‘Gay kids are killing themselves, and Folau’s homophobic post only made it worse,’ my friend explained, as we sat watching our kids do their Jiu Jitsu class. He continued: ‘I think people should be treated with respect, and so Folau shouldn’t be allowed to make those sorts of comments.’

sat there listening, as he poured out his anger and concern over Izzy Folau’s Instagram Post. [1]

Izzy Folau: A problem for evangelism?…

With a conversation like that, it’s easy to conclude that Folau has made it worse for Christian evangelism.

Indeed, many Christians are rightly concerned about the tone of Folau’s Instagram post (particularly his now world-famous meme). Saying ‘homosexuals’ are destined for hell without Jesus has inflamed the anger of many Australians. I’ll be the first to say that I wish Izzy had been gentler and clearer in what he wrote.

By markehr, flickr

My non-Christian friend interpreted Folau’s post to say that gay people are destined for hell for no other reason than being gay. At worst, his meme muddied the gospel water, and reinforced negative stereotypes about Christians being homophobic and judgemental.

(That sentiment has been tempered by Rugby Australia’s sacking of Folau, which means he’s turned into a figurehead for many non-Christian’s free speech concerns. I think he’s been treated unjustly, and pray he gets his day in court, with a just outcome. But his post hasn’t done much to clear up misconceptions and false assumptions about Christianity per se.)

…Or a gospel opportunity?

But along with any difficulties, I wonder if Folau’s post has also given Christians remarkable opportunities we didn’t have before?

Let me explain.

In my experience, the hardest conversations about the gospel are with people that are indifferent. I’ve tried to have a gospel conversation with my hipster barber (after I had told him what I did for a living) by asking him if he had any religious beliefs. ‘None’, he replied. I asked some more, dug a bit deeper. But to no avail. Nil engagement. No interest. Merely a shrugging of shoulders, with a few monosyllables dropped in. And so (rightly or wrongly) I let the matter drop.

But isn’t it easier—so much easier!—to have a conversation with someone of a strong opinion? Sure, you need to be careful it doesn’t become an argument (more on that below). And no, not everyone with a strong opinion is happy to have an open conversation about it (some just want to force their views on you).

But all things being equal, a strong opinion—even an opposing one—opens up a conversation that isn’t there when the care factor is zero.

And right now, strong opinions about religion—especially about Christian teaching on hell and sexuality—abound in our culture.

So how might the Izzy Folau saga be an opportunity for the gospel?

How the Israel Folau Saga Helps Us Have Gospel Conversations

Again, it might sound counter-intuitive, but Izzy Folau and the media have done a lot of heavy lifting for us: they’ve put religion on the public agenda. But how can Christians make the most of it, especially with their non-Christian (and anti-Folau) friends, family and co-workers?

Here are steps that I’ve found fruitful in these conversations: [2]

1. Pray.

Ask God to provide you opportunities to share the gospel, especially around the Israel Folau saga.

We need prayer so that people would be open to hearing the gospel. Only the Holy Spirit can open people’s eyes to the glory of the Risen Lord Jesus, even as God uses us in His grand mission. What a privilege!

2. Adopt the Posture of a (Curious) Explorer In Your Conversations.

Your mission is to explore and understand the other person’s views, rather than win arguments.

Like many an explorer, you may be surprised at what you ‘uncover’ in your conversations, and what opportunities become open to you (including sharing the gospel). Be genuinely curious in your manner and tone, rather than combative: you’re there to explore and understand, not occupy and condemn.

And an explorer’s posture will help lower the emotional temperature in these conversations.

3. Seek First To Understand Your Friend’s Point Of View

To the point where you can explain it better than they can.

When a friend, colleague, family member raises a loaded issue you disagree over, your natural inclination will be to get into fight or flight mode: you’ll feel like disagreeing straight away (paving the way for an argument), or you’ll possibly just let the matter drop.

While there is wisdom in letting an issue ‘go through to the keeper’, there is a better way.

And so, with an explorer’s curious attitude, the first step is to understand—to really understand—the other person’s position. And there’s a critical question you want to ask that helps you better understand their point of view:

Ask: ‘What do you mean by that?’

We have to clarify what our non-Christian neighbour is saying, rather than assuming. This is especially true when they use buzz-words like ‘homophobia’, ‘privilege’ or ‘equality’. And the way to do that is by asking the simple question—in a curious, friendly tone—‘what do you mean by that?’.

We have to clarify what our non-Christian neighbour is saying by asking the simple question—in a curious, friendly tone—‘what do you mean by that?’

So for example, the topic of Israel Folau comes up in the lunchroom, and your friend says ‘Folau’s post was so homophobic’. Without blinking, your instant response (cue friendly tone) should be: ‘what do you mean by that?’.

