Review of ‘The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversation’ by Mary Schaller and John Crilly

The-9-Arts-of-Spiritual-ConverationMary Schaller and John Crilly, The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversation: Walking Alongside People Who Believe Differently (Carol Steam, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2016).

Not long ago, I was standing in line behind a man at the checkout stand of a gas station. He paid his bill and handed the cashier something, which she received with a look of befuddlement on her face. Then he turned around, handed me something, and walked out the door. He never said a word the whole time.

I looked down and realized I was holding a self-printed evangelistic tract. My first thought was, His motivation is right. That guy took the Great Commission seriously, and good for him for doing so! My second thought was, His method is wrong. All wrong, in fact. Personal evangelism is supposed to be personal, after all. This guy had passed along information to the cashier and me, but personal evangelism is not about information. It’s about relationship, both with God and with others.

Unfortunately, too many Christians view personal evangelism through an informational lens. “What should I say?” they ask. “How should I respond to this or that objection to Christianity?” “How can I turn everyday conversations into eternal conversations?” These are excellent questions, by the way. Absent relationship, however, even the best answers aren’t likely to change the minds. Psychologically, we are more likely to change our minds or believe new things when we trust the person telling us about them. And trust is a relational issue.

Studies bear out the importance of relationship in evangelism. Research commissioned by well-known evangelist Luis Palau reveals that 75 percent of people who convert to Christianity do so through relationship with a Christian family member, friend, or colleague. The Institute of American Church Growth puts the number even higher, at 90 percent. If 75–90 percent of conversions happen because of personal relationship, the conclusion is inescapable: Billy Graham is not the best evangelist to reach your neighbor. You are.

In The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversation, Mary Schaller and John Crilly show readers how to walk “alongside people who believe differently,” so that evangelism, discipleship, and spiritual growth take place organically in an authentic relationship. Schaller and Crilly are the president and former national director, respectively, of Q Place, a parachurch ministry that trains people how to start and facilitate evangelistic small groups. They write about such small groups in chapter 12, “Starting a Q Place.” As a former small groups pastor, I like Q Place’s approach to things and encourage you to check out that ministry.

However, the majority of the book isn’t about Q Place’s ministry focus. It’s about the skills necessary to form authentic relationships in which evangelism can occur organically. Schaller and Crilly divide the “9 arts of spiritual conversation” into three broad categories. Let me outline their presentation for you:

Getting Ready

  • Noticing those around me and paying close attention to what God might be doing in their lives.”
  • Praying for those I meet in my day-to-day life and asking God to show me what he wants to do to bless them.”
  • Listening with genuine care, interest, and empathy as I interact with others without editorializing or offering my own unsolicited opinions.”

Getting Started

  • Asking questions that arise from genuine curiosity, drawing others out with great questions and seeking to understand more than to be understood.”
  • Loving others authentically because I personally know God’s love and see them with his eyes.”
  • Welcoming people by valuing their presence so they feel that they belong.”

Keeping It Going

  • Facilitating good discussions in a group setting so that every person feels honored and respected, even when they believe different than I do.”
  • Serving together, gathering people to serve and know God and each other better through service.”
  • Sharing my own story, learning others’ stories, and expressing God’s story of forgiveness through Jesus in a way that is respectful and meaningful.”

With this outline in mind, you might think to yourself, Thanks, George! Now I don’t have to read the book. That would be a mistake, in my opinion, for each chapter goes into helpful detail.

For example, as I read chapter 3, “The Art of Noticing,” I was struck by how much and how often I don’t notice others. Schaller and Crilly identified four barriers to noticing—pace of life, self-focus, Christian bubble, and attitude—and I realized that I am on the wrong side of each of those barriers. I live too fast, focus on self too much, don’t get out of my Christian bubble often enough, and tend to be “judgmental” rather than “open.” Realizing this, I read the chapter with much more personal interest. My guess is that you too will find valuable insights in the authors’ treatment of at least one—if not more—of the “9 arts.”

