The Evangelistic Art of Listening Well

This is the third post in a four-part series on how to share our faith. In the first post I explored the importance of learning to tell our spiritual autobiographies. In the second post I made the case for why we need to get better at telling the big story of God. Faith sharing involves both of these stories — talking about what God has done in Christ and sharing what God has done in your life.

But there’s a third story we need to learn, and that’s the story of those with whom we wish to share our faith.

It’s not enough to be willing to tell our stories without demonstrating a curiosity about others and a willingness to hear their life story. And when I say “hear” I mean to listen deeply, attentively, curiously. My friend Brad Brisco recently tweeted:

The English word “listen” comes from two Anglo-Saxon words. One means “hearing” and the other means “to wait in suspense.” Conversations might manifest greater love & attentiveness if we adopted an attitude of waiting in suspense to learn something from the other person’s words.

Hearing and “waiting in suspense” is as important an evangelistic practice as talking about our perspective on things.

Deep listening can be defined as the suspension of judgment and being fully present with another person to understand his or her experience or point of view. It involves more than just hearing the words that are shared but tapping into the deeper, unspoken needs and feelings of the person. Deep listening is done with the heart as well as the mind.

Why do we need to be so good at listening when we want to be sharing our belief? There are a few reasons:

  1. Jesus listened to peoples’ stories. He even told someone their own story back to them (John 4:17-18).
  2. People’s stories shape and influence how they interpret us. We need to understand these triggers and filters if we’re going to aim for clear communication.
  3. A person’s story will shape how we introduce God’s story to them.
  4. People are more open to hear another story when they’ve told their own. Some people want so badly to tell their story, they can’t hear anything else and some peoples’ stories are so painful, they need to tell their story to find healing.
  5. The way to someone’s heart is through their story.
  6. The way to become a part of someone’s story is to listen to it.

As Tim Keller wrote, “Everybody has got a story. If you’re able to inhabit that so well that [people] feel that you know their story better than they do, and then show in a compelling way how that story is only going to find resolution in Jesus, then they are going to find a compelling case for Christianity.”

In fact, I find that one of the key tools in faith sharing is the ability to hear another person’s story and discern the presence of God in their life and to point these out to the person I’m talking with. I just assume that God is already at work in the world revealing himself through creation and by fostering a spiritual curiosity or thirst in people’s lives. I think if I learn another person’s story really well I can help them see the ever-present God they had thought was so distant. Through hearing their story I can illuminate God’s footprints in their life, helping them increase their sensitivity to God.

The struggle for many of us is that we were schooled in an understanding of evangelism that equated faith sharing with preaching. Such an understanding assumes faith sharing is always one-way traffic — from the sharer to the seeker. But the New Testament uses a number of terms to describe evangelistic ministry. They include to persuade (peithos), describe (diegoeomai), reason with (dialegomia), confound (syncheo), prove (symbibazo), argue (syzeteo), talk (laleo), beseech (deomai), and encourage (parakaleo).

Faith sharing in the early church involved more conversations than lectures.

So, how do we go about being deep listeners? Here are a few general suggestions:

1. BE A SAFE PERSON

When we see a therapist or a lawyer or an accountant we trust that their office is a safe space. We assume there’s a sacred professional-client privilege in place. But when it comes to regular social interactions that can’t always be assumed. We need to foster a reputation as someone who maintains confidentiality, someone with whom a person feels safe enough to share their story. I’m not proposing we all pretend to be therapists. We’re not. But if we’re known as someone who gossips about others, or scoffs at other people’s stories behind their backs, we won’t be seen as a safe person.

Our social conduct should make a promise to people that we can be trusted with their story, no matter how messy or shameful or disappointing it might be. We need to establish from the beginning that we will not judge them or use their story against them.

2. PRACTICE ACTIVE LISTENING

My wife, who is a masterful listener, says, “For some people, a conversation involves speaking and listening. For others, it involves speaking and waiting!”

We’ve all had those kind of conversations, haven’t we? You can tell your friend isn’t really much interested in what you’re saying. They’re just waiting for you to draw breath so they can start talking again. We can all think of a time when we’ve shared an important occurence in our life and our friend pretty much hijacks the conversation to tell us about when that same thing happened to them. Ugh. It’s so common.

