By Eddie Pipkin

I came across an article on the Medium website last week that I thought got to the heart of getting to know people.  Its author has discovered “the one perfect question” to ask if you want to find out as much about a person as you can as quickly as possible.  And it’s not “What church committee would you most like to serve on next year?”  It is [and don’t worry, I promise to reveal it in all its glory if you keep reading – that’s how a conversational tease works . . . it keeps you hanging on in anticipation of the big reveal] . . . it is an entry portal to meaningful conversation.  And if there is one thing I am more and more convinced we desperately need more and more of . . . it’s meaningful conversation.

Conversation is intimately related to relationship.

Relationships are the key to all effective ministry.

As we have noted before, focusing on relationships can and will revitalize ministry at big churches and small churches, struggling churches and transitioning churches, virtual churches and in-person churches.  Relationships were key to Jesus’s narrative, and they should be key to ours.  They should define the way design and implement every ministry initiative (does this event, program, or activity enhance relationship building?).  They should be the number one criteria for missions (does this missions project give us a chance to build relationships with the people we will be serving?).  They are a better metric for success than the traditional metrics (and even figuring out how to measure our progress in building relationships give us an opportunity to do thoughtful work).  They are essential for spiritual growth (and why Wesley had the epiphany of the criticality of accountable small groups to promote discipleship).  We have written a lot recently about the pivot to mentoring and coaching that can take local church discipleship to a new level – it’s all about relationships.

All of these ideas begin with and/or provide opportunities for conversation.  Conversation is the platform by which common ground is found, ideas are exchanged, shared experience is shared, needs are expressed, and dreams are dreamed.

So, why do we struggle so hard to get meaningful conversations going?  We should be experts at this, it being part of our discipleship call to hospitality (and ultimately evangelism).  Yet, look no further than the traditional Sunday morning meet-and-greet minute-and-a-half during worship for a microcosm of what conversational interaction defaults to:

  • We awkwardly engage the people we don’t know well with clumsy small talk.
  • After we have checked off the minimum of awkward exchanges to feel like we have done our duty, we gravitate to the folks in our familiar circle to relax into more comfortable conversations.

We do the same thing when we show up for small groups, service groups, and church wide events.  It’s only natural.  Even with people we see on a regular basis (people on committees with which we serve or people in small groups which are designed by their very nature to promote deeper relationships), we find it hard to break through to subjects more profound than weather or sports.

A small, focused initiative can deliver outsized impacts.  Imagine that you went all in on this idea for the next three months (or realistically, since you’re already in full holiday planning mode at this point, maybe the first three months of 2021):

Our church will routinely stress the importance of developing relationships.

Having stressed the importance of developing relationships, we will challenge people to engage in more and deeper conversations.

Just that simple – then watch the impacts.  Of course, the simple premise needs some more complex support:

  • Give people tools and skills development for having great conversations and building new and deeper relationships. This can be accomplished through workshops, online tutorials, suggested reading lists and videos.
  • Give people a specific challenge they can accept with a catchy slogan and a pledge they can sign, maybe a button or a t-shirt they can wear. Make a banner.  Make it fun.  Integrate the message into your regular activities and communication.
  • Give people metrics by which to measure their progress. Perhaps a ‘conversation counter’ where they can record their progress, perhaps an online check-in portal where they can keep track just like you see with those fundraising websites (but with great conversations instead of dollars donated).
  • Give people examples. Show them what you’re looking for with skits, videos, testimonials, illustrations and then give them opportunities to share their own stories as they explore the challenge.  Many of you will be familiar with NPR’s Story Corps.  It’s a great model for sharing with impact.
  • Give people incentives to get involved. Offer events that celebrate this initiative!  Maybe “Conversation Day,” which could be a kind of speed dating for conversations with provided conversation starters or a conversational scavenger hunt (a good candidate for something to do virtually or even by email or snail mail).  Offer some highly visible prizes for the folks who embrace the concept: “I conversated!” t-shirts or buttons or designated “conversation volunteers” who would be people that would volunteer for other people to practice their newly-acquired conversational skills on.  The fun and creative interactivity could be endless.

