A few years ago, I created a series called “Listening–The Key to Almost Everything.” My experience suggests that we listen too little, talk too much, and thereby, fail to persuade. For many, this is contrary to instinct. It certainly contradicts current attitudes from which arguments abound in politics, talk radio, and just about every area of human interaction. Not the least of these is religion.
Evangelistic outreach is perhaps the most important duty of Christians; and, while some neglect it, others are aggressive advocates of faith in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, I suspect that this very zeal may be counterproductive. Few of us respond favorably to another trying to force their opinion upon us. Christians tend to assume that their good intentions counter that natural resistance, or at least justify it. In the worst cases, they may conclude that their resistance is antipathy toward God rather aversion to their pushy approach and judge the unresponsive as irredeemable.
Callousness and insensitivity is not especially compatible with effective evangelism. To argue for argument’s sake may be enjoyable for some, but that isn’t outreach. If it also alienates prospective believers, then it is worse than ineffective; it is wrong. When I was younger, some teachers discussed the idea of pre-evangelism, a discipline needed when approaching those without even the most basic concepts of theism or faith. More than pre-evangelism, I believe we need a different, less aggressive approach, one that invites conversation and interaction and that may lead to the questions implied by I Peter 3:15, “Always (be) ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you,” not overlooking, “with gentleness and reverence.”
When I created my listening series, I came up with “To reach them we must H.E.A.R. them.” This approach involves not only asking questions, which I have written about elsewhere, but also suggests other appropriate elements of an constructive engagement.
Humble Ourselves — To often, Christians come across as arrogant and condescending. A strong commitment to truth should create confidence, but an equally strong awareness of one’s own sin should keep a person humble. Unfortunately, the reverse is too often the reality, where a person lacking confidence tries to create a certainty he or she does not feel. This assertiveness, or worse dogmatism, alienates and offends those we hope to persuade. Inner confidence in Christ’s promises and outward gentleness is a better combination. This is especially important in sharing the gospel. It is profoundly, wonderful good news! Yet we must avoid seeming to say, “I am right; you are wrong, you scum!” Believe me, that is how we Christians often come across.
Earn the Right to be Heard and Believed — Frequently, evangelism is described as telling. You might say, “Of course, sharing the good news is telling others;” and, at the right time, it is. Sadly, much of the telling is at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and in the wrong manner. No one can badger or nag another person into accepting the truth. We cannot force down walls of resistance by force of words. When we try, we seem more like loveless proselytizers, salesmen or admen hawking our product, which we insist is the best on the market. Not sales, evangelism is more like marketing; and, like marketing, it takes time to get to know our market (any perspective convert). Our goal is to know those we seek to reach well enough to be able to offer them what they truly desire (as opposed to telling them what they need). At the same time, with patience, attention, and growing understanding we demonstrate we care about them and establish ourselves to be worth hearing and trusting.
The process of evangelism, itself along, is not sufficient to demonstrate love or build trust, because it will rarely, if ever, be so perceived. In fact, unless we show love in other ways, then love is probably not the driving force behind our effort. If we care genuinely about others, our love will compel us to invite them to join us in eternity. If we seek to “make points” as evangelists, then success is for our own benefit.
Jesus said that our love would identify us as His disciples. In the Sermon on the Mount, He implied that being peacemakers would similarly identify us as sons (children) of God. The key to both loving and making peace is listening. Listening is the key. By giving people our complete attention, we truly come to know them, show them we care about them, in caring, prove that we are trustworthy, and, by so doing, earn the opportunity to tell our story.
Ask Them about Themselves and their Beliefs — The easiest way to avoid the anxiety associated with evangelism is to stop worrying about what to say. Instead, focus on what they say. Everyone is different. We are foolish to think that what persuaded us to believe will persuade everyone else we meet. When we ask questions, we show interest, we learn what they perceive to be important, we discover their current beliefs (or absence of belief), and we have the chance to find out where they struggle. No one opens up to strangers, and rarely do any of us immediately trust a stranger. Effective evangelism requires trust, and trust must be earned. It takes time and attention. Effective evangelism also requires understanding the way an unbeliever sees the world. Then, we may express the gospel in terms that will relate powerfully to that person.
The “Romans Road” will not work with everyone, nor will “Evangelism Explosion” or any other canned approach. Rather, we must tailor our explanation to their perception of need. If they are lonely, then introduce them to the friend who will never abandon them. If they are fearful, tell them of the security found in the God of promises who always keeps His word. If they feel great guilt, them share the forgiveness that only Christ can give. If they are anxious about aging, sickness, and death, then speak of the hope of eternal life found in Christ. If they grieve the loss of a loved one, tell them of the comfort of the One who experienced all our grief. Jesus is the Answer to every question, the solution to every problem, and the satisfaction of every need. However, to offer those blessings, we need to know what a particular person needs, wants, or fears. Then, we can offer them Jesus.
Respect Them — Too many Christians look down on people for their sins and for their differences. They see themselves as nice, and others as not so nice. God only sees children He loves, some lost and some found. We ought to see only to see His children, our brothers and sisters, some who are sheep already in the fold and some who have not yet come into the fold. All of them–all of our fellow human beings–are worthy of our respect, of the right to a certain dignity, regardless of where they are spiritually.
The so-called culture war involves serious ideological disagreements, many of which seem to threaten our way of life…and they do. However, in Christ, nothing threatens our eternal futures, the power of Christ within us, or His love for us; therefore, we have no justification for hatred or disrespect for others. This is the message of Bob Briner’s Deadly Detours, which challenges Christians never to act in a manner, regardless of the issue, that would prevent loving engagement with those who disagree with us. Briner’s series Roaring Lambs, Lambs Among Wolves, and Final Roar encourage Christians to be salt and light in their various careers and workplaces, a process that works only when people respect their co-workers, even though they may act like pagans.
