Why Listening is a Key Practice For Evangelism
When I slow down with others so I can hear their stories, I often find out where people are really at in life: what they’re celebrating and what they’re struggling with. And because people are more influenced by what they want than what they think, there’s simply no way to disciple someone if you can’t talk about desire.
Better at speaking than listening
Tragically, most of us are skilled in proclaiming “truth” and quite immature as listeners. Whether our desire to share truth comes from a heart of love (a good thing) or a desire to prove ourselves (a sinful thing), often the effect on the hearer is the same: “These Christians don’t really understand me, and I don’t understand why Jesus is relevant to me.”
In our zeal to see people “repent and believe,” we often fail to listen to their stories and bear witness to their deep desires. We miss hearing what they trust in, what they hope for, what they truly worship—what they want… what they really, really want. (Perhaps the Spice Girls were on to something?).
Noticing and naming desire
Please hear me carefully. I am not advocating people remain in the desires that are not for their own flourishing in the ways of Jesus, but I am urging us to consider how Jesus made space for people to notice and name their desires while they lived their way into a new way of believing.
Too often, I have told people to behave better based on what the Scriptures say without even listening to what their motivation (or lack thereof) for behavior might be. Listening is at the heart of discovering the heart of another.
Consider the story in John’s Gospel of Jesus speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). While the story is well known by most Christians, what Jesus actually does in this story is different from how we normally share the gospel.
For many of us, we would have been more comfortable with the story going something like this:
Jesus approaches the woman at the well. He knows that for her to be out fetching water at this odd time of day, she must be an outcast from society. Probably, someone who has suffered abuse and deeply entrenched in sin.
Assuming this, Jesus walks up to the woman and says, “Hello woman. Something is obviously wrong. People don’t come out to get water from this well this late in the day. Well, unless they are trying not to be seen. It is your sin that keeps you in shame and hiding. If you would receive the free gift I am offering, you would be free from what is destroying your life.”
Obviously, this isn’t what happened. But it is essentially the content of what Jesus eventually shared with the Samaritan woman. Yes, the woman was suffering in her unbelief. Yes, she felt shame and disconnect from society. And yes, she needed the salvation Jesus would offer in Himself. So why did Jesus “waste time” asking her questions instead of just getting to the point?
Because it wasn’t a waste of time. Listening is important in and of itself in evangelism and discipleship.
Learning to listen from Jesus
We all tend to “do what we love,” so just because a fact is true doesn’t mean it is going to be automatically valuable or meaningful to someone. Being told that you’re a sinner and need a savior doesn’t seem very important if you don’t actually believe you need healing!
In the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus gives us an amazing lesson on listening. He doesn’t begin with sharing truth, but begins a conversation and listens to her. In doing so, he reveals her true reality. But this unveiling of reality isn’t just revealed to Jesus, but to the woman herself as well! As she shares she hears, and upon hearing her need is apparent. She meets Jesus right there in reality. Now she is ready to learn. And reality is the best place to meet Jesus.
As we learn to ask questions and really listen to people, God meets us in the reality of our desires, and then we can grow as disciples together.
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