then were increasingly post-Christian, but they had not become anti-Christian, as they are now. People don’t understand our ideas, so they don’t understand our message—which to them seems obsolete, antiquated, and irrelevant.
This environment requires the gentler skills of an ambassador, not the forceful pronouncements of a preacher. This is precisely where the tactical game plan comes in. It’s the artful method that makes it possible to maneuver with patience and grace in challenging, volatile situations.
Learn more about being an ambassador of the Christian faith through the weekly devotional, 'How to Live the Bible.'
What are the virtues of being an ambassador when defending the Christian faith?
Gregory Koukl: A diplomat is able to navigate smoothly and graciously through hazardous encounters. The ambassador model I advocate in Tactics trades more on friendly curiosity—a kind of relaxed diplomacy—than on confrontation.
Representing Christ in this way requires three skills. First, Christ’s ambassadors need the basic knowledge necessary for the task. They must know the central message of God’s kingdom and something about how to respond to the obstacles they’ll encounter on their mission.
However, it’s not enough for followers of Jesus to have an accurately informed mind. Our knowledge must be tempered with the wisdom that makes our message clear and persuasive. This requires tactical skill rather than brute force.
Finally, our character can make or break our mission. Knowledge and wisdom are packaged in a person. If that person does not embody the virtues of the Sovereign she serves, she’ll undermine her message and handicap her efforts.
These three skills—knowledge, an accurately informed mind; wisdom, an artful method; and character, an attractive manner—play a part in every effective encounter we have with a nonbeliever. The second skill, tactical wisdom, is the main focus of the Tactics book.
How can Christians effectively share their faith with someone who is intent on proving them wrong and won’t accept the Bible as a source of authority?
Gregory Koukl: The best approach is to follow Paul’s pattern found in Colossians 4:5–6: “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.”
Notice three elements in Paul’s injunction. First, he says, “Be smart.” Make the most of the moment, but watch your steps. Come in slowly, under the radar. Be shrewd, not blunt. Next, he says, “Be nice.” Show warmth. Probe gently. Be calm and patient. Remember, if anyone gets mad, you’ll lose. Finally, he says, “Be tactical.” Adjust to the individual. Tailor your comments to his special situation. Each circumstance is different. Each person is unique. Treat them that way.
Remember, Jesus took his time and treated each person as an individual. He carefully weighed his words to be sensitive to his audience and to the unique circumstances he faced. Yes, he eventually got to the good news, but first he gardened.
What is the Columbo tactic you write about?
Gregory Koukl: Many Christians are uncomfortable with initiating conversations about Christ in our current hostile environment. They’re understandably nervous about getting into a fight, and they feel their knowledge in apologetics is just not up to the task. Others may have gained plenty of information from blogs, books, classes, or conferences, yet still don’t know how to get their knowledge into play in a productive, diplomatic way.
The Columbo tactic solves those problems, providing the missing bridge from the content to the conversation while at the same time providing a tremendous amount of safety for the Christian in otherwise risky situations. It provides a step-by-step plan to enable any Christian—brand new convert or experienced believer—to initiate conversations in a comfortable way that has a proven track record for getting great results.
The tactic is named after Lieutenant Columbo, a brilliant TV detective from a bygone era who had a clever way of solving a crime. He went on the offensive in an inoffensive and disarming way with carefully selected questions.
This approach has many advantages. Questions can be excellent conversation starters. They’re interactive by nature, inviting others to participate in dialogue. They’re neutral, protecting you from getting preachy, helping you make headway without stating your case. Questions buy valuable time.
Finally, they’re essential to keeping you in the driver’s seat of the conversation even when the other person is doing most of the talking.
Jesus understood the power of a well-placed query. Hundreds of his questions are recorded in the Gospels. Whenever Jesus asked a question, though, he had a purpose. In the same way, the Columbo tactic is most powerful when you have a plan.
There are three basic ways to use Columbo, each launched by a different kind of question. Sometimes I simply want to gather information. Other times, I ask a question to reverse the burden of proof—to encourage the other person to give the reasons for his views. Finally, I use questions to make a point by leading the conversation in a specific direction. These three steps of the game plan give us the best chance of “making the most of the opportunity,” as Paul put it.
How do you want people to use your book?
Gregory Koukl: New readers should start with the basic game plan in the first section of the book. It’ll help them get started quickly, allowing them to ease into the shallow end of the pool with virtually no risk.
Even seasoned readers of Tactics, though, will find a host of new insights, maneuvers, and strategies in this second edition. They should look closely at the six new chapters while not neglecting the earlier material, since so much of that has been reworked, updated, and improved.
Here’s my most important piece of parting the advice about using the fully revised 2nd edition of Tactics. Take whatever you learn and put it into play as soon as possible. I promise you, it’s easier than you think and it’s really effective. Always remember, if you don’t do it, it don’t work!
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Gregory Koukl: Lately, 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 has been a big encouragement to me. Walking with Christ in a fallen world means constantly facing difficulties, hardships, and challenges. Paul’s advice in his famous “weight of glory” passage reminds me that in light of eternity, my afflictions are indeed “momentary” and “light,” and the hardships themselves are the very things God is using to produce for me glory beyond comparison.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway?
Gregory Koukl: I really appreciate Bible Gateway’s commitment to communicating biblical truths to the Body of Christ in an easy and accessible way. Its focus on the Word of God is central to everything Bible Gateway does. Plus, the interviews are great.
Tactics (2nd Edition) is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Gregory Koukl holds MA degrees in both apologetics and philosophy. He’s spoken on over 70 university campuses and hosted his own radio talk show for 27 years defending “Christianity worth thinking about.” Greg is founder and president of Stand to Reason (str.org) and serves as adjunct professor of Christian apologetics at Biola University. He’s the author of Tactics (2nd Edition) and The Story of Reality.
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