by Mark Slaughter
When we think about evangelism, we usually think of talking. After all, the word evangelize means to “announce good news.” So naturally, we focus our training upon proclaiming, communicating, defending, or sharing the good news message… as we should.
But, listening is often a neglected skill in evangelism.
I recall an evangelism trainer saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, and we should take the hint!” If we listened twice as much as we spoke, our words might connect more deeply with people’s souls.
Effective evangelism begins with listening – listening to God and listening to others.
Listening to God
Rick Richardson, author of Reimagining Evangelism, has called this “dual channel listening.” We listen to God as we listen to people. We listen for where the Holy Spirit is already at work in another person, and then listen for those gentle Spirit-led whispers and promptings. That’s collaborating with God who is already working in our friends’ lives!
In describing himself as the Great Shepherd, Jesus said that “his sheep follow him because they know his voice” (John 10:4). Over time, we can increasingly distinguish Jesus’ voice over others inside us.
Listening to People
One of the greatest gifts we can give someone is being fully present in the moment! Giving a person our full attention — free from distractions — communicates genuine love, respect, dignity, and value.
Jesus himself was a great listener. In his conversation with a Samaritan woman in John 4, she spoke four times more than Jesus did!
In his newly-released book, Listening Well: The Art of Empathetic Understanding, William R. Miller writes:
It matters not only what you say but how you say it… What will keep you on the right track is the mindset and the heart-set beneath your listening… When you listen with curiosity, compassion, patience, and a genuine desire to understand, you’re unlikely to stray from the path.
It is easy for us to hear someone without listening. We may hear the facts, but miss the underlying feelings. Consequently, we fall into traps as we think or speak by trying to fix their problems, focusing on ourselves and our experiences, acting superior, or giving simplistic responses. Instead, people first often simply want us to empathize with them. Even being skilled at asking good questions is different than active listening.
As Leighton Ford has said, “Listening is ‘hospitality’–making space for the guest of honor!”
So, how do we listen to people in evangelism?
- Listen for clues of God at work. Notice issues they are facing. Underneath loneliness, fear, insecurity, anger, and doubts are often deeper longings for security, love, belonging, justice, or meaning and purpose.
- Pay attention to pain. Tears, a pause, or a hesitation often indicate something stirring deeply within their souls. It’s a sacred space. Honor it!
- Respond with reflective listening. Making an empathetic comment (“That sounds really difficult.”) and asking questions about what it was like for them builds trust and often opens a person to deeper levels of sharing. It shows that we are taking them seriously, like God does.
- Connect their pain and longings with Jesus. I like asking people where they look for the power to change or deal with something, or I may ask them, “Have you ever considered how God could address that issue?” As the Holy Spirit leads, often I can share a story from my own life or a friend’s life illustrating how active faith in Jesus made a difference. Or, I may share a story from Jesus where he dealt with someone facing that issue, and lead to the hope we have in the gospel.
Let’s use both our ears and our mouths in communicating the good news found in Jesus Christ!
Mark Slaughter (@MarkASlaughter) is an InterVarsity evangelist and national facilitator of Emerging Generations for the Mission America Coalition. He is a former pastor who is passionate about empowering the next generation of evangelism leaders and raising the evangelism temperature. Learn more: markslaughter.org.