A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.... I hosted a radio show, and I was asked to explain myself. A regular feature was raising eyebrows. It opened with Sting singing, “If I Should Ever Lose My Faith In You.” As the music faded, a very loud voice-overman would announce, “Ladies and Gentlemen it’s time for Why I’m Not A Christian with… Bill Hogg.”
I was asked to justify this weekly segment since I was hosting talk radio on a “Christian” station. Way back in 1927, the British philosopher, Bertrand Russel famously gave a talk which became the book, Why I am Not A Christian. Perhaps I was under suspicion as a Bertrand Russell fan boy?
I gave people the opportunity to air their spiritual grievances and objections to Christian faith. I thought it fair game to give people the chance to voice the reasons why they would not or could not follow Jesus. I let my guests speak. I did not respond to their sticking points by grabbing my gospel gun and blasting them with Bible bullets. I let them talk. We had a conversation. When pressed to justify this segment, I said, “We need to learn to listen and listen to learn.”
The Preacher offers counter-intuitive wisdom for gospel heralds: “There is a time for everything… a time to be silent and a time to speak.” “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
This axiom applies to fruitful and effective evangelism. There is a time, even for a bold witness or a gifted evangelist, to be silent. There is a time for an eloquent gospel fluent soul to speak much of King Jesus. Unabashed. Unashamed. Uninhibited. We must speak up. “… Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” We must preach the gospel all the time and use words because they are necessary! There is also a time to hit the pause button. There is a time to be silent.
Don’t speak. Listen. Really listen. We need to learn to listen. We need to listen to learn.
Some of our inherited evangelism approaches have ignored the power of listening. Some of us were trained to memorize a presentation much like a salesman or saleswoman. We then gave our sales pitch and moved towards closing the deal. The gospel was distilled into four or five propositions. The prime objective was to communicate those propositions and expedite a transaction. At the close of our canned presentation the final step was to invite our prospect to close the deal by “praying the prayer.”
The late Stan Grenz advocated a “post-rationalistic gospel”. He contended that, “We must make room for the concept of 'mystery'…as a reminder that the fundamental reality of God transcends human rationality.” Grenz argued that the heart of Christianity is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ and that an experience of Jesus is recounted by propositional categorization. However, “propositions…have a second order of importance…our goal in proclaiming the gospel should not merely be to bring others to affirm a list of correct propositions.”
Stan Grenz’s wisdom needs to be heeded. Perhaps your go-to is Steps to Peace with God, Your Most Important Relationship, The Four Spiritual Laws or Three Circles. The goal is not having people nod each time you share or declare a “Law” or a “Step.” The beauty, truth and power of the gospel can’t be truncated into four tidy statements. The goal is to invite people into a disruptive encounter with King Jesus. In these old approaches, the gospel is reduced to a commodity for mass distribution.
A sales pitch bypasses the need to listen. If I am on sales mode, I am not an attentive listener. Veteran youth worker Dave Veerman grasped the downside of deploying a salesforce with a canned presentation. “There is no one perfect way to communicate the Gospel. That is why a memorized speech won’t work. Young people are not ‘customers’, they are people.” Veerman throws a red flag on the field because this approach reduces young and old people alike to objects and prospects. If someone is an object, a prospect, or a target then we really don’t need to listen to them. We must move away from sales pitch evangelism.
Becky Pippert , who is a keynote speaker at the upcoming Advance Evangelists Summit recounts a Spring Break beach evangelism foray. Students hit a coastal resort to let off steam, and party. Becky and the God Squad saw this as a prime opportunity to show and share the love of Jesus amongst students. One team member walked away from a beach encounter looking displeased. Becky quizzed the beach evangelist on why he looked so bummed. He informed her that he had only managed to share one of the four spiritual laws with a sunbathing student.
Becky asked what the student’s name was. Her teammate did not know. What school was the student attending? He did not know. What was he studying? He did not know. If the prime objective is to pitch the plan and expeditiously download the four propositions, finding out about your target might slow you down. Listening becomes surplus to requirements.
