Whether you sometimes have problems sharing your faith with others or you excel at it, I would recommend the book Tactics: a Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason ministries.
Note: This post is based on Chapter 3: Getting in the Drivers Seat: The Columbo Tactic from Greg Koukl’s book, as well as these study materials put together by Owning Your Worldview (which was in turn based on Greg Koukl’s book.)
Consider these four scenes:
Scene 1 “[Your friend] announces with some belligerence that he doesn’t believe in God anymore. “It’s simply not rational,” he says. “There is no proof.” You had no idea he’d been moving in this direction. There is a stunned silence.” What do you say?
Scene 2 “[Your friend asks] “who are we to say Christianity is better than any other religion? I think the essence of Jesus’ teaching is love, the same as all religions. It’s not our job to tell other people how to live or believe.” How do you respond?
Scene 3 “[Your friend says] “I’ve read the Bible before,” he says. “It’s got some interesting stories, but people take it too seriously. It was only written by men, after all, and men make mistakes.”” What do you say?
Scene 4 “A television news program highlights religious groups trying to influence important moral legislation. The person sitting next to you says “Haven’t these people ever heard of the separation of church and state? Those Christians are always trying to force their views on everyone else. You can’t legislate morality. Why don’t they just leave the rest of us alone?”” What’s your next move?
In each of these cases you have an opportunity, but there are obstacles. First, you must speak up quickly because the opportunity will not last long. You have only about 10 seconds before the door closes. Second, you’re conflicted. You want to say something, but you are also concerned about being sensitive, keeping the peace, preserving friendships, and not looking extreme.
Greg’s plan helps you know how to use that critical 10-second window to your best advantage. It acts as a guide to direct your next steps.
QUESTIONS TAKE THE SPOTLIGHT OFF OF YOU
The initial response in a situation like this is not to preach about our view or even disagree with theirs. We want to draw them out, to invite them to talk more about what they think. This takes a lot of pressure off of us, because when we ask a question, the ball is back in their court. It also protects us from jumping to conclusions and unwittingly distorting their meaning.”
ASKING QUESTIONS ENABLES YOU TO ESCAPE THE CHARGE, “YOU’RE TWISTING MY WORDS.” Greg Koukl
Each question is an encouragement to participate in a conversation in a reflective way. Our tone should be relaxed and cordial with the questions pointed enough to challenge their persona to give some thought to what they just said.
There is a particular purpose for each question. With some questions, we are simply collecting information. Other are subtly leading; that is, the questions themselves suggest a problem with the other person’s thinking.
In his book, Greg explains where he got the inspiration for the Columbo Tactic:
TAKE A TIP FROM LIEUTENANT COLUMBO
The Columbo tactic is named after Lieutenant Columbo, a brilliant TV detective with a clever way of catching a crook.
The inspector arrives on the scene in complete disarray, his hair an unkempt mop, his trench coat rumpled beyond repair, his cigar wedged tightly between stubby fingers. Columbo’s pencil has gone missing again, so his notepad is useless until he bums a pen off a bystander.
To all appearances Columbo is bumbling, inept, and completely harmless. He couldn’t think his way out of a wet paper bag, or so it seems. He’s stupid, but he’s stupid like a fox because the lieutenant has a simple plan that accounts for his remarkable success.
After poking around the crime scene, scratching his head, and muttering to himself, Lieutenant Columbo makes his trademark move. “I got a problem,” he says as he rubs his furrowed brow. “There’s something about this thing that bothers me.” He pauses a moment to ponder his predicament, then turns to his suspect. “You seem like a very intelligent person. Maybe you can clear it up for me. Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
The first query is innocent enough (if the lieutenant seems threatening, he’ll scare off his prey), and for the moment he seems satisfied. As he turns on his heel to leave, though, he stops himself mid-stride. Something has just occurred to him. He turns back to the scene, raises his index finger, and says, “Just one more thing.”
But “just one more” question leads to another. And another. Soon they come relentlessly, question after question, to the point of distraction and, ultimately, annoyance.
“I’m sorry,” Columbo says to his beleaguered suspect. “I know I’m making a pest of myself. It’s because I keep asking these questions. But I’ll tell ya,” he shrugs, “I can’t help myself. It’s a habit.”