This can be a great refresher course for leaders (professional and volunteer) as well.  Remembering how important listening is to this process can be a solid reminder that our go-to conversations can cling to the surface in predictable ways:

  • We are always recruiting.
  • We are always gladhanding.
  • We are always promoting.
  • We forget the difference between scripted faux engagement and genuine engagement.

The shorthand for the above bullet list is to take an honest look at whether our conversational exchanges are ultimately about us and our priorities (personal or institutional) or about the people we are engaging.  People on the receiving end of our engagement can differentiate the truth pretty quickly.  Of course, the trajectory of priorities often intersect, but it is meaningful conversation that locates the intersection points.

As far as conversational gambits and “the ideal question” for really getting to know someone, I have teased you long enough.  Kristie Taylor, in her blog post on Medium titled “10 Small Habits That Reveal a Lot About Anyone” says to ask them, “What does your ideal day look like?”  It’s a shortcut to understanding their core concerns, as she writes:

If you want insight into a whole lot of answers about a person quickly, ask this question. You’ll figure out their passions, hobbies, and priorities, all in one.

I asked my boyfriend this exact question when we first started dating. He replied that he’d spend the day playing tennis, grabbing lunch with his family, and hanging out with his dog. “Cool, he loves tennis, animals, and values family time,” I made a mental note.

If a person replies, “wow, I have no idea what I’d do” or “I’d fly to Greece and lay on the beach all day,” they probably don’t have much free time to themselves.

Not knowing what to say and having an unrealistic, grandiose answer means they’ve lost touch with what makes them the happiest.

Taylor is not writing about ministry; she’s writing about personal relationships, but the principle holds true for anyone we are getting to know in any context.  It can be tweaked to help people clarify their thoughts on their discipleship journey, for instance: “What do you think your ideal discipleship journey would look like?”  People are often on that journey without a clear conception of where they’d like to arrive five or ten years down the road.

And here’s another article with some ideas for conversation starters, extenders, and deepeners: “49 Questions to Ask Instead of ‘What Do You Do?’”  Chelsea Rustrum is writing about tech worker get-togethers in Silicon Valley and how people are so often pitching themselves, trying to make a good first impression, that they miss opportunities to really get to know the person on the other side of the dialogue: “We’ve productivized ourselves to the maximum – so much so that we’ve become the products of production.”  Whoa . . . that’s meta, and perhaps spot on for a generation that has reached maturity in the spotlight of social media, which, after all, is another place that trades deep conversation for surface appearances.  Rustrum argues for a different approach (and while she, like Taylor whom I quoted earlier, is writing about personal and professional relationships, really how different are ministry relationships?):

Let’s take back our power. Let’s make abiding eye contact. Let’s drop the idea that connecting is too intimate and will be taken the wrong way. Let’s instead, ask meaningful, provocative, and open-ended questions. Let’s see and be seen. This is where magic happens.

Some of the questions she suggests are fun, some would be delightfully loopy in a church setting (and thus maybe perfect), and some open thoughtful possibilities:

  • What’s your favorite emoji and when do you use it? (Fun.)
  • How do you plan to defend yourself during the zombie apocalypse? (Loopy.)
  • What’s been on your mind lately? (Open-ended and full of possibilities.)

Read them all and try some out on your leadership group or small group soon.

There are many easily accessible resources available to promote conversational interactivity.  I have long argued that churches would do well to help their folks hone their conversational skills, rather than just assuming that people know how to do this as part of being a human.  Many people really don’t.  Many are downright intimidated at the prospect, but the fact that they have come out to join you in worship or participate in a small group means they are open to trying.  We should encourage that.  It’s part of the Lifestyle of Hospitality to which followers of Jesus are called.

What does your local church do to encourage deep and meaningful conversations?  Do you stress this as part of relationship building?  Do you provide space for it to happen?  Do you train your folks in conversational and relationship building skills?  Share one good idea you’ve experienced (or wanted to try out) for starting conversations (and thus be a blessing to your fellow readers).