Coffee Shop Conversations. Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Jesus Without Being a Jerk. A Book Review.

My copy :)

My copy 🙂

Today’s book review is for “Coffee Shop Conversations: Making the Most of Spiritual Small Talk.” I had the pleasure of interacting extensively with the authors, Dale and Jonalyn Fincher, over at their blog Soulation. (See here for an explanation of that interaction). So when their new book popped up as a Speakeasy offering, I jumped on  the chance to review it.

I had another reason for ordering this particular book, too: I was genuinely hoping for some inspiration and guidance. As I’ve been soul-searching through my Christian walk and practices this year, I’ve been remembering how enthusiastic I used to be about talking to people about Jesus. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable sharing my own faith, exactly. I’m still unapologetic about being Christian, but as it’s been evolving pretty drastically over the past few years or so, I’ve gotten a little more guarded about discussing it. Part of that is just a reluctance to put myself in situations where I might be asked clarifying questions that I am in the process of re-thinking myself. Something as basic as “what denomination do you belong to?” for instance, opens up whole vistas of awkward explanation. I am less sure of everything, and so less inclined to make statements.

And partly it’s just fatigue at having to constantly defend it, because there are so many poor examples of Christians out there, who inevitably draw media, like tweens to a Beiber concert. And so I’m wary of the assumptions people make when I use the word “Christian” or even “Jesus.” This dynamic was always in play, but it’s gotten more acute after some negative experiences with Christians in my own community. I feel that in defending Jesus, somehow, to some small extent, I am inevitably defending these people, and I have no interest in defending these people.

So, in ordering this book, which I knew to be written by two unapologetic evangelicals whom I genuinely respect, and who also write a lot about spiritual abuse, though that’s not a central topic of this book, I was hoping somehow to renew some lost spark, rekindle the old enthusiasm. I was wondering if it were possible to re-discover some aspect of evangelicalism that I could still believe in.

That’s a long intro to a book review, but I thought it might be important to understand my motivations for reading the book in order to put my opinions about it in context.

So, the short version is – if you are an evangelical Christian (or any Christian) who feels deeply uncomfortable and anxious about sharing your faith, and also vaguely guilty about how little you actually do share your faith, if you are fearful that the fact that you have not prayed all (or any) of your friends to Christ reflects badly on your relationship with Jesus, you should definitely, definitely read this book. You should absolutely read this book if you can relate to any of the following statements:

“Chipmunks remind us of the way we used to approach evangelism, treating people as mission projects, scurrying out to them only to hurry back to the safety of our den.” – pg. 13

“Layered on top of my concern that my friends were headed to hell, I was motivated by guilt. If I didn’t share immediately and directly, I would disappoint God and miss my sole purpose as a young Christian.” – pg. 19

“We’ve come to wonder how many of our friends, when “conversions” did happen, prayed the sinner’s prayer to soothe our evangelical fervor.” – pg. 19

“Perhaps you can relate to the fevered feeling to share Christ and discharge your duty.” – pg. 21

“One honest friend admits that talking about his faith is like intellectual arm wrestling. “If I don’t crush them, I’ve lost. If I budge toward them, they’ve  won.”” – pg. 21

If you can relate to any or all of those statements, then the Finchers understand your predicament. They were both raised in conservative Christian denominations and homes, struggled with the tensions common in that culture, and they are speaking to other Christians within that culture who feel the same tensions. So if you fall into that category, then this book was written for you, and the Finchers have done a smashing job. They are honest, insightful, compassionate, vulnerable, and tough in a smart, loving way.

I found it very engaging, even when I was arguing with it.

I found it very engaging, even when I was arguing with it.

The Finchers succeed in laying out an approach to evangelism that satisfies the evangelical need for sharing the faith, and also minimizes the risk of injuring your conversation partner. This is a vital topic in a time when most efforts by evangelicals to share their faith are leaving a well-documented bad taste in people’s mouths. Yet even as the Finchers lay out all the ways in which you might be coming on too strong, they are passionate about keeping you engaged in a more authentic way. They offer quite a few practical suggestions for staying engaged in a spiritual conversation at just those moments when it would feel easier to abandon ship. They offer multiple example conversations from their own experience so that readers can see how principles play out in real life. They go over:

Basic Manners (respect, empathy, authenticity, and allowing people space to remain unconvinced, among others);

Christianese That You Don’t Realize Is Turning People Off;

Understanding Your Own Religion (including what is, and is not, essential);

Things You Think Are Important But Aren’t, Really;

How Not to be a Bible Bully, and more.

(I made all these designations up, by the way – the Finchers’ language is much more sincere. The snark is all mine). The Finchers are self-described evangelicals who are “learning to be more appropriately human,” (an excellent mission statement for anyone), and helping other evangelicals to also be more appropriately human.

And they are very evangelical. Depending on your perspective, this will either be a strength or turn-off. If you identify comfortably as an evangelical, then the Finchers will make you feel safe as you explore the topics under discussion, and they will reaffirm your confidence in your faith and in the Bible even as they attempt to stretch your paradigms a little. I see this genuinely as a positive – the Finchers are bridge-builders between evangelicals and the world, a very important vocation in this season when both the right and the left are feeling marginalized and under siege from the other side. The Finchers offer a way through for people who are deeply steeped in evangelical culture, who find it very life-giving, and who want to genuinely engage their neighbors in a way that is also life-giving for all parties.