So, who should read The 9 Arts of Spiritual Conversation? Obviously, any Christian interested in doing personal evangelism. Small groups pastors and small group facilitators might want to use this book in for self-development and training purposes. It’s a good book, and I’m happy to recommend it.

P.S. This review first appeared at

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.


Review of ‘The Third Target’ by Joel C. Rosenberg

 The-Third-TargetJoel C. Rosenberg, The Third Target (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2015). Hardcover | Kindle

“What we want is not more little books about Christianity,” C. S. Lewis once said in an address on Christian apologetics, “but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”

I thought of Lewis’s remarks as I read Joel C. Rosenberg’s new thriller, The Third Target. The plot centers on New York Times reporter J. B. Collins, whose sources have informed him that ISIS has captured a cache of chemical weapons from the Syrian government. As Collins pursues this story across three continents, he and his friends are drawn deeper into the violent clash between Islamic terrorists and the civilized world.

What makes Collins’ investigation even more pressing is that King Abdullah II of Jordan—Collins uses the real monarch as a heroic character in his plot—has somehow managed to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. There is a real chance that ISIS might use its captured Syrian WMDs to scuttle the peace deal and prosecute war inside the moderate Hashemite kingdom.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of The Third Target in a way that both reveals how gripping a read it is while leaving the cover on its plot twists and turns. Perhaps it is enough to say that I enjoy thrillers that involve a desperate race against time, found the book’s plot believable and pace exciting, and was stunned by the book’s ending.

But here’s where Lewis’s quote comes into play. Rosenberg is an evangelical Christian, and Tyndale is an evangelical Christian publishing house. Rather than making his Christian faith latent, Rosenberg has chosen to make it patent, and this patency detracts from the value of the story he tells.

J. B. Collins, we learn, is nonreligious. His mother and brother aren’t, however. They are evangelical Christians. Indeed, his brother Matthew is a professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts—a school I myself briefly attended. Rosenberg uses Matthew to give voice to two evangelical interests: biblical evangelism and personal prophecy. In a long conversation with his brother, Matthew explains the contemporary relevance of biblical prophecies concerning the territories that constitute modern-day Jordan. Additionally, Matthew repeatedly presses J. B. to come to Jesus before it’s too late.

Of these two interests, the latter—the concern for religious conversion—could’ve been presented in a way that felt more integral to the plot. Faced with the death of people on every side, J. B. begins to ponder his own fate. Is he ready to die? Is there life after death? Psychologically, these are natural questions for people to ask themselves when death comes calling. My complaint is not that Rosenberg included the matter of religious conversion in the plot, but that he did so in such a ham-fisted way.

His treatment of biblical prophecy is what annoyed me most, however. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan encompasses territory that in Bible times belonged to Moab, Ammon, and Edom (moving from north to south). These kingdoms are mentioned throughout the Old Testament in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Rosenberg believes prophetic references to these kingdoms have contemporary relevance. By placing such prophetic interpretations in the mouth of a Gordon-Conwell professor, he gives them a patina of academic respectability. To be honest, however, I’m not sure any scholar at that institution would treat the prophecies as he has done. In other words, his use of biblical prophecy does not seem credible and—more importantly in a work of literature—does not move the plot forward. In a race-against-time thriller, such slowing down is a cardinal sin.

Now, I recognize that my fellow evangelicals will shake their heads and tut-tut at my review for expressing online my reservations about the prophetic and evangelistic elements of the book. But here’s the deal: The secret of good novel writing is showing rather than telling. The good parts of Rosenberg’s book show; the parts that slow him down tell. The Third Target would’ve been a much better book had Rosenberg integrated the comfort of faith in the face of death into his plot in a more integral way and left out the Bible prophecy material entirely.

Rosenberg is a terrific writer. But next time, he should steal a page from Lewis.

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my review page.

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