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Take a Tip from Lieutenant Columbo

Article ID: JAE296 | By: Greg Koukl
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This article first appeared in the Effective Evangelism column of the Christian Research Journal, volume 29, number 06 (2006). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org


Being an ambassador for Christ in the twenty‐first century requires more than having the right answers. It is too easy for postmoderns to ignore our facts, deny our claims, or simply yawn and walk away from the line we have drawn in the sand.

Sometimes, however, they do not walk away; instead, they stay and fight. We wade into battle only to face a return barrage that we cannot handle. Caught off balance, we retreat in humiliation, maybe for good.

I would like to suggest another approach. Jesus said when you find yourself a sheep amidst wolves, be innocent, but be shrewd. This calls for a tactical approach.

“Do You Mind If I Ask You a Question?” My favorite approach is what I call the “Columbo” tactic. It is the simplest device imaginable to stop a challenger in his tracks, turn the tables, put you in the driver’s seat, and, more important, get him thinking. This tactic is typified by Lieutenant Columbo, the bumbling and seemingly inept television detective whose remarkable success was based on an innocent query: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

Jesus used this method. When facing a hostile crowd He often asked challenging or leading questions meant to challenge His detractors: “Was the baptism of John from Heaven or from men?…Show Me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” (Luke 20:4, 24 NIV).

The key to this tactic is going on the offense with carefully planned and selected questions that move the discussion along in an interactive way. It is best played out Columbo style—halting, head‐scratching, and apparently harmless.

Simply put, instead of making assertions, ask questions. The Columbo tactic is a lot of fun and it offers tremendous advantages. For one, questions are interactive by nature and invite others to participate. They are neutral, so no “preaching” is involved; you are not arguing, but asking, gathering information. Carefully placed questions also shift the burden of proof (i.e., the responsibility to defend or give evidence for a view) to the other person where it often belongs. The most effective questions either gain information or reverse the burden of proof.

“What Do You Mean by That?” Sometimes you need more information to know how to proceed, so your initial probe will be open‐ended. The most efficient type of question you can ask in most circumstances is a clarification question —some variation of “What do you mean?”—that encourages the person to explain more about what she thinks. It is a natural opening with absolutely no pressure when delivered in a mild and genuinely inquisitive fashion.

For example, when someone declares, “There is no God,” you can ask, “What do you mean by God?” (in other words, “What particular idea of God are you rejecting?”). When someone asserts, “All religions are basically the same,” you can ask, “Really? What do you mean by the same?” (i.e., “In what way?”). When someone objects, “You shouldn’t force your views on me,” you can ask, “Specifically, what am I doing to force my views on you right now?” (then perhaps, “How is that forcing my views?”). When someone states, “The Bible has been changed over the years,” you can ask, “What in the Bible has been changed?” (specifically, “How exactly do you think it has been altered?”).

Questions like these accomplish several important things. First, they immediately engage the other person in friendly conversation. Second, they flatter the other person, because questions show that you are genuinely interested in the person’s view. Third, they compel that person to think more carefully— maybe for the first time—about what exactly she means. Finally, questions uncover valuable information, revealing precisely what the person thinks so that you do not misunderstand or misrepresent her view.

It is important to pay attention to the person’s response. If it is unclear, follow up with more questions. Say, “Let me see if I understand you on this,” then restate the view back to her to make sure you have it right.

Some time ago, while on vacation in Wisconsin, my wife and I were at a one‐hour photo store being helped by a woman who had a large pentagram (a five‐pointed star generally associated with the occult) dangling from her neck.

“Does that have religious significance,” I asked, “or is it just jewelry?”

“It has religious significance,” she answered. “The five points stand for earth, wind, fire, water, and spirit. I’m a pagan.”

My wife, unaware that pagan referred to Wicca (witchcraft) and earth worship, laughed in amazement at what seemed like a remarkably candid confession. “I’ve never heard anyone actually admit outright that they were pagan,” she explained. She knew the term only as a pejorative that her friends use when yelling at their children: “Get in here, you little pagans!”

“It’s an earth religion,” the woman explained, “like the Native Americans’.”

