In the first part of this three-part series, we considered prayer as being a neglected tool for evangelism. In this second part, we will explore another practice all too often neglected in our witness to the world: listening.
Neglected Tool Two: Listening
Have you ever been in conversation with someone where you couldn’t get a word in edgeways?
In You’re Not Listening Kate Murphy recounts a story about Richard ‘Dick’ Bass, known for going on ambitious expeditions and talking about them at length with any in earshot. On one particular flight, he chatted for the duration to a gentleman next to him about his exploits climbing Everest and his plan to do so again. As the flight was landing Bass realized he hadn ’t made time for his new travel companion to introduce himself. “That ’s okay,” the man said, “I’m Neil Armstrong. Nice to meet you.”
Dick Bass missed out on a great conversation, however, when we fail to listen to those we speak with we are likely to miss more than an interesting anecdote or two— we risk missing the person themselves.
It can be deeply frustrating to feel spoken at rather than with; to be the recipient of a monologue versus the partner in a dialogue. For most of us, to not be heard is worse than being misunderstood, it is tantamount to not being seen or valued.
Unfortunately, evangelism can too often be expressed as a one-way communique. There will always be a place for public evangelism from the platform, stage, or pulpit; but when it comes to personal evangelism (the daily opportunity for most Christians), a one-way communique is a poor practice on a number of levels, especially as it positions those we speak to as evangelistic targets rather than real people with whom God is offering a restored relationship. It is hard to help people see God loves them when his own ambassadors seem disinterested.
Kate Murphy explains the simple yet profound power of listening:
“To listen well is to figure out what ’s on someone ’s mind and demonstrate that you care enough to want to know. It ’s what we all crave; to be understood as a person with thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are unique and valuable and deserving of attention.”
The value of listening is not found merely in the information you receive about someone, but in the value a person receives as you give them your loving attention.
One way communique is the tool of a marketer. But Christian evangelism is not about selling a product, it’s an introduction to the living person of Jesus Christ. The God who desires to be in relationship with people - not statistics, demographic targets, or missional objectives - but people, who are unique and valuable and who have His attention.
Listening well isn’t just a social science ideal either, it is the preference of interaction from those we reach out to, according to recent research from Barna:
62 percent of non-Christians and lapsed Christians say that someone who listens without judgment would be the best person to talk with about faith: significantly higher than any other quality reported.
People desire to be genuinely heard and without reactionary prejudice. That’s not to say people are unwilling to disagree, but before disagreement can be explored, understanding is needed. By listening we can show people we care about them, not simply that we want to tell them all the ways in which we think they are wrong. The bible wisely tells us to do less would be folly and shame for our witness (Proverbs 18:13).
Beyond giving value and showing care to people there are additional practical benefits to really listening. When we listen well we learn about what is going on in people ’s lives and meet their actual needs versus what we think they need, we can also make connections to the gospel to address their voiced questions rather than those we assume they must be thinking.
Here is a quick A-E (A-Z was a stretch) of listening basics to embrace as we seek to meet people where they are, and present Jesus as he is:
A huge part of listening well involves asking good questions in response to the things being said. This reveals that you are listening thoughtfully, keeps the conversation moving into interesting areas, and gives you a chance to better understand the thoughts (and needs) of your conversation partner. Jesus was of course the master of this— asking far more questions than he answered, perhaps revealed nowhere better than in the healing of Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:46-52).
What is the fastest way to kill a conversation? Try to ‘win’ it. You don’t need to have all the answers (in fact, the Barna research suggests ‘know it all’ conversation partners are not well regarded by non-Christians) and you certainly don’t need to walk away as the conversational victor. A conversational win is one in which both parties were able to share their thoughts clearly with the other.
You also don’t need to force conclusions. Create space for people to think about what they are saying and hearing in response and also give yourself space to reflect rather than always rushing to respond. Romeo would have been wise to heed the counsel of the Friar in Shakespeares' great play, and so would we: “wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast”.
The conversation is an opportunity for us to discover together the mysteries of God, and as we listen to those we speak with, we may realize that God is teaching us new glories through them! Don’t water down evangelism as the attempt to get someone to where you are; view it as a journey you can take towards Jesus together.
Other worldviews can contain truth. There are questions about Christianity that are helpful and even objections can be insightful. We shouldn’t dismiss everything that comes from a counter position to our own, especially without listening carefully to its content and the context it holds in our conversation partners' life experiences. Explore perceived conflict and counter positions as thought-provoking contributions to the ongoing conversation. Be inquisitive and affirm what is good.
As we attempt to listen well to those around us, we must also listen carefully to the Spirit of God, we do this in prayerful preparation for evangelism. It has been said that evangelism is simply joining in the conversation the Holy Spirit (the greatest evangelist) is already having with a person, so let’s turn our heart to Him as we turn our ears to those we speak with.
In the final part of this blog series we will look at the third neglected tool for evangelism: Thanksgiving
 Kate Murphy, You’re Not Listening, (Random House, 2020) p32.
 Elaborated on in Craig Springer’s brilliant book How to Revive Evangelism, Zondervan, 2021), p55.