Be Still and Listen: A New Thought for Evangelism


by John Backman

Francis Schaeffer said that if he had an hour alone with a stranger, he would spend the first 50 minutes asking questions—especially about the stranger's beliefs—and pointing out the inconsistencies. Then, in the last 10 minutes, he would present the gospel.

For 2015, I suggest a different approach: 60 minutes of listening.

Massive cultural shifts have, in many cases, rendered traditional evangelism ineffective, even obsolete. A "new thought" of listening can help us reach millions caught up in today's paradigm: skeptical, lonely people who live at warp speed.

Consider the skepticism. The events of the last 40 years—Washington scandals and empty campaign pledges, corporate duplicity and nonstop marketing hype, pedophilia and its cover-up in the Catholic Church—have left us disillusioned beyond all measure. The surveys tell the story: Distrust of government hovers at or near historic lows, and many other institutions—such as the media, big business, and banks—enjoy little public trust.

Specifically, we have experienced a complete severing of the connection between words and deeds. Does anyone still believe that "your call is very important to us" when we are kept on hold for 25 minutes? Now imagine how traditional evangelism plays in such an atmosphere: Why would anyone take our words at face value, especially when (from the listener's point of view) they make such extravagant claims about an obscure Jewish reformer from 2,000 years ago?

Fast, furious—and alone

Our frenzied pace of life only compounds the skepticism. To function amid the flood of thousands of daily messages, we hone our ability to sort and, usually, reject at the blink of an eye. If it's not relevant to me right here, right now, out it goes, because I need to move along. So if you can't show me the relevance of Jesus to my life in five seconds or less, you've lost me.

Then there is our pervasive—and growing—loneliness. Studies show that social isolation is on the rise. Lonely people have a deep need to be heard: to share their stories, their innermost thoughts, their life lessons. Schaeffer's approach to evangelism would not address that need. We feed hungry people before sharing the gospel because they can only listen when their fundamental needs are met. Why treat lonely people any differently?

What listening can do

In listening for 60 minutes, we seek to address both conditions: skepticism about words (we're not using any) and loneliness (we create a space for the other person to be heard). In the process, we begin to build a bond—not a pretense to spring the gospel message on the other person in an unguarded moment but a genuine relationship that delivers the love of Christ. As this bond flourishes over time, our words about Jesus, when we use them, carry more weight.

What does this listening look like? It is not the prevalent mode of half-hearing while formulating our next response. Rather, it calls us to enter fully into the other's mindset and understand it from the inside out. In listening this way we seek to:

Set aside preconceptions. Our Episcopal diocese, like the larger church, has suffered serious turmoil over same-sex issues. Conservatives have been painted as homophobic, liberals as "conforming to the spirit of the age." I tend to generalize as much as the next person, but by trying to set aside my preconceptions and simply listen, I've discovered something startling: two opposing "sides" who both genuinely love Jesus, seek wholeheartedly to do his will, and have come to their conclusions in good faith. If I had left my filter in place, I would have missed this priceless lesson—and the friendships on both "sides" that I enjoy today.

Seek common ground. Like setting aside preconceptions, this step often reveals that we agree far more than we disagree. Above all, we see that we share many of the same struggles, cares, and dreams. This awakening to our shared humanity also builds trust and friendship.

Speak the language. My church participation puts me in contact with both mainstream and evangelical Christians. While speaking from the same core experience of God, I may use more direct God references with the evangelicals—"I sense God asking me to do this"— because it's part of their language. When talking with the mainstream folks, I resort to words like calling and vocation for the same reason. By listening carefully to others, getting inside their vocabulary, then reflecting it back to them when we do speak, we make understanding easier and foster trust.

"No one ever converted to Christianity because they lost the argument."
~ Phillip Yancey

This last point is nothing new. "To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews," wrote the apostle Paul. "To those not having the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some" (1 Cor. 9:20-22).

When we do speak

What about the times when we are called to speak? What do we say to this culture at this time? The answer goes back to trustworthiness. Amid rampant skepticism, those who back up their words with deeds and their claims with evidence become trusted sources. By listening—putting ourselves aside to hear, and reach, the other—we have already demonstrated God's love. Wouldn't it make sense, then, when we finally open our mouths, to speak of that love?

Leading with God's love makes sense on every level of this issue. Divine compassion is the most effective medicine for a world plagued by gnawing loneliness. It is, when experienced, a tonic that opens the heart away from disillusion and toward hope. In short, this extravagant love heals the world. Isn't that the whole reason for sharing the gospel?

As a blogger for Huffington Post Religion and an associate of an Episcopal monastery, John Backman writes extensively on contemplative spirituality and its ability to help us dialogue across divides. He authored Why Can't We Talk? Christian Wisdom on Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2012), and his articles have appeared in numerous Christian publications, progressive and conservative. He currently serves on the board of directors for the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.

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