We have been taught that evangelism is about sharing the Gospel – and indeed it is, but too often, we misunderstand that sharing involves first and foremost the ability to listen. To speak without listening is not to share the Gospel at all, but it is to perhaps pontificate, speaking not to the heart of a person, but merely putting the message of the good news out there.
A missional approach to evangelism involves learning to listen.
If we believe that God is at work in the world and that in being led by the Spirit of God to participate with what God is doing, then we can also believe that the Spirit leads us into conversations which have the possibility of developing into relationships.
The first insight in learning to listen, according to Campbell Johnson, is realizing that the outcome of evangelism is not ours to worry about – “the power and outcome belong to God; we offer ourselves as willing participants in God’s intention for the moment” (p. 71). To be able to listen, requires us first to be listening to where God is leading us, with whom he is connecting us, so that we can be in a place with another to discover what God is doing in them and how we might name God’s activity in their lives.
Campbell Johnson, then describes three other characteristics of learning to listen.
First, one must learn to become an empathetic learner. “To listen to another, [one] must lay aside their personal agenda” (p. 71). This is to notice the person as God notices the person. If our encounter is no accident, but a connection that the Spirit of God has led us into, then given attention to the other. Hear what they are expressing; give attention to them; focus on their life experience. Campbell Johnson states that this is the basis for genuine dialogue.
Second, one must learn to listen with one’s whole person – with eyes, ears, and heart. Campbell Johnson states that with our eyes we observe the nonverbal cues of the person we are engaging in dialogue. What does their posture, their facial expression say about what is being expressed in dialogue? We are also to listen with our ears – not only the words, but their tone, their inflection, the context of the words – which enable us to gain an understanding of what the other is expressing.
Finally, one must learn to listen through Gospel filters. “These filters enable us to hear the narrative of another in the context of biblical truth” (p. 71). In what ways does the person talk about their story with or apart from God? We are seeking to become aware of how God is at work in this person’s life. As we listen to them through a rubric of the Gospel, we will be able to name or address their longing for God, their longing for purpose, for direction; their struggle with alienation, brokenness, etc.
In listening through Gospel filters we are being shaped by the Gospel in learning to listen for cues that God is trying to get us to see – cues which enable us to speak into a person’s life with the shalom presence of Jesus Christ – but not with a pre-rehearsed spiel, but rather to point out the touches of grace by which God is touching them. In learning to listen, we discover how to express the Gospel in terms of the good news which is already being accomplished in their lives. The Gospel, when it is more fully expressed in response for explanation – cf. the Ethiopian court official in Acts 8, finds a place of rootedness, finds a place in which the hearer is able to give assent because the Gospel is uncovering the brokenness in their lives and the healing that comes through Jesus Christ.
Francis Assisi’s observation, “Wherever you go preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words” is appropriate to developing the art of listening in being missional in evangelism.
May you have ears to hear what God is saying, and eyes to see what God is doing, as well as to see what God sees.