It all began last Thursday.
The rain was bucketing down here in Lismore, thanks to the remnants of Cyclone Debbie. I was catching up with a friend at my house, when my wife Sarah comes running down the hall:
‘Akos, you better come see this – there’s water downstairs!’
I go down. And yep, there’s water. Not much at first – it’s just a wet floor. ‘We’ll put towels over it to soak it up’, I say, hoping that this stop-gap measure would do the trick until the rain eases.
But the water keeps coming.
The trickle of water soon becomes a waterfall. Water gushes into the downstairs room (where our tenant lives), and before long we’re scrambling to take furniture upstairs.
But that doesn’t solve the problem. Towels on the floor aren’t going to stop this deluge – I think to myself – I need another solution, fast!
So my ‘inner engineer’ kicks in, and I crawl under the house.
Our house is built on the side of a hill, and as I look up the hill from beneath the floorboards, I see water – lots of water – cascading down. And then it hits me: If I want to stop the flooding of our downstairs room, I need to tackle the water problem further ‘upstream’.
1) If You Want To Get To The Source Of An Issue, Go ‘Further Upstream’
It’s a general principle that applies across life.
When I went further ‘upstream’, I was able to stop downstairs from flooding.
To cut a long story short, a few friends and I dug some trenches. Before long we’ve formed a creek under our house, diverting the gushing water around the downstairs room.
(A real ‘A-Team’ moment, if I may say so.) The lesson learned? ‘Going upstream’ is a great way to save your house from flooding. But as I leaned on my shovel, admiring the stream we had formed, an unexpected lesson came to mind:
‘Going upstream’ is a principle that works elsewhere in life, including communication – especially gospel communication.
2) We Need To Go Further ‘Upstream’ in Our Conversations With Non-Christian Neighbours.
Because in a post-Christian Australia, our worldviews have less and less in common.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve spoken to members of the LGBTI community on and offline, to get their take on the Coopers backlash.
Unsurprisingly, they weren’t impressed with Coopers. But what did surprise me was their suspicion of free speech, and even civil discussion of same sex marriage.
So I tried taking the conversation further ‘upstream’, to find out why they were suspicious. And that’s when the pennies started dropping for me.
Free speech, according to them, was an instrument of those in power, to oppress minorities. The white heterosexual Christian males – who dominate our politics, they said – want to keep free speech for themselves, to keep themselves powerful. And to keep minorities – such as LGBTI – under the thumb.
And so, whilst I’m the first to cheer when Sydney Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies upholds the importance of freedom of expression, some (many?) LGBTI might look at him and think ‘he’s a white heterosexual Christian male upholding an oppressive power structure’.
But I couldn’t have understood their ‘take’ if I didn’t move further upstream in my discussions.
Of course, ‘going upstream’ with people doesn’t end with merely understanding where they’re coming from (as important as that is). Understanding ‘upstream’ views gives us a better opportunity for engaging people with the gospel. We can both affirm some of their deepest longings and concerns, whilst exposing the falsehoods of their worldview – and show how the gospel is better.
So how can we take our conversations with non-Christian neighbours ‘further upstream’, in a way that is direct, and yet polite?
3) How Do We Take The Conversation Further Upstream?
By Asking 2 Critical Questions:
If we want to take the conversation with our non-Christian neighbours further upstream, we need to ask two important questions:
- First Question: ‘what do you mean by that?’. We have to clarify what our non-Christian neighbour is saying, rather than assuming. This is especially true when they use buzz-words like ‘homophobia’, ‘privilege’ or ‘equality’.
- Second Question: ‘how did you come to that conclusion?’. Once we understand what our non-Christian friend is saying, we can then ‘move the conversation upstream’ to find out why they believe it. Asking how they came to their view – their conclusion – takes us further up their stream of thinking. 
And if we ‘go upstream’ far enough, we’ll be surprised by what we find.
4) The Surprising Truth We’ll Find If We Go Upstream Far Enough:
Even secular views are based on ‘beliefs’.
If we dig deep enough, if we go upstream far enough, we’ll come to a surprising truth: even the most hard-core Atheists rest their views on a bedrock of – wait for it – beliefs.
Whether it’s your staunch pro-choice secular feminist colleague, your atheist father-in-law, or your pro-SSM bar-tender, their views – especially moral views – ultimately rest on ‘faith commitments’ that can’t be proven by reason alone, or science alone.
And you know you’ve hit ‘belief bedrock’ when you hear the statement ‘it just is’:
- ‘Equality is a right – it just is!;
- ‘Marriage is just a contract between two consenting adults’;
- ‘Murdering innocent human beings is wrong – it just is!’.
Now when it comes to the critical topic of ‘justice’ – what’s just, right, fair – Harvard Philosopher Michael Sandel has this to say:
Justice is inescapably judgmental. Whether we’re arguing about financial bailouts…surrogate motherhood or same-sex marriage, affirmative action or…CEO pay…questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is also about the right way to value things.’ 
And “valuing things” is always based on beliefs about the purposes of life, human nature, right and wrong – all of which are moral and ‘religious’.
Go Upstream For a Better Conversation
If you want better gospel conversations with your neighbour, ‘go upstream’ with them. Ask them the two critical questions. Help them see their own (often unexamined) beliefs. And chances are, you’ll have a natural opportunity to share the gospel with them.
 For further info, see the outstanding book: Greg Koukl, Tactics: A Game Plan For Discussing Your Christian Convictions (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009). (For an example of how of I used this in a ministry context, download this document. )
 Michael Sandel, Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? (London: Penguin, 2009), 261.