Jesus said that the world would recognize us as Christian by our love for each other. Respect for people must include respect for other believers, something that credal differences often prevents. Apart from its direction contradiction of Jesus’ command to love our brothers and sisters, failing to respect other Christians interferes with our evangelistic credibility.
Respect is the most basic sort of love. What does it take to go beyond basic respect to love? Can we love without showing respect? I sometimes use respect instead of love, simply because many people, even Christians have such distorted ideas about what love is, love as Christ commanded it. So I came up with another slogan and acronym. To Reach them we must L.O.V.E. them.
Listen to Them (because they are important) – Here’s how I define love: listen, understand, and respond appropriately. Listening shows respect and demonstrates the value of those to whom we listen. Failing to listen says they don’t matter. So what does refusing or not taking the time to listen say about a person’s spouse, children, neighbors, co-workers, or even friends? I have little doubt that much of what people think is love fails the listening test. Many of us fall into the trap of thinking love is all about expression–talking, writing, and showing love. We “express” real love by listening, working to understand our loved ones, and acting appropriately on what we learn. I could write volumes on this one principle, and I will probably give it further attention, another time.
Offer an Honest, Humble Testimony (of a Saved Sinner, not a Smug Saint) – Nothing shows more love than inviting a person to salvation and eternal life, as long as we make the invitation in a loving and sensitive manner. Once we have established our credibility and the genuineness of our concern, we can freely invite people into the love of Jesus that is the model for our love. When we have demonstrated the love and joys of our spiritual family, then our invitation into the family of God will be the special thing it ought to be. The key is our testimony of grace and forgiveness. People will generally listen kindly to what we have to share about ourselves, when we tell stories about our own lives, and when we reveal important and intimate moments from our own life story. A testimony is not a sermon, except that our lives are sermons; rather we give witness to God’s deliverance, cleansing, and transformation and to the benefits we have gained by our faith in Jesus Christ. Our confession will be much more powerful and effective than our accusations!
Verify their Need and Sin (by our own confession, by their own admission, without accusation) – Most people already know where their lives have gone wrong. They are painfully aware of the ways they have hurt others and broken faith with those who love them. If they have strong sense of God, then they most likely have an equally strong sense of ignoring and disobeying Him. If we have humbly shared the reality of our own sin and guilt, given consistently with a humble awareness of the Christian’s present struggles with sin, then inviting a friend to confess their sin and receive God’s grace will not appear to be condescending. One of the most common complaints about Christians is their coming across as better than non-Christians; it is a complaint often warranted by believers who have forgotten or never fully confessed the depth of their own sin. We are forever and always “only sinners saved by grace,” and our manner with unbelievers should never conceal our unworthiness. Salvation is a gift; mercy, forgiveness, and grace are not for good people. Even though Christians may come to be the nicest people on earth–though unfortunately often they do not–they may never claim any kind of superiority. We must acknowledge every gain, advantage, and blessing as proof of God’s benevolence, not our own excellence. Even when we achieve excellence, after much personal effort, we still must remember and confess that only by God’s grace have we been successful. Then those we tell will be able fully to understand that God’s mercy, forgiveness, and grace are sufficient for their need as well.
Encourage Them to Accept Jesus’ Invitation – No one can predict, but the Lord himself, what barriers or resistance may hinder a person from accepting an invitation to trust Christ as Savior. If a person has listened and shown love, as I have suggested, then he or she will have gained the credibility and trust necessary to help them make the final decision. Perhaps they have questions. Maybe there remains a lingering fear of unworthiness. Sometimes, people fear the consequences of their decision whether of the extreme kind such as for converts from Islam to merely losing former, unbelieving friends or family members. Since evangelists don’t get commissions, patience is better than pressure. Gentle, loving, supportive encouragement will maintain the relationship until, providing the greatest opportunity for success in bringing a person to Christ in the end…of course, all of that bathed in prayer!
The underlying factor in all of this is the gentle use of questions. Kind, thoughtful questions open up conversations while aggressively assertive declarations tend to end them or turn them into arguments. Honest questions demonstrate interest and respect while bold assertions imply that the listener is stupid or ignorant. Genuine inquiry reveals the thoughts, opinions, and values of a person, as well as fears and doubts, enabling a questioner to offer useful insights and solutions where the need has been shown. Love, ministry, and outreach all benefit from the compassionate, sensitive use of questions, and I urge you to make greater use of them in your interactions with people throughout your life journey.
It’s interesting to read a book that predicts issues that become more visible, several years later. Such is the case with Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West, published in 2002, at least with regard to immigration. On the matter of declining birth rates among white Western peoples, we have yet to hear a public uproar, and we won’t if we wait for the MSM. An interesting question to ask is what will a world overwhelmed by the third world be like. Freedom, prosperity, and technology have come largely from the West. Will such signs of progress disappear under a flood of third world corruption, poverty, and the like. One can only wonder. What should Christians think and do? I’m tempted to say, “Have more babies.” That’s a topic for another day.
It’s good to revisit something I wrote over 5 years ago. I do so prompted by an article that asked unbelievers what they thought about the evangelistic efforts of Christians. The result did not surprise me, as you can see by what I had already written. It saddens me to continue to recognize the insensitive crudeness of believers in their contacts with those outside. (slightly edited, July 9, 3012)