Your friend then responds by saying: ‘Saying that gay people are going to hell is form of hate. And that’s what Folau did on his meme’.

Notice what’s happened: you’re now clear on what your friend means by ‘homophobia’. And all without getting defensive, or into an argument.

Paraphrase their answers back to them. Until they agree you’ve understood them.

In emotional conversations (like on hell and sexuality!), it’s not enough to give the other person space to talk. It’s not enough to ask them questions that open up what they mean (although these are critical).

You must also prove to them that you understand them.


Because feeling understood is a basic human need. Like a drowning person who can’t think of anything else but getting air into their lungs, when the other person is speaking they feel no other need than ‘psychological air’—which is what feeling understood provides. [3]

If the other person breathes in this ‘psychological air’, by feeling understood by you, then they relax emotionally—and are more open to hearing what you’ve got to say. But if that air is missing—if they don’t feel understood by you—the emotional temperature rises. And those conversations rarely end well.

And few things provide more psychological air than paraphrasing back to them what they’re saying, better than they can say it themselves.

Back to your conversation with your workmate:

You: ‘So you believe telling someone they’re going to hell is a form of hate? Is that right?’

Listen for the two magic words: ‘That’s right’.

You’ll know you’ve understood them (and they feel understood) once they say ‘that’s right’ to your paraphrase of their viewpoint. If they can agree with you—even if it’s your summary of their position—an emotional barrier has just broken down, and an opening for constructive conversation has opened up:

Your friend: ‘That’s right! Exactly.’

Here are a couple of other things to note:

  • At this point, you’re not defending or arguing for any position. You’re simply giving them the space to open up and share exactly what they believe. They’re in the ‘hot seat’, not you. Remember, you’re an ‘explorer’, not a ‘boxer’.
  • Don’t assume anything. Assuming you know what your opponent believes (and why) can lead to all sorts of misunderstandings—and conflict.

Once you’ve understood their position—and just as importantly, they feel understood—you’re ready to move to the next step: taking the conversation upstream.

4. Take the Conversation Further Upstream

By exploring the underlying beliefs driving their viewpoint.

Once you understand what your non-Christian friend is saying, you can then ‘move the conversation upstream’ to find out why they believe it. You’re an explorer moving up the stream of thinking, uncovering the various streams of belief driving your friend.

Again, there’s no arguing or verbal combat involved.

If we can unearth and explore their underlying beliefs, we’ll be able to share the gospel, and show how it’s different—and better—than their beliefs.

So how do we take the gospel conversation further upstream? By asking a second critical question:

Ask: ‘How did you come to that conclusion?’

When it comes to the conversation around Folau, it’s important to choose which part of your friend’s position you want to explore, and take upstream. I think we get the most gospel fruit by exploring their underlying beliefs about hell, rather than say, free speech (although that might lead to some interesting conversations as well!).

So to return to our example conversation:

You: So you think Christians believe gay people go to hell. How did you come to that conclusion?

Your friend: Well, isn’t Folau a Christian? He’s just posting the beliefs of Christianity, isn’t he?

Notice what’s happened so far:

  • As per the earlier point, you’ve first understood your friend’s position (by asking: ‘what do you mean by that?’).
  • And now you’re exploring why they believe what they do (by asking: ‘how did you come to that conclusion?’).
  • You’ve done all this in an emotionally intelligent way that has lowered (rather than raised) the emotional temperature of the conversation. Your friend is much more likely now to hear what you’ve got to say—i.e. the gospel!

You: I can’t speak for Folau, but I think the Bible has more to say about hell, and about who’s going there, than what a simple meme can convey…

Your friend: What do you mean?

You: Well, the Bible says…

My friend continued: ‘I’m no believer in God, but it doesn’t sound right that God would create people to be gay, and then send them to hell.’

I nodded. ‘You’ve got doubts about whether Folau’s meme squares with your understanding of Christianity?’

‘Yes’, he replied, sounding more thoughtful than before. The emotional temperature—rather high at the start of our conversation—was now much lower.

Seeing an opening, I shared my understanding of what the Bible says about same-sex attraction, and God’s love for same-sex attracted people. He turned it over in his mind. After a while, he spoke: ‘I’ve got to go, but let’s chat more about this—how does next Monday sound?’

‘Sure thing!’ I replied.

First published at http://akosbalogh.com/

[1] While the gist of the conversation is accurate, some details have been changed for the sake of anonymity.

[2] I’ve developed these points mainly from
Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).

[3] I took the ‘psychological air’ metaphor from Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People(Melbourne, VIC: The Business Library, 1989), 241.