“So you’re Wiccan?” I asked. She nodded. Noticing a piece of jewelry and asking a simple question about it, a variation of “What do you mean by that?” led to a productive conversation.

“How Did You Come to That Conclusion?” The first Columbo question helps you know what another person thinks. To know why he thinks that way takes a second question: “How did you come to that conclusion?” An alternate might be, “Why do you say that?” or “What are your reasons for believing that?”

These questions charitably assume that the person actually has thought through the issue carefully and not just made assertions or expressed his feelings. They accomplish something else vitally important: they force the other person to give an account for his beliefs. The basic rule that governs exchanges like these is: the person making the claim bears the burden of proof.

Here is why this is so important. Christians should not be the only ones who have to defend what they believe. Reject the impulse to counter every assertion someone manufactures. Do not try to refute every tale spun out of thin air. It is not your job to answer his claim; rather, it is his job to defend it.

For example, I once was a guest on a secular talk‐radio show in Los Angeles where I made a case for intelligent design over evolution. When a caller used the Big Bang theory to argue against a Creator, I said that if there was a Big Bang, it worked in my favor. A Big Bang needs a Big “Banger,” it seemed to me.

The caller disagreed. The Big Bang does not need God, he claimed. Then leading off with the phrase, “One could say…,” he spun a lengthy science‐fiction tale for the audience about how everything came from nothing.

“You’re right,” I responded. “‘One could say’ anything he wants, but giving good reasons why we should believe the story you just told is another thing altogether.”

It was not my job to disprove his fairy tale. He bore the burden of proof for his own claim. It was his job to show why anyone should take his something‐from‐nothing fantasy seriously.

The Professor’s Ploy. The Columbo tactic is especially effective in the classroom. Some professors are fond of taking pot‐shots at Christianity with remarks like, “The Bible is just a bunch of fables.” Wellmeaning believers sometimes accept the challenge and attempt a head‐to‐head duel with the professor. This rarely works.

The rule of engagement that governs exchanges like these is: the person with the microphone wins. The professor always has the strategic advantage. It is foolish to get into a power struggle when you are outgunned. There is a better way: use your tactic.

Simply ask your Columbo questions: “Professor, what do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?” Make him shoulder the burden of proof. After all, he is the teacher, and he is the one making the claim. With this approach you are able to stay engaged while deftly sidestepping the power struggle.

The professor may sense your tactical maneuver and respond, “Oh, you must be one of those fundamentalists who thinks the Bible is inspired by God. Okay, I’m a fair man. Why don’t you take a few minutes and prove that to the rest of the class?”

In one quick move he has cleverly shifted the burden of proof back on you, the student. If you find yourself facing the challenge to “prove me wrong,” don’t take the bait! Falling into this trap is fatal; instead, shift the burden back on the professor where it belongs. After all, he made the claim.

Respond this way: “Professor, you don’t know what my own view is because I haven’t mentioned it. More to the point, it’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what I believe. I’m just a student. I’m here to learn. You’ve made a controversial claim. I simply want clarification and reasons, that’s all.” If he gives you an answer, thank him for explaining himself and either ask another question or let it go for the time being.

Do not miss this point: the Christian does not have to be the expert on everything. If we keep the burden of proof on the person who is making a claim, we do not have to have all the answers. In fact, we can be effective even when we know very little—if we ask the right questions.

Staying in the Driver’s Seat. Asking simple, leading questions is an effortless way to make capital of a conversation for spiritual ends without seeming abrupt, rude, or pushy. Questions are engaging and interactive, probing yet amicable. Most important, they keep you in the driver’s seat while someone else does all the work.

When someone says to you, “The Bible has been changed so many times” or “No one can know the truth about religion” or “All religions are basically the same,” do not retreat in silence; instead, simply raise your eyebrows and ask, “Oh? What do you mean by that?” and “How did you come to that conclusion?”

Most critics are not well equipped to defend their own claims. They rarely have thought through what they believe and have relied more on generalizations and slogans than on careful reflection. To expose this weakness, take your cue from Lieutenant Columbo: scratch your head, rub your chin, pause for a moment, then say, ”Do you mind if I ask you a question?”

— Gregory Koukl

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