If it is well set up, the ensuing dialogue is usually good for a couple of hours during which time the Gospel is well aired, its implications pursued and many objections and misunderstandings are discussed. The guests have a good opportunity to state and explore their views and even the persistently unconverted usually enjoy the evening thoroughly and are grateful for the opportunity to take part.
Problems arise from various sources:
- Lack of good friendships with non-Christians who would respond to such an invitation. It may be necessary to invite up to twenty people, for an adequate number of acceptances.
- Invitations that are unclear as to the nature of the meeting.
- Inviting people who have nothing in common with each other and are asking very different sorts of questions, so the group doesn't gel.
- Too many Christians come, with consequent religious in-talk over the meal, and jargon during the dialogue. The fewer Christians the better! Non-Christians will feel more at ease if they sense they are in the majority.
- Too much time spent over the meal, leaving people too tired or too late to get into the subject matter.
- Too much alcohol (often brought by gracious guests!).
- Guests insisting on washing up, or Christian friends doing it too loudly in the next room.
- Inappropriate contributions from the Christian hosts who haven't grasped the principles of dialogue evangelism and fail to appreciate the experience, skills and 'apologetics' of the leader.
- Failure to appreciate group dynamics, allowing the discussion to splinter.
- Failure to put the guests at ease eg by saying (or worse, singing!) 'grace', or by attacking guests for their views. The host who thumbs a big black Bible is particularly un-nerving!
Discuss the wording of the invitation with the dialogue leader. If the evening has been misrepresented, his job could be very difficult! A clear statement about the subject matter is essential and this must focus on the truth claims of the Christian faith, rather than its relevance. Put the focus on Jesus; not religion, the church or ethics.
Invitations need to be given personally (whether written or verbal) without expecting an immediate reply. People need time to consider whether they really want to come. Reluctant guests can make everyone feel awkward. However, they must eventually be pressed for a definite decision. If things are left on the understanding that they 'will try to come' many will take the easy way out on the night. It is not unreasonable to expect a definite reply for catering purposes and guests will usually appreciate that. Furthermore an invitation that sounds vague will convey the impression that not much effort is being made and the meal may not be worth having.
Men are more likely to respond to an invitation from another man, rather than a female. Many men think religion is 'for the birds'.
Think through your policy on alcohol in advance. Will your friends be likely to bring a bottle? Will they feel ill-at-ease having a nice meal without a glass of wine? Can you provide alcohol-free drinks (including beer and wine) for the stated benefit of clear-headed discussion? Avoid pre-dinner drinks (time is also against this) and keep careful control of the corkscrew. Provide attractive non-alcoholic options.
An experienced dialogue leader will know how to handle the discussion. He will start with a short summary of the Gospel put across in terms of 'this is what Christians believe - let's discuss it', rather than 'this is what you should believe'. The questions and discussion are likely to flow easily after a short while. Patience for silent reflection is often necessary at first but if it is too prolonged the host might offer the first question. Make sure that it is a basic question that flows from the gospel summary and that non-Christians are likely to be wanting to ask. A question about the slaughter of the Canaanites at this stage will be unhelpful! Don't argue with the leader, even if you disagree with him. He has enough problems without the Christians turning on him!
Plan the timing and preferred method of ending the discussion. Some leaders like to 'bring the threads together' but others not. Most would want to recommend further reading. Some prefer to let it end naturally and open-endedly, perhaps even on a down-beat. However, it is nice to finish with a well-timed cup of coffee. Have it ready!
Thought also needs to be given to follow-up and the possibility of offering a 'Bible study' discussion on another occasion. One of the natural advantages of these groups is that the folk invited are friends with whom you have regular contact. Individual follow-up should therefore be fairly easy.