And this is a habit you want to get into.
The key to the Columbo tactic is to go on the offensive in an inoffensive way by using carefully selected questions to productively advance the conversation. Simply put, never make a statement, at least at first, when a question will do the job.
ADVANTAGES OF ASKING QUESTIONS
“When you ask a question, you are displaying interest in the person asked. Most people are not queried on many, if any subjects.” – Hugh Hewitt
Hewitt advises asking at least a dozen questions in every conversation.
- Sincere questions are friendly and flattering.
- You’ll get an education.
- You’ll leave a conversation knowing more than when you arrived.
- Genuine conversation builds common ground and creates or builds a relationship.
- Questions allow you to make progress on a point without being pushy.
- Carefully placed questions put you in the driver’s seat
The Columbo Tactic:
Direct conversations in a non-offensive way by using three carefully selected questions.
- “What do you mean by that?”
- “This question provides a natural opening for conversation, and it puts no pressure on you.”
- “This question immediately engages the [other person] in an interactive way.”
- “This question uncovers valuable information; it helps you know what a person thinks.”
- Avoid misunderstanding or misrepresentation.
- Clarify ambiguity, complexity, or missing information.
The following is a story from earlier in the book that Greg uses both times I’ve heard him speak but also is a great example of using questions in action.
THE WITCH IN WISCONSIN
Several years ago while on vacation at our family cabin in Wisconsin, my wife and I stopped at the one-hour photo in town. I noticed that the woman helping us had a large pentagram, a fivepointed star generally associated with the occult, dangling from her neck.
“Does that star have religious significance,” I asked, pointing to the pendant, “or is it just jewelry?”
“Yes, it has religious significance,” she answered. “The five points stand for earth, wind, fire, water, and spirit.” Then she added, “I’m a pagan.”
“So you’re Wiccan?” I continued.
She nodded. Yes, she was a witch. “It’s an Earth religion,” the woman explained, “like the Native Americans. We respect all life.”
“If you respect all life,” I said, “then I suppose you’re pro-life on the abortion issue.”
She shook her head. “No, actually I’m not. I’m pro-choice.”
I was surprised. “Isn’t that an unusual position for someone in Wicca to take, I mean, since you’re committed to respecting all life?”
“You’re right. It is odd,” she admitted, then quickly qualified herself. “I know I could never do that. I mean, I could never kill a baby. I wouldn’t do anything to hurt anyone else because it might come back on me.”
Now this was a remarkable turn in the conversation for two reasons. First, notice the words she used to describe abortion. By her own admission, abortion was baby killing. The phrase wasn’t a rhetorical flourish of mine; these were her own words. I did not have to persuade her that abortion took the life of an innocent human being. She already knew it.
She had just offered me a tremendous leg up in the discussion, and I was not going to turn it down. From then on I abandoned the word “abortion;” it would be “baby killing” instead.
Second, I thought it remarkable that her first reason for not hurting a defenseless child was self-interest — something bad might befall her. Is that the best she could do? I thought to myself. This comment itself was worth pursuing, but I ignored it and took a different tack.
“Well, maybe you wouldn’t do anything to hurt a baby, but other people would,” I countered. “Shouldn’t we do something to stop them from killing babies?”
“I think women should have a choice,” she countered without thinking.
Now, generally statements like “women should have a choice” are meaningless as they stand. Like the statement, “I have a right to take . . . ,” the claim requires an object. Choose . . . what? Take . . . what? No one has an open-ended right to choose. People only have the right to choose particular things. Whether anyone has a right to choose depends entirely on what choice they have in mind.
In this case, though, there was no ambiguity. The woman had already identified the choice: baby killing, to use her words. Even though she personally respected all life, including human life, this was not a belief she was comfortable “forcing” on others. Women should still have the choice to kill their own babies. That was her view.
Of course, she did not put it in so many words. This was her view implicitly.
When bizarre ideas like these are obviously implied, do not let them lurk in the shadows. Drag them into the light with a request for clarification. That is exactly what I did next.
“Do you mean women should have the choice to kill their own babies?”
“Well. . . .” She thought for a moment. “I think all things should be taken into consideration on this question.”
