I think I’m about a B minus when it comes to answering questions on my feet. At our church we sometimes have questions after the sermon, and I am also involved in running our evangelistic courses—both contexts in which I’m required to answer questions in public. And, like I say, I think I’m about a B minus. My answers are serviceable and workmanlike, with occasional flashes of insight and slightly-more-than occasional flops. You’ll be pleased to know, however, that I always win the re-run. At 3am the morning after, awake in my bed, the answer inevitably comes to me, and the questioner is always thankful and slightly awe-struck at the quality and sheer irrefutability of my answer.

At 3am the morning after, awake in my bed, the answer inevitably comes to me, and the questioner is always thankful and slightly awe-struck at the quality and sheer irrefutability of my answer.

That is all by way of saying that in giving this bit of advice, I’m not an expert but a beggar telling other beggars where to find bread. And at any rate, the advice is not mine to give. I came across it at university in a book by Alister McGrath called Bridge-Building: Communicating Christianity Effectively.

Clarity before Qualification

In the book, McGrath asks us to imagine the impact of these two alternative answers to the question ‘Do you really believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God?’

  1. Well, it all depends on what you mean by ‘the Son of God.’ [The speaker then outlines a few options, before finally indicating that he or she believes in it in one specific sense.]
  2. Yes, I certainly do. Let me just clarify what the phrase means [The speaker then outlines the same options as above, making it clear which specific sense he or she believes to be right—the same choice being made as above.]

McGrath, Bridge-Building: Communicating Christianity Effectively (IVP:1992), 260.

The second answer is, I trust you agree, much better. Even though both answers have exactly the same content, it makes a real difference to say the positive first and then introduce any necessary qualifiers afterwards. The thing you really want people to hear, that’s the thing to say first.

For me, that’s been huge. My temptation is to ‘waggle over the tee,’ giving all sorts of qualifications and exceptions before narrowing in on my answer. Which I think is exactly wrong. McGrath’s advice is gold.

An Example – Priorities

Let’s road test it. Consider answering the inevitable questions about gender, sexuality and same-sex marriage at question time after a Sunday sermon. How should we answer that question? Let’s think this through:

At church there are at least two people listening to my answer whom I need to have in mind: (1) The sincere Christian person who is (quite reasonably) listening to hear if I share the historic and orthodox understanding of Christian sexual morality; and, (2) the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LBGT) person (or their friend or relative) who is listening to hear if God and his people are interested in them and have anything constructive to say to them.

Got those two people in mind? Good. Here’s my thinking:

  1. What you say first is what’s heard loudest, and what you say in the qualifier will be harder to hear.
  2. The visiting LGBT person will likely have all sorts of assumptions, fears and hesitations about being in a Christian context.
  3. Though I have no intention of doing so, if I upset or confuse a fellow church member, I have plenty of time and context to chat with them and clarify what I’ve said. But …
  4. If I leave my visiting LGBT friend upset or confused, that might have been my one shot.
  5. Therefore, I want to think more about the LGBT visitor than the regular member in what I say first.

With all that in mind, lets road test two answers. The question: ‘What does the Bible and your church say about LGBT people?’ The two answers:

Answer 1

The Bible is clear that gay and lesbian activity is a sin and you really can’t be a Christian unless you are willing to give all of your life over to Jesus.

Now of course, we are all sinners and we are all working through various aspects of our lives and handing them over to Jesus. But the Bible is very clear on this point.

However, if you want to come and explore knowing God in Jesus with us, you’d be most welcome. And there are people here who follow Jesus and are same sex attracted. The point is not your orientation but your actions.

 Answer 2

Thanks for the question. I have great news! The Bible says that God loved LGBT people so much that he gave his Son Jesus for them. And, because that’s God’s attitude to LGBT people, we want that to be our church’s attitude as well. If you are an LGBT person and you want to come here to explore knowing God in Christ, we’d be honoured to have you. Join one of our courses where we explain the Christian faith. We’d love to have you along, and we promise never to impose our beliefs or behaviours on those who don’t share them.

Now, of course, for those of us who have decided to follow Jesus, we sign a blank cheque and give him all of our lives, including our sexual lives. If we decide to follow Jesus, then no part of our lives is off limits to him. But that’s true for all of us in all areas of our lives, including loved members of this church whose sexual orientation is to the same sex. They’d love to talk with you about what following Jesus has meant for them.

Same information. Same points made. But for my money, I’m pretty sure answer 2 does much better work.