Bill Clinton once said that being president was a lot like running a cemetery. “You have a lot of people under you, but nobody is listening.” With the ubiquity of social media, we might think this ours is a culture of listening. But that is not the case. While there is more talking than ever before, there seems to be less and less listening.
This is part two of a discussion on how Christians best share the story of God in Christ today. In the first article I shared the acronym REVEAL, which covers six key practices of faith sharing I’ve noticed around the world. The first practice is to Examine our faith. Christians who share their faith know the gospel story. This may seem intuitive, but many Christians know and can articulate only the very superficial aspects of the gospel. The second practice I discuss here is Listening.
Some of history’s most effective faith sharers were wonderful listeners. An example is E. Stanley Jones. Jones was almost certainly the most prominent Methodist of the twentieth century. He was a pastor in the Methodist Church (USA) but spent much of his ministry in India and traveling the world. While he was known as a great speaker, and in fact preached to millions, the work he valued most in terms of its engagement with people outside the Christian faith was what he called “round table conferencing.” These conferences were a time for people to gather and discuss their experiences of God. The point was not to debate faith or question truthfulness, but simply to listen to other people, be they Muslims, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, atheist, etc., and then to share your own faith. People were free to ask questions of other people’s experiences, but not to critique. The purpose was conversation and Jones knew that if Christians were part of the conversation Jesus would be named.
Some evangelists of his day critiqued him because he didn’t demand that the Christian story be placed front and center. But Jones was clear that people were more likely to embrace Jesus when Christians didn’t claim cultural or spiritual superiority. He knew that simply telling the story of Jesus brought his presence into the room.
Evangelism today is most effective when it is practiced in Jones’s spirit. Christians who listen to others, be they people of another faith or no faith at all, are frequently invited to tell their story of Jesus. In turn, Christians who are only interested in telling their story of faith and won’t engage in developing relationships are often rejected. Listening leads to a dialogue between people where people can share the heart of their faith. The goal isn’t dialogue itself, but relationships built on the mutual respect of dialogue can lead to the invitation to Christ that is critical to evangelism. The Christian story is best heard today when Christians can humble themselves, as Jones did, even though they are convicted of the gospel’s veracity.
Effective listening today seems to involve a number of key characteristics, two of which I’ll mention here. The first is trust. Most people listen to people they trust as opposed to people they have just met. People who trust each other are less likely to manipulate or fear being manipulated. The second is that questions are encouraged. As best I can tell, Jesus asks 173 questions of other people in the New Testament. His default mode seems to ask questions and then tell stories. Christians and churches are often known for speaking first, not letting people respond, and then giving answers to questions people aren’t asking as opposed to drawing them in with stories. Questions rather than statements often lead to deep conversations.
The first Methodists knew the power of listening. The system of class meetings, bands, and one-on-one visitation was rooted in the belief that people respond best to the gospel when listening to a non-Christian’s joys, concerns, fears, doubts, questions, and hopes, just to name a few, precedes the proclamation of the good news of Jesus. Specific proclamation of the gospel is integral to Christian evangelism. But effective evangelism today most often begins with a season of listening, not of speaking.
In the next Catalyst I will discuss a third characteristic of people who share the gospel well: They model Jesus in their personal and social ethics.