Active listening — a term coined in 1957 by the US psychologists Richard Farson and Carl Rogers — involves giving someone your undivided attention in a way that conveys our respect for them and says we’re truly absorbing their story. This takes more skill than you might realise. It involves the use of a battery of active listening techniques like these:

For a person to know they’ve been really heard they need visual and verbal cues from us. Active listening means listening with empathy by maintaining eye contact, putting your phone away, having patience, leaning toward the person, using appropriate touch, asking questions, repeating answers back for clarity, avoiding putting your own spin on what you are being told, In brief, it’s about having the courage to ask someone how they feel and really care about their reply. And try to maintain a state of prayer and a learning posture throughout.

A technique I’ve found helpful is to ask questions without question marks. Continually firing off questions to someone turns the conversation into an interview and can start to feel invasive. But questions without question marks open the conversation up. Try using these kinds of open-ended statements: “Tell me about your family”, “I’d like to hear more about that”, “Tell me how that’s working out for you”, and “That can’t have been easy”.

Also, ask tough questions gently. Some secrets are too scary to tell right away. Respect people’s boundaries.

3. UNLESS ASKED, DON’T OFFER ADVICE

This one is tough. Some people find themselves immediately going into problem-solving mode. I was talking to a pastor recently who had gone back to college to study counselling. He was bemoaning how his instructor kept interrupting his classroom practice sessions because of how quickly he was jumping into offering solutions to his client. Despite our best intentions, listening to a person’s story doesn’t require us to solve anything. The other person simply needs to be heard, or receive validation for their experience.

4. HELP A PERSON SEE GOD’S FOOTPRINTS IN THEIR LIFE

Instead of offering unsolicited advice, why don’t you look for doorways that can open a person to faith. This can often help them to begin a spiritual journey. These doorways could be something like a particular sensitivity to spiritual things, or a hunger for spiritual experiences, or a longing to be different or for change, or a desire to break some intergenerational pattern.

If we listen closely we can find these doorways and push on them gently, asking the person to explore that aspect of their story more. We might say, “Tell me more about where your appetite for spiritual experiences comes from”, or “You seem to be really strongly drawn to nature”, or “I really love your commitment to social justice”, or “Describe what it would look like if you were more like the person you want to be.” And as you push on these doorways, do so in a gentle and respectful way.

The stethoscope was in invented in 1816 by Rene Laënnec who was noted for saying to the medical practitioners who would use his device, “Listen to your patients’ bodies; they are telling you how to heal them.” I say the same thing about evangelism. Listen to your friends’ stories; they are telling you how to share Jesus’ story with them.

As you discern Jesus’ presence in their story try to draw that out for them. And if they’re interested in your perspective you might get a chance to share something of Jesus’ story (see my previous post for what I mean by that), helping them see that Jesus has been at work in their life and is the best resolution to their story. And remember these things when sharing the gospel:

  • You don’t have to do it all at once — in fact, if you are true to the gospel, you can’t do it all at once! Stick to the part of Jesus’ story that relates to your friend’s story.
  • You don’t have to do it the same way every time — in fact, if you are true to the gospel, you can’t do it the same way every time! It has to relate perfectly to your friend’s story.
  • You don’t have to have all the answers — in fact, if you are true to the gospel, you really can’t have all the answers.

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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6 thoughts on “The Evangelistic Art of Listening Well

  1. Another outstanding post. Keep them coming . whakarongo ( listening with the heart to learn the other persons story )

  2. I’m an Atheist, but I enjoy reading your posts. I cut off contact with my maternal uncle and his wife a few years ago because of the strong-arm nature of their conversion attempts. The worst part was when my mother passed away. At a moment in my life when I truly needed the support of my extended family, my aunt decided to try and convert me, I felt like her “project”. As if she was trying to score Brownie Points or something.

    I have many stimulating conversations with friends of different faiths, including Evangelical Christians. I’m sure my friends would love it if I accepted Jesus, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of their faith. People of good conscience can share what is important to them with respect.

  3. Enjoying this series Mike. Thanks

  4. Really helpful, thank you. Really listening is actually hard work!

    1. Why is it we find it so hard to listen

  5. Thanks Mike, I appreciate the stethoscope illustration – people have the capacity to be healed when they get to discover the healer, and it’s only as we listen that we can help them to discover the healer.

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