More than 50% of Jesus’ teaching ministry was in response to a question. This tells us Jesus listened! The Sovereign Lord – the embodiment of grace, truth and wisdom listened and responded to people’s questions, doubts, and heart cries. Jesus did not practice one-size-fits-all evangelism in his personal encounters with people. The Lord Jesus is the Evangelist par excellence. He did not gallop around Galilee with a rote presentation. To a religious leader, Jesus spoke of the need to be “born from above.” Nicodemus needed a new life; he needed nothing less than a fresh start precipitated by a new birth. Jesus did not press the issue of new birth with the woman at the well. He did not exhort her to be born again. Jesus took a different approach. He spoke to a sexually broken woman on a quest for adoring love and intimacy about water. Her real deep inner thirst could be slaked by a fountain of living water. As they sat perched on a well under the blazing sun Jesus stated, “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Michael Green, the veteran Anglican evangelist stated, “There is only one way to God, that being Jesus, there are many ways to Jesus.” We need to be clear about the good news and be nimble, adaptive, and fluid when we share the good news. Jesus’ approach to self-righteous Pharisees was markedly different to his engagement with misfits and outsiders. How so? Because the spiritual posture of a religious moralist and someone profoundly aware of their shortcomings, sins and failures is strikingly different.
Our gospel approach to a self-righteous religious person (Nicodemus) will be different from someone enveloped in self-loathing. Gospeling a self-sufficient moralist will be radically different from how we share the good news with a broken and abused person (the woman caught in adultery). How do we know if someone is mired in self-sufficiency, trapped in shame or brokenhearted? We need to listen. Then we can engage in appropriate situational accentuation as we discover people’s stories and needs.
Phillip the evangelist was a proclaimer with a message who demonstrates the power and priority of listening. Phillip was filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit and receptive to the guiding voice of the Spirit. He listened to the Holy Spirit. His attentiveness to the Holy Spirit’s voice propelled him into a one-on-one encounter with a man on a spiritual quest. He meets up with an Ethiopian traveler who had gone to Jerusalem to worship and on his return, trip was poring over the Scriptures.
Phillip did not jump in with a presentation.
He listened first. Before he opened his mouth – he listened! “Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. 'Do you understand what you are reading?' Philip asked.”
If we don’t listen, we can miss the cues that reveal someone’s real questions.
A co-worker raises the question: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People? Here is a big theological question: if God is all powerful, loving, kind, and fully competent why does he permit evil in the world? Is your co-worker wanting to put you in your place? Is your co-worker wanting a philosophical wrestling match? Does she want you to vindicate the character of God and weave a dazzling Biblical theodicy? Or is she tentatively taking a baby step to see if she can disclose her own pain and disappointment with God? Is this a philosophically speculative question or a personal issue? Is she tentatively inviting you to help her reconcile her hardships and losses with the goodness of God and perhaps see God through the eyes of an adoring child again?
How might you distinguish between a real hindrance to faith and a red herring? We need to listen well. Prayerfully and attentively listen for questions behind the questions. Listen to what is being said and what is not being said.
I met Franco in a bar in Toronto. He sat next to me and announced that he wouldn’t be sticking around for long. Three hours later we were deep in spiritual conversation. He had an eclectic spiritual journey. He claimed that he had seen God and heard the voice of God when he was tripping on LSD. He was baptized in the River Ganges and was fascinated with a psychic I had not heard of. At one point he stood up and announced to the bar, much to the chagrin of two businessmen seated across from us, “Hey people we need a whole lot more Christ consciousness.” He then sat down at the bar again, closed his eyes and chanted, “Ommmm.”
He made a passing remark that he had attended Catholic school as a boy. I joked that maybe he was sent there because his parents did not like him. He responded that perhaps that was the case because they were not Catholic and none of his siblings attended the school. He told me that he was physically abused by the nuns.
As I listened a question formed in my mind. I asked, “Do you think that your unwillingness to look into Jesus, who he is and what he offers you, is because you were mistreated by the nuns?”
Franco’s eyes widened. It was an epiphany for him. “Totally. That’s it.” I asked what I thought was both a simple and obvious question. The lights went on for Franco and our conversation orbited around the uniqueness and supremacy of Jesus.
We need to listen to people. Listen to their stories. Listen for heart cries. Listen for their spoken and unspoken questions. We need to grasp the power of listening as an act of love. The art of spiritual conversation involves listening, asking good questions, and responding to the hurts, hang ups and questions with good news.
May God give us grace to listen well, step up and pray, and speak out in Jesus’ Name!
Dr. Bill Hogg, National Director, Message Canada www.messagecanada.org
Ecclesiastes 3:7 Romans 10:17, NIV  Stanley J Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) p. 170  Pete Ward, Youth Culture, and the Gospel (London: Marshall Pickering, 1992) p. 121 See John 3 John 4:14 See John 8 Acts 8:30, NIV