Listen Up: A Needed Skill for Evangelism and Discipleship

LISTEN“Christianity demands that we have enough compassion to learn the questions of our generation.” – Francis Schaeffer

Do you hear what Schaeffer is saying? Our witness and discipleship requires that we understand the questions our generation is asking. To understand these questions, we must listen. However, Schaeffer puts his finger on our problem, which is much the same as it was in his day:

The trouble with too many of us is that we want to be able to answer these questions instantly, as though we could take a funnel, put it in one ear and pour in the facts, and then go out and regurgitate them and win all the discussions. (414)

This is descriptive of far too many of my witnessing opportunities and discipleship relationships. At times out of fear  “Answering questions is hard work.” Schaeffer continues, “Can you answer all the questions? No, but you must try. Begin to listen with compassion. Ask what this man’s questions really are and try to answer. And if you don’t know the answer, try to go someplace or read and study to find the answer.” (414) Are you listening? Schaeffer calls us to listen with compassion, listen for questions, and seek to give an honest answer.

Schaeffer helps us see what Scripture has called us to all along. Listen to Colossians 4:5-6:

Conduct yourselves wisely towards outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Answering questions is woven into our witness. Colossians calls us to answer others graciously and winsomely. However, preceding our answering must be our listening.

Easy enough. But how do we listen well, no less with compassion and to identify the questions people are really asking?

Tell me your story

Perhaps the best practice for listening well is asking people to tell you their story. Jeff Vanderstelt brings this out clearly in his recent book Gospel Fluency. Everyone has a story and everyone’s stories reveal important truths and questions. It is in the sharing of stories that we have the opportunity to listen well.

My regular counsel to Christians these days is to spend more time listening than talking if they want to be able to share the gospel of Jesus in a way that meaningfully speaks to the hearts of others. (175)

Listening well to people’s stories means listening with the gospel story in mind. Ask yourself: In what ways are they looking for answers that the gospel provides? How does the gospel meet them where they are in their life? Who is the hero of their story? How is Jesus better than what they are pursuing or trusting in?

Vanderstelt provides the following list of questions that flow from the gospel story:

  • Creation: In what do they find their identity or sense of purpose and significance?
  • Fall: Whom or what is the fundamental problem they blame for the things that are broken in their lives?
  • Redemption: Whom or what are they looking to as their savior to rescue or deliver them?
  • New Creation: What does transformation look like and what is their ultimate hope for the future?

Once we have listened well, we can begin to speak gospel truth into their story in a way they can understand and will hear. Perhaps you are speaking to someone who has not yet trusted in Jesus Christ, you will be able to see where they are finding their identity, what problem they are facing, what functional savior they are trusting, and what hope they are holding on to in their lives. The gospel offers a better word—a new identity, an answer for our brokenness, a gracious Savior, and a secure hope.

This also applies in our discipleship relationships. Transformation happens when gospel truth meets real life. We must slow down and listen to one another’s stories rather than merely working through our bible studies. As we listen to another in discipleship, we can rehearse the gospel story and apply it to each other’s lives. The more we rehearse and apply the gospel to our lives in discipleship, the more equipped we will be to hear others and bring the gospel to bear on their stories.

Ask Questions…And Actually Listen

Francis Schaeffer once stated, “If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first fifty-five minutes asking them questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last five minutes I will share something of the truth.”*

In order to do this, we must think rightly about people. Every human being is made in the image of God and we must display Christ-like love and compassion as we engage them. Asking good questions requires a level of curiosity, patience, and intentionality in our conversations. We must understand how people think, what questions they are asking, and what answers they are looking for. And once we ask questions, we must then actually listen as they respond. Jonathan Dodson captures this well:

As you slow down, listen closely what people really believe; listen for the desire beneath the words. Where appropriate, ask questions like: How does that make you feel? What do you really want? If you could change the circumstances to fit exactly what you want, what would it be? Look for trigger words that indicate fear, joy, anxiety, hope, despair, concern, and anger. Then think about how Christ intersects that need. When you do this, you’ll find that the gospel says something that the person will find worth believing. (50)

Dodson’s counsel brings to mind David Powlison’s x-ray questions. It probably should not surprise us that a biblical counselor would have great wisdom in helping us learn to listen well and apply the gospel to people’s lives. That is, after all, what biblical counseling is all about. By addressing the specific heart issues of people with gospel truth, true repentance and lasting change can occur. Notice that these questions can be used when seeking to share the gospel with a neighbor or encouraging a fellow believer in community:

  • What do you want out of that relationship?
  • What you working for in this job?
  • What do you fear in this situation?
  • What are your plans or intentions with this opportunity?
  • Who are you trying to please right now?
  • What really matters to you?
  • Where are you looking for comfort or security?
  • Whose opinion matters most to you?
  • How do you define success or failure in this particular situation?

Powlison offers the following explanation for these questions:

Notice that each question circles around the same basic issue: Who or what is your functional God/god? Many of the questions simply derive from the verbs that relate you to God: love, trust, fear, hope, seek, obey, take refuge, and the like. Each verb holds out a lamp to guide us to Him who is way, truth, and life. But each verb also may be turned into a question, holding up a mirror to show us where we stray. – David Powlison

Thinking this way and asking these kinds of questions is not a formula for success in evangelism or discipleship. However, it is a way of genuinely loving and compassionately engaging people. As we open ourselves up to others and they see our love for them, they will share their real questions, fears, and hopes. When they do, we must be ready to speak the gospel.

Speak the Gospel

Whether we ask these questions or use them as a filter to listen as people share their stories, we will be positioned to see real needs and point to real hope in Jesus Christ. Just as we must listen to people’s stories with the gospel story in mind, we must also be comfortable speaking gospel truth in response to people’s questions. More than anyone else, Jonathan Dodson has helped me think through how to do this well. Dodson points out five gospel metaphors from the Scriptures that help us connect the gospel to people’s real needs in a believable way. Those metaphors are justification, new creation, redemption, adoption, and union with Christ. These metaphors taken from Scripture display the richness of the gospel and its ability to speak to deep longings within the human heart—whether they are seeking acceptance, hope, intimacy, tolerance, approval, or community. Listen to Jonathan explain this himself:

The gospel is the answer to people’s deepest needs and most pressing questions. Dodson’s challenge to us is to ask, “How is the gospel the answer?” To answer that question, we must listen up. We need to share stories, ask good questions, listen with compassion, and then speak the gospel in a way that connects with real life and can be embraced by repentance and faith.

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