“Okay, tell me: What kind of considerations would make it all right to kill a baby?”
“Incest,” she answered quickly.
“Hmm. Let me see if I understand. Let’s just say I had a twoyear-old child standing next to me who had been conceived as a result of incest. On your view, it seems, I should have the liberty to kill her. Is that right?”
This last question stopped her in her tracks. The notion was clearly absurd. It was also clear that she was deeply committed to her pro-choice views. She had no snappy response and had to pause for a moment and think. Finally, she said, “I’d have mixed feelings about that.” It was the best she could do.
Of course, she meant this as a concession, but it was a desperately weak response (“Killing a two-year-old? Gee, you got me on that one. I’ll have to think about it.”)
“I hope so,” was all I had the heart to say in response.
At this point I noticed a line of would-be customers forming behind me. Our conversation was now interfering with her work. It was time to abandon the pursuit. My wife and I finished our transaction, wished her well, and departed.
I want you to notice a few things about this short encounter. First, there was no tension, no anxiety, and no awkwardness in the exchange. There was no confrontation, no defensiveness, and no discomfort. The discussion flowed easily and naturally.
Second, even so, I was completely in control of the conversation. I did this by using three important tactics, maneuvers I will explain in greater detail later in the book, to probe the young woman’s ideas and begin to question her faulty thinking.
- “If you don’t understand a person’s point of view, you may misrepresent it.” This is a serious misstep, even when done by accident.
- “Instead of fighting the real issue…you set up a lifeless imitation (a “straw man”) that you then easily knock down.”
- “If you’re guilty of using a straw man fallacy, you may find you have given a brilliant refutation of a view the other person doesn’t hold.”
- Presenting a fallacy weakens your authority.
“Sometimes you are confused about another person’s meaning is because [they] are confused, too.”
“Don’t be surprised, then, when your question “What do you mean by that?” is met with a blank stare”
“People don’t know what they mean much of the time.”
“Often they’re merely repeating slogans.”
“They are forced to think, maybe for the first time, about exactly what they do mean.”
Ironically, sometimes a bit more clarity is all that’s needed to parry an objection. When someone says to me, “Reincarnation was originally part of Chris tian teaching, but was taken out of the Bible in the fourth century,” I always ask them to explain how that works (a variation of our first Columbo question). The devil, as they say, is in the details of such a deception. How does someone remove select lines of text from tens of thousands of handwritten documents that had been circulating around the Mediterranean region for over three hundred years? This would be like trying to secretly remove a paragraph from all the copies of yesterday’s L.A. Times. It can’t be done.
Here are Greg’s Answers from the beginning of this post:
Challenge 1: “It’s not rational to believe in God. There is no proof.”
What do you mean by “God,” that is, what kind of God do you reject? What, specifically, is irrational about believing in God? Since you’re concerned about proof for God’s existence, what kind of evidence would you find acceptable?
Challenge 2: “Christianity is basically the same as all other religions. The main similarity is love. We shouldn’t tell others how to live or believe.”
How much have you studied other religions to compare the details and find a common theme? Why would the similarities be more important than the differences? I’m curious, what do you think Jesus’ own attitude was on this issue? Did he think all religions were basically equal? Isn’t telling people to love one another just another example of telling them how they should live and believe?
Challenge 3: “You can’t take the Bible too seriously because it was only written by men, and men make mistakes.”
Do you have any books in your library? Were those books written by humans? Do you find any truth in them? Is there a reason you think the Bible is less truthful or reliable than other books you own? Do people always make mistakes in what they write? Do you think that if God did exist, he would be capable of using humans to write down exactly what he wants? If not, why not?
Challenge 4: “It’s wrong to force your views on other people. You can’t legislate morality. Chris tians involved in politics violate the separation of church and state.”
Do you vote? When you vote for someone, are you expecting your candidate to pass laws reflecting your own point of view? Wouldn’t that essentially be forcing your views on others? How is that different from what you’re troubled about here? Is it your view that only nonreligious people should be allowed to vote or participate in politics, or did I misunderstand you? Where, specifically, in the Constitution are religious people excluded from the political process? Can you give me an example of legislation that does not have a moral element to it?