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What do they hear?

The Importance of Listening in Evangelism

Good communication is a challenge at the best of times. With a myriad of differences in the way each person thinks, processes, and uses words, the seemingly simple procedure of sending and receiving information can become as difficult as rain-making.

Unfortunately, none of us are mind readers. We cannot swap thought for thought with other people. When you want to communicate a thought to another person – let’s call him Bob – you will use symbols or codes, both verbal (words) and non-verbal (body language, facial expressions) and assign meaning to these symbols. The fun begins when Bob receives these symbols and codes and begins to interpret them. Now if the life experience and background of Bob is similar to yours, then you both will likely assign the same meaning to the codes and the message will be clearly communicated. However, if there are ethnic or cultural differences between you and Bob, then you’ll assign different meanings to the words, and the message may be lost in translation.

            This principle of communication has serious implications for evangelism. When you become a Christian, you enter a brand new culture and adopt new symbols and terminology. You gain a new perception of life. It is important to remember that when we share the gospel with outsiders, there will be a major language barrier. Even though you may both speak English, this won’t be enough to simply “preach the gospel.” You have a whole set of words that are distinct to your Christian community. Until you shape your message to the person who is listening, you will not be successful in communicating the good news.

If you are a gifted conversationalist or have a good command of the English language, there will be a danger in thinking you are a better communicator than you really are. Good talking is only half of the communication process. The other part requires good listening – making sure the non-Christian, Bob, is translating the message correctly.

We do not share the gospel for our benefit. We must communicate personally with Bob in mind. We can’t merely make sure we get all the basic elements of belief, justification, sin, judgment, etc. into our conversation and be satisfied. Instead, we need to ask, “What did he hear?” It doesn’t matter how eloquent or comprehensive we are if the basic words and concepts are not explained in a way the seeker understands. The vital goal is for Bob to accurately hear and interpret the message. This requires paying close attention to Bob’s body language and frequently allowing him time for feedback.

Take this basic gospel sentence, for example: “God loves you, Jesus died for your sins and the Bible says that if you believe and repent, you will be given eternal life.” There are many words here that will need to be defined. What does Bob hear in this sentence? When we say God, does he interpret it as the Creator of the universe, or an impersonal force? When we say love, does he hear sappy romantic love, apathetic kindness, or passionate, stop-at-nothing goodness? When we say Jesus, does Bob think of a mythical character so overgrown with legend that we can’t tell who or what this poor carpenter really was, or does he think of Him as the God-Man who has the power of life and death and left us historical proof of this? When we say sins, does he think about fun things that some grouchy priest arbitrarily forbade him to do? Or does he think about sin as arsenic and a poison, as well as a moral crime against a holy, just, all-powerful God? When we say Bible, does he hear the authoritative Word of God, or merely a book full of hopelessly contradictory myths and legends? What does he hear when we say belief? Does he think of blind, against-the-evidence faith? Or does he think of trust? When we say repent, does Bob have a clue what we are talking about? These are just a few examples of ways that basic words need to be defined before the unbeliever can hear the true gospel.

Not only do we need to ask what Bob is hearing in our verbal message, but perhaps even more importantly we need to ask what he is hearing in our non-verbal message. What are we communicating with our tone of voice and facial expressions? Does he hear genuine love and concern for him? Or does it seem like we are doing this so we can check him off a list? Does he perceive that we care more about being right and winning an argument, than we do about his hurts and struggles?

Another thing to keep in mind is Bob’s past. What things have happened in his life that will affect his perception of what we have to say? Has he come out of Christianity and is full of doubts about the truth of it? Or has he had bad experiences with legalistic, joyless Christians? Have past “evangelists” driven him further away with their pride and thoughtlessness? Has he been burned by a cult and is wary and suspicious of all religious people? What tragedies has Bob gone through that may be making him bitter toward God, or perhaps hungry for true love?

In a similar vein, we shouldn’t be too quick to answer a question or challenge a non-Christian may throw at us. Solomon warned us that it’s a folly and a shame when a man answers a matter before he fully hears it. When Bob asks why God allows evil and suffering, we need to discover if this is an intellectual query that needs a well-thought-out logical response. Or maybe this is, due to a recent tragedy, an emotional cry, in which case Bob will need to be given God’s answer to the real problem of suffering – the love and compassion of Christ. 

My main point is that those outside of Christ are not created uniformly. An effective evangelistic method cannot be a one-size-fits-all. Each person that we try to reach is unique. They all speak a different language, and have different life experiences that will affect how our message is perceived. Like Paul, we must become all things to all men, so that we may win them to Christ.

Don’t misunderstand me: Christ doesn’t change, nor does His message of repentance and forgiveness. But the differences in the unbeliever’s terminology and perception must dictate flexibility on our part. We must carefully custom fit our message to Bob’s unique specifications. The only way we can possibly do this is to get to know him. It will take time to ask questions about his past and encourage him to give us feedback about how our message is being translated.

            Good communication begins with having the mind of Christ – being others-focused. Take the time to listen to Bob so that you can put yourself in his shoes. Apply the golden rule to your witnessing. Treat Bob with the same courtesy you want to be treated with. When you deal with a salesman, think about what you appreciate and what turns you off. Realize how irritating it is when someone is persistent in trying to sell you something you don’t think you need, and doesn’t take the time to ask what you do need. You need to address Bob right where he is on his spiritual journey. But to do this you first need to listen to his stories and his struggles. Above all, listen to the Holy Spirit and only speak what he gives you to say – no more and no less. He is the only one who can really ensure successful communication with any unbeliever.

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