Listening Evangelism:
Proclaiming the Good News With Your Ears

When it comes to evangelism, there's one commandment of Christ most of us obey: "Go and tell no one" (Mark 1:44). That's because we think evangelism is a lecture, and we're no lecturers. After all, evangelists are always portrayed as stump orators proclaiming something called the Good News to silent, absorbent hearers. So we think of evangelism as something we do to people and the Good News as an set of abstract "truths of the Faith." And, of course, since most of us don't like the thought of haranguing a crowd and don't feel as though we have all these "biblical concepts" down, we figure we're just not cut out for the evangelism thing.

But what, precisely, are these "biblical concepts" evangelists are supposed to preach? Many would answer, "Well, the Scripture or the teachings of the gospel." Yes, but what do these say? They are not merely words about words, they are words about the Word made Flesh (John 1:14). That is, according to the very Gospel we are supposed to preach, when God did His great work of evangelism, He chose, not to give us a handy-dandy leaflet of "biblical concepts", but to become human and share in His own body what it is to be born, to live, to die and to rise in triumph in the person of Jesus Christ.

Thus, the Word we proclaim proclaimed Himself not in abstractions but in flesh and blood. He is, in short, a real human being and not simply a summary of teachings. He is Emmanuel, not a manual. And like a real human being, He listened to those He came to save as much as He talked to them. He Who knows the need of every heart asked people, "What do you want me to do for you?" (Luke 18:41). He Who is the embodiment of the Law asked the Pharisee, "What is written in the Law? How do you read it?" (Luke 10:26). He Who saw Nathanael under the fig tree before they met called out, "Who touched me?" after the bleeding woman was healed (Luke 8:45). And He really waited for an answer.

So what gives? Why all this curiosity on the part of Him Who has the ultimate inside track? Very simply, because God is big enough to take us seriously as persons and allow us to reveal ourselves in His presence. He Who became human knows we need the room to become human in His presence. So He came not only to preach, but to listen to us as well. For, like the Psalmist, we have a fundamental need to be heard as well as answered (Psalm 61:1). This is a real break for those of us who aren't public speakers but who still wish to share our Lord with those around us. For it means there is another way of evangelism besides pulpit pounding: the way of Listening Evangelism.

How can we learn to listen like Christ? Let us look at four deceptively simple questions which, implicitly or explicitly, Jesus asked (and calls us to ask):

1. Who is my neighbor?

2. Where is my neighbor?

3. What does my neighbor love?

4. What is my neighbor's need?

Who Is My Neighbor?

This question informed all the questions Jesus asked of people and all the time He took to listen to their needs, complaints, praise, and accusations. For he sought to allow people to reveal themselves, whether for good or ill (Luke 2:34-35).

Now such an undertaking is fearful. After all, if we take steps to move our conversation beyond "how's work?" and "what about them Seahawks!" who knows what might happen? We might find ourselves drowning in endless cascades of tedious autobiography. Or face to face with such unsettling customers as an addict, an abused child, a poet or a saint. Worst of all, we might have to reveal ourselves if we make the same opening for others.

Nonetheless, the thing must be done if we are serious about imitating Christ. We must choose to love and listen to others as though they actually matter if we are to going to be credible witnesses of the love of Christ. For they really do matter. And they matter, not as "potential convert material" but as persons, right here and now. Jesus knew this and so paid attention to the needs and questions of peasants as well as temple scholars, tax collectors and painted ladies as well as "spiritual" types like St. John the Apostle. And his most devoted followers have always done likewise. That is the point of the tale of the saint who, on a preaching tour, once stopped on the road for an hour to listen carefully to a farmer woman complain about her turkeys and give her suggestions on their care. When the saint's friends questioned this "waste of time", the saint replied, "Her whole life is in those turkeys." Which brings us to our second question.

Where Is My Neighbor?

God always works with us where we are because (as Thomas Aquinas points out) His grace builds on, not destroys, our nature. That is why, for example, He took so long with Israel before He sent Jesus. The world had to be prepared for, not just zapped with, the Good News. Similarly then, it is critical that we take care to learn something of where our neighbor is coming from as we attempt to share Christ. For in so doing, we are showing reverence for the groundwork God has already laid in our neighbor's life and meeting him or her at their growing edge. This is the thrust of St. Paul's comment (Corinthians 9:19-22) that he is "all things to all", approaching different folks with different strokes on their particular terms, not his (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).

Check out the Book of Acts. When Paul spoke to Jews he (a trained rabbi) reasoned with them from the Scriptures to show that Jesus was the promised Messiah of Israel. Like Matthew's gospel (which was addressed to a predominantly Jewish audience), Paul took great pains to show that the revelation of Christ was in accord with what all Jews knew to be God's word: the Hebrew Bible. (That's why the New Testament is peppered with all those "it is writtens.")

But your average jolly Greco-Roman pagan didn't give a rip about the Jewish Bible. What then? Well, read Acts 17:16-33. Paul knew that pagans were people too, made in the image of God and as full of longing for the Lover of their souls as any good Jew. So, taking his cue from a pagan altar erected in honor of "The Unknown God," Paul spoke to the Athenian pagans on the basis of what they understood and loved. He disconnected the Greek love of nature from the squabbling gods of Olympus and reconnected it with the Creator Himself. He quoted, not Scripture (which his audience neither knew nor cared about), but Greek poetry (which his audience knew and loved). Then he announced that the "Unknown God" for which the Greek (and French and Watusi and American Yuppie) heart pines had done a wonderful thing: He had been born a human being in a little Galilean backwater town, had come to command our repentance and faith in him and had died on a cross and risen from the dead so that we could enter into his eternal life completely. In short, before Paul spoke he listened to the Athenian heart.