Too many encounters between evangelicals and non-evangelicals can feel like guerilla ad-bombing for Jesus, and both sides retreat afterwards to lick their wounds, the evangelists suffering painful performance anxiety, and the evangelized feeling violated and assaulted. The Finchers are offering a path towards a better pattern of relating. They are saying things to evangelicals that many people are trying to say to evangelicals, but because the Finchers are, themselves, evangelicals, and can root their message in scripture and evangelical theology, the message can be received in a non-threatening way. In fact, I expect their message will be downright liberating for all the people who have been shouldering guilt for years, always looking over their shoulders and wondering if they’ve done enough, and if they’re bad Christians for secretly hating evangelism, because evangelism as they’ve been doing it always feels so uncomfortably icky. If every person in the target audience read the book and implemented even half of what the Finchers teach, the world would be a much, much more safe, more thoughtful, and more respectful place. Here is a book on how to engage respectfully with people who disagree with you while staying faithful to your evangelical roots and values. The book goes a long way toward outlining and trying to foster a culture that makes space for theological plurality from an evangelical point of view. In today’s sectarian and polarized culture, that’s no small feat.

On the other hand, if you identify outside the evangelical mold, and especially if you are ex-evangelical, then you may find the book uncomfortable and constraining. The scriptural interpretations and illustrations feel like standard Sunday fare, there is the deeply embedded Western dualism (“we can see with proper study that Jesus meant this and NOT that”), there is the deep evangelical emphasis on finding answers in the Bible and letting questions exist only on the periphery, a general discomfort with mysticism, and of course, despite the Finchers’ emphasis on respect and theological space-giving, there is still the utter evangelical inability to Just. Let. You. Be. At the end of the day, this is still a book about bringing people to Jesus, and if you find that the very notion of that agenda leaves an unpleasant smell in your nostrils, then steer clear.

So, at the end of the day, I did glean some great practical reminders for engaging in spiritual conversations (avoiding red herrings, for example), and some further reassurance that there are sincere evangelicals that I can still like and respect. (Outside of Grove City, I mean). I did not find that it stirred my old fervor for evangelism, but that wasn’t really the book’s point, so I can’t hold that against it. This is for those who already possess evangelical fervor but who either don’t know what to do with it (“What if I say the wrong thing!”) or who are tired of evangelism feeling like a battle, and who want to know that it’s Biblically okay just to get to know people without having to convert them first. And in that mission, I think it succeeds admirably.

By the way, you can click to tweet this.

Oh, and before I forget, the legal stuff: I got this book for free through the Speakeasy network in exchange for writing this (late, sorry) review. I was not required to write a positive review, and so the thoughts are still my own. Cheers!

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6 Comments

Filed under book reviews, religion, reviews

6 responses to “Coffee Shop Conversations. Or, How to Talk Intelligently About Jesus Without Being a Jerk. A Book Review.

  1. One thing I have always found difficult is reclaiming debased Christian language (‘Christianese that turns people off’?). Many words, phrases, and concepts have accrued added layers of meaning over the centuries, often unhelpfully. If I talk about ‘being born again’, for example, I have to cut through what other people mean by it before anyone can understand what I mean. ‘Word of God’ is another one. Having negotiated the minefield, I am faced with the problem that I am an intelligent, articulate, well-educated person with a strong Bible-knowledge and theology; how can I make what I have to say simple? How can I show that it’s based on experience, not on sophistry or in a naive belief in an ‘imaginary friend’ (the usual atheist taunt these days).

    • Yes, yes, yes. All of the above. As with any kind of communication, sharing about one’s faith (whether you are hoping to convert anyone or not) comes down very much to audience, and in order to make yourself understood to any particular audience/person, you have to know them first, which means cultivating a relationship. I think a lot of these conversations end up happening in situations where the relationship is not evolved enough to easily make space for the other person (like on facebook, for example, where even casual acquaintances can jump in on a thread). Or even at church sometimes, where you go every week and sit and receive a sermon, but you don’t have the time or opportunity to really get to know your neighbor well. Then at an annual church picnic or something you’re chatting casually with someone that you’ve technically known for a few years, but you really don’t know well at all, and some offhand remark or assumption will set them off and things get awkward fast. Anyway. Just thinking out loud.

  2. Stephen River Smith

    May I take a stab at something. After some years now of watching the Evangelical world respectfully in my rear-view mirror, I wonder why it is that we have felt such obligation to EXPLAIN Jesus (which is what we do when we talk about him, is it not?) I don’t “explain” my friends. They may have everything to do with who I am today, but “explaining” them is not my place. I can’t remember him ever asking us to do that. But once we’ve formed and fashioned the institution, these explanations, in all their intellectual, biblical glory, become the very walls around us. The life of Christ has become a title for books and sermons, almost like a locked door, opened only by the right key, purchased for the right price. The effort it took to sustain my former life is disheartening to even think about. (Please allow me the opportunity to over-react, if that’s what I’m doing here. It’s who I am at this point in my life. Haha.)

    • “But once we’ve formed and fashioned the institution, these explanations, in all their intellectual, biblical glory, become the very walls around us. The life of Christ has become a title for books and sermons, almost like a locked door, opened only by the right key, purchased for the right price.”

      YES. Actually, the dynamics you just pointed out are the very topics of the book I’m reviewing next week, which I LOVED, loved, loved. How the very nature of institutional Christianity starts to separate us from what it’s actually supposed to mean to be Christian. And yes, it can be exhausting. I completely hear you on that. Thanks for chiming in as always, Stephen!

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