Conversations that Count: Charles Spurgeon and the Art of Asking Questions
December 10, 2021
Categories: Evangelism, Fellowship
I have a friend who seems to have a natural ability to strike up a substantive conversation with just about anyone, anywhere. I have often been envious of this ability, and I was surprised when he recently admitted that making conversation is difficult for him. When I asked him how it is that he does so well at it, he said that he has cultivated the practice of asking questions. Then he mentioned another mutual friend who excels at this as someone who has been an example to him, saying of him, “No one can out-question Albert!”
This got me thinking about why I often fail at striking up conversations. I’m naturally an introvert and even more naturally selfish, and these two characteristics make the possibility of good conversation pretty unlikely. I have fought for years to overcome my selfish tendencies to the point that most people who know me are confused when I tell them I’m an introvert. But my point of failure has been that, in my attempt to overcome my weaknesses in order to focus on other people, the focus usually winds up back on me—despite all the talking.
The reason is that I wind up talking a lot about myself.
This is a universal problem for us all. We either don’t like talking to others because we are selfishly introverted, or we love talking to others as long it’s mostly about us!
Philippians 2:3–4 is a foundational exhortation to humility and sacrificial love. There, the Apostle Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others,” and then he goes on to tell believers that this is the same mindset our Lord Jesus had when He humbled Himself by leaving the glory of heaven and taking on humanity in order to die in the place of sinners.
If we apply this mindset to our conversations, it would look like us doing two things. First, we would seek out other people in order to engage them in conversation. We would fight the natural tendency to which so many of us are prone to avoid talking to people, or perhaps only talking to the people with whom we’re comfortable. Second, we would make it a point not to make ourselves the focus of the conversation, but to intentionally focus on the other person.
And the best way to do this is by asking questions.
“The art of simple conversation is a universal problem for us all. We either don’t like talking to others because we are selfishly introverted, or we love talking to others as long it’s mostly about us!
Becoming a good inquirer takes work. It requires you to take a keen interest in the other person and to ask them specific questions. We all know the basics of this. Among men, at least, the number one question asked is, “What do you do for work?” There is nothing wrong with this sort of question, but we must get beyond mere small talk. We can ask questions about the other’s family, their children, their education, the places they’ve lived, their likes, their dislikes. The key is to make our goal to actually care about getting to know them. While we must work hard at asking good questions, we have a lot on our side because, just like our natural tendency is to like to talk about ourselves, so is everyone else’s.
In other words, if you ask good questions, you’ll usually get people talking. Oftentimes, their responses will lead to the opportunity for further probing questions, taking the conversation deeper.
Conversations that Matter
As Christians, we are on a mission of serving others. We should be looking for opportunities to love others, encourage others, and at times we should even be ready to engage others in addressing wrong ideas or sinful actions. When we’re talking with fellow Christians, we should train ourselves to be at ease with asking questions about what the other person has been reading, what they’ve been meditating on, what they got out of the most recent sermon, and what we can be praying about for them. When we’re talking to unbelievers or to people who we don’t know well, we should train ourselves to work toward gospel opportunities in the conversation.
While the church has been looking for ways to help Christians share their faith for decades, from tracts to books to programs and campaigns, it is my contention that if we would just cultivate the art of asking questions, we would find that gospel opportunities will naturally arise in the flow of conversation.
“If we would just cultivate the art of asking questions, we would find that gospel opportunities will naturally arise in the flow of conversation.
In his autobiography, the great 19th-century preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon tells of his own endeavors in the realm of personal evangelism, offering some very encouraging and timeless insights. Notice his intentionality as an inquirer (emphasis added):
Having promised to preach one evening at a certain river-side town, I went to the place early in the day, as I thought I should like to have a little time in a boat on the river. So, hailing the waterman, I made arrangements with him to take me, and, whilst sitting in the boat, wishing to talk to him about religious matters, I began the conversation by asking him about his family. He told me that the cholera had visited his home, and that he had lost no less than thirteen of his relatives, one after another, by death. My question, and the man’s answer, prepared the way for a dialogue somewhat in this fashion:
“Have you, my friend, a good hope of heaven if you should die?”
“Well, sir, I think as how I have.”
“Pray, tell me, then, what your hope is, for no man need ever be ashamed of a good hope.”
“Well, sir, I have been on this here river for five-and-twenty or thirty years, and I don’t know that anybody ever saw me drunk.”
“Oh dear! Oh dear! Is that all you have to trust to?”
“Well, sir, when the cholera was about, and my poor neighbors were bad, I went for the doctor for ‘em, and was up a good many nights, and I do think as how I am as good as most folk that I know.”
Of course, I told him that I was very glad to hear that he had sympathy for the suffering, and that I considered it far better to be charitable than to be churlish; but I did not see how his good conduct could carry him to heaven. Then he said:
“Well, sir, perhaps it can’t; but I think, when I get a little older, I shall give up the boat, and take to going to church, and then I hope that all will be right–won’t it, sir?”
“No”, I answered, “certainly not; your going to church won’t change your heart, or take away your sins. Begin to go to church as soon as possible, but you will not be an inch nearer to heaven if you think that, by attending the sanctuary, you will be saved.”
The poor man seemed perfectly astounded, while I went on knocking down his hopes one after another. So I resumed the dialogue by putting another question to him:
“You have sometimes sinned in your life, have you not?”
“Yes, sir, I have, many a time.”
“On what ground, then do you think that your sins will be forgiven?”
“Well, sir, I have been sorry about them, and I think they are all gone–they don’t trouble me now.”
“Now, my friend, suppose you were to go and to get into debt with the grocer where you deal, and you should say to her, ‘Look here missus, you have a long score against me, I am sorry to say that I cannot pay you for all those goods that I have had; but I’ll tell you what I will do, I’ll never get into your debt anymore.’ She would very soon tell you that was not her style of doing business; and do you suppose that is the way in which you can treat the great God? Do you imagine that he is going to strike out your past sins because you say you will not go on sinning against Him?”
“Well, sir, I should like to know how my sins are to be forgiven. Are you a parson?”
“I preach the gospel, I hope, but I do not go by the name of a parson; I am only a Dissenting minister.”
Then I told him, as plainly as I could, how the Lord Jesus Christ had taken the place of sinners, and how those who trusted in Him, and rested in His blood and righteousness, would find pardon and peace. The man was delighted with the simple story of the cross; he said that he wished he had heard it years before, and then added,
“To tell you the truth, master, I did not feel quite easy, after all, when I saw those poor creatures taken away to the graveyard; I did think there was something I wanted, but I did not know what it was.”
I cannot say what was the final result of our conversation, but I had the satisfaction of knowing that I had at least set before him God’s way of salvation in language he could easily understand.
Some simple questions that showed genuine concern for a man beforehand unknown to Spurgeon opened up the opportunity for more serious questions to follow. This led to a rich conversation that climaxed in the sharing of the gospel.
How often do we pass up these opportunities because we remain silent or never move beyond small talk? By God’s grace, let’s make it our goal to be the kind of people about whom others say, “No one can out-question them!”
About the Author
Lloyd Murphy is the pastor-teacher at Firm Foundation Bible Church in Prescott Valley, Arizona. A northern-Arizona native, Lloyd is a graduate of The Master’s Seminary in Sun Valley, California. He and his wife Christie have four children, Caleb, Anna, Leah, and Joel.
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What is “Expository Preaching”?
"Expository preaching" simply means working hard to understand God's meaning in the text, and then applying His truth to our hearts and lives. We are committed to exactly this kind of preaching—verse by verse, book by book, right through the Bible, week in and week out.