of “What do you do?”, try “What keeps you busy when you’re not at church?”
Not everybody loves talking about their job. Or has one. Everyone has things they do when they aren’t at church, except the Minister, who (obviously) ceases to exist when not at work.
Instead of “Are you new here?” try “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m ____”
“Are you new?” Emphasizes that they are an outsider. Also, they may have been eight times but you didn’t notice because of your spotty attendance.
Instead of “You have a PhD, right? What was your thesis about?” try “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”
Both of these suck, but one of them provides you with useful ornithological knowledge.
Instead of “Where are you from?” try “How did you hear about us?”
Some people get the where are you from question WAY more than they’d like. The “how did you hear about UUism” question, by contrast, is almost never asked, as people hear about us so rarely.
Instead of “Do you have kids”?” try “What brings you here?”
“Do you have kids” can be a painful question. And, if they ARE parents, they’ll answer “what brings you here” with “kids”. If not, it will be “midlife crisis”. It’s always one or the other. The “What brings you here?” is a particularly nice one because of the flexibility it offers the respondent. They can say “My lifelong existential quest for meaning bumping up against the heteronormative expectations of traditional religion all of which came to a head with the recent death of my mother”, or they can say “I came on the bus”.
Instead of “Do you believe in God?” try “How was your weekend?”
Asking somebody about what they’ve done on their weekend is a tangible, easy to answer question that often leads to an interesting conversation.
Instead of “What has been your greatest contribution thus far to the destruction of the patriarchy?” try “What brings you joy?”
For many people, these questions are not interchangeable.
Instead of “What grade are you in at school?” try “What’s your favourite toy?”
Some people hate school. Everybody loves toys. For people who mistakenly think they are too old for toys, I try “what extra curricular are you into?”. Or the question about swallows and airspeed velocity. Once I tried “tell me about your favourite apps” with a teen, and they told me about Plants vs Zombies and that was about a year of my life lost. I cannot recommend that strategy.
BONUS HINT – Have a follow-up questioned planned, or be ready to answer the same question yourself. Starting the conversation is just the beginning.