So should we hold off mentioning the Jesus we know until we have a complete file on the person to whom we speak? No, but if we are to evangelize well, we must recognize the critical need to know something of those to whom we speak. Some of this knowledge is, of course, mere common sense. The inner city teen has a different set of critical issues than the little old man upstairs with the passion for model railroads. But much lies below the surface as well and cannot be known apart from listening to the person we wish to evangelize. Was she abused as a child? Does he grapple with an eating disorder? Does she find herself moved at the beauty of an October sunset and feel herself to be surrounded by some huge mystery that she greatly desires but cannot quite touch? These sorts of things are the doorways into where people really live, and it is precisely here that people need first to be heard and taken seriously before they are ready to be answered by the gospel. For behind these doors we all hide what we truly love and truly need.

What Does My Neighbor Love?

C.S. Lewis, Peter Kreeft and others have pointed out that many people have at some point felt within themselves a profound desire for something they can't describe. This desire (Lewis called it "Joy") is mysterious in that, though many earthly things evoke it, nothing seems to really satisfy it. We try to fill it with earthly things--often things we rightly love: our spouse, our work, our kids, the view from a mountaintop, that painfully beautiful passage of music Grampa used to play on his violin. But though all these are good they are not what we want. Ultimately we find ourselves asking, "what has any of these...to do with that unnamable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of a bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of Kublai Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves?" So the hunger remains--a keen, beautiful hunger which is more desirable than any fullness earth can supply.

This Joy (what Lewis called the "appetite for heaven") is at the core of all our true loves. Paul knew this when he spoke to the Athenians and proclaimed the good news about the Unknown God. For Paul too had a high regard for the "pre-evangelism of joy" which the Holy Spirit and kneaded into Greco-Roman culture. Well-versed, not only in Jewish but in pagan culture, Paul had gotten to know and appreciate his hearers. He didn't swoop into Athens and declare everyone a knucklehead for not being Jewish. Instead he said, in effect, "Your deepest longings are fulfilled beyond your wildest dreams. The hope that built this altar has been answered from heaven."

Now if your neighbor is like most people, somewhere deep inside is a love which both dreads and aches to reveal itself. By listening you can gently make opportunities for that to happen. For, one way or another, from the fullness of their heart their mouth will speak (Matthew 12:34). Watch and see what turns them on. Find out who and what they love and why. Study them to discover their natural gifts. Do they have a passion for books? Do they light up at the mention of astronomy or bobsledding? Try to discover why the comic book collection or the family mean so very much to them. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how these things may be doors into their soul. See evangelism as a courtship and conversion as a marriage; as propagation, not propaganda. Seek to find ways in which your neighbor can see that the things he or she loves most dearly are dim foretastes of the beauty of Christ. Try to help your neighbor's love meet the One you love.

What Is My Neighbor's Need?

Everybody needs. Some need food. Some need a job. Some need a reason to live. And of course, beyond this, our fundamental need is for Jesus Christ Himself. Yet Jesus, Who knows all our need, approaches us on the basis of what we think we need. As with the blind man, He asks us, "What do you want me to do for you?" Why does He do this? First of all, because that question often forces us to ask ourselves (perhaps for the first time) what we do really want. It invites us to authenticity with Him. Sometimes, of course, the need is obvious. Like the 5,000 we blurt out, "I'm hungry," and the call to the common sense Christian is obvious: Dish up the chow (James 2:15-16). Other times, however, we only think we know what we want. We find the thing we have been demanding is an illusion veiling some deeper and more fearful need. This is often the root of that malignant form of need known as addiction. We eat or drink or pop pills because we feel these things will ease the gnawing in our gut. But of course they don't, so we gulp down some more. For we can never get enough of what we don't really want.

So how can we help people unravel this tangle of healthy and unhealthy need? We can have compassion. We can listen. We can serve those needs which we can and should meet. We can be real about our own needs and shortcomings and lovingly help our neighbor hear what they may not be able, on their own steam, to hear themselves saying. We can, in love, be for them a mirror and a question. In so doing we begin to reflect for them the ways in which Jesus is able to meet their needs.

So Where Do I Start?

Like riding a bike, listening evangelism is learned by doing it. But the most practical place to start is by drawing close to the Master Listener: Jesus. Read of his encounters with people in Scripture. How did He listen and respond? Find a story (like, for instance, the story of the Samaritan woman in John) in which Jesus listens. In your mind's eye, be a mouse in the corner and watch Jesus as he lovingly comes both to listen to the woman and to bear witness to the truth. Practice being in the Presence of Christ by opening up to him with your loves and fears as she did. Ask Him to answer these and to show you how you might do the same for others. Thus, you will learn to love as He has loved you and, like St. Paul, to encourage others with the encouragement you have yourself received. Then, in some ordinary circumstance of home or work, experiment with giving your full attention to another as Christ gives His full attention to us. (It's tougher to learn than ice skating so don't berate yourself if you can't do it well right off the bat.) Finally, seek to prayerfully respond in love to what people actually say, not to what our busy minds want to talk about. These are good starter steps (and being a beginner myself, the best I can give you). But if you want to go further, there's lots of room. Get involved in a prayer group. Or do a study of the great evangelists in the Bible (like Paul, Peter and Apollos) or in Christian history (like D.L. Moody, Billy Graham, Francis Xavier or Hudson Taylor). All these and many more are ways in which the God Who listens can, in His words, "teach you in the way you should go" (Psalm 32:8). If you seek Him, you will find Him. For He hears the cry of our heart and answers it with Good News.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea