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Coffee Shop Conversations

by Timothy George

Adapted from the foreward to Coffee Shop Conversations: Evangelical Perspectives on Current Issues, edited by Russell L. Meek and N. Blake Hearson

So much of the Bible, and thus so much of the Bible’s theology, takes place around conversations. Three unknown visitors show up one day at the tent of Abraham. Sarah makes tea and listens in on the talk around the table and hears about a child of promise to be born in her old age. Or a decorated military officer in the army of Syria, a man called Naaman, hears about a conversation between a prison girl from Israel and his wife. Mrs. Naaman relays the conversation that leads to her husband’s miraculous healing from leprosy.

A discussion is a conversation with an agenda. The psalms are filled with this kind of stuff. “O God, why do you cast us off forever?” “Has the Lord’s steadfast love ceased forever?” “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” “Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” “O God, do not keep silent, do not hold your peace or be still, O God!” Conversations flow into the New Testament as well. Paul describes his conversion to King Agrippa in a conversation. Jesus has an all-night conversation with Rabbi Nicodemus. We don’t know what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about at the dinner they shared after the sycamore tree encounter, but whatever it was, it led to repentance and a different kind of life for the little man everybody had hated before.

Conversations can be deep or shallow, casual or serious, but they invariably take place as an encounter between an “I” and a “thou.” They happen at a level of verbal engagement when we have moved beyond the formal courtesies of cordiality—Good morning! Have a nice day! How’s the weather looking?—and have reached the point of listening and responding to another person. One-way monologues are not conversations. They are soliloquies. I once had a conversation with a person about a job I was being offered. He talked nonstop about himself, the institution he ran, the ideas he thought I would be interested in, talk, talk, talk . . . but no listening, no dialogue, no conversation. I took another job. Having a conversation means that we have to shut up long enough to hear what someone else is saying. Real conversations are born out of mutual humility. 

Such conversations can lead to faith. Jesus once had a conversation with a disreputable woman at Jacob’s Well. Jesus didn’t begin that conversation by telling the woman of Samaria everything he knew about her past or by reminding her of the law of God or even by revealing his real identity as the Messiah. Jesus began with a simple question: “May I have a drink of water?” From that simple sip of home-poured H2O would flow “streams of living water:” living water that brought transformation to this friendless woman and a great revival to her hometown.

Jacob’s Well, where Jesus and this woman shared a simple drink of water, still stands today. I have been there. Today it is more of a tourist trap than a genuine place to meet and talk, but it is not hard to imagine what a garrulous watering hole it would have been in Jesus’ day. Jacob’s Well was what Floyd’s barber shop was for the men of Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show and what the Boston bar in Cheers was for a later generation of twenty-somethings. This is what the coffee shop has become for our generation today. Coffee shop culture began in the cafés of Rome and the salons of Paris. From there it spread to England, North America, and indeed all around the world. I just returned from a visit to Jakarta, Indonesia, which now boasts of more than twenty-five Starbucks! I love to go to coffee shops and just listen to the edges of conversations. You hear people talking about all kinds of things: politics, sports, broken hearts, missed opportunities, new romances, what’s happening at work, issues of the day, and God. In fact, God is often just beneath the surface in conversations about the issues of the day and all the other stuff that comes out over a cup of java.

We can have thoughtful conversations about some of the most pressing moral and spiritual questions of our day. Should the coffee we drink be fair trade or not? What should a Christian think about immigration policy and about immigrants themselves? The economy is on everyone’s mind, but why should Christians care about the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Is making a budget a spiritual discipline? In a sex-saturated culture, how should Christian couples think about birth control? Or universal healthcare? Or military service? Or politics itself? And how can we pray and work to halt the unremitting violence against children still waiting to be born? How can we rebuild a culture of marriage in a society that has lost its moral bearings? And how do we stand with other believers to defend religious freedom? 

Because Jesus Christ is the Lord of life—of all life—none of these issues can be dodged or swept under the rug. Jesus told his disciples to go into the and make disciples among all the nations. That means we have a covenant of dialogue with all persons everywhere, none of whom is beyond the reach of God’s redeeming grace. Coffee shop conversations can be a springboard to faith.

Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chairman of the board of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.