Jeff Strite says this actually happened in a southern church several years ago. The local preacher had been preaching on the importance of evangelism. In the congregation was a young man who was mentally challenged who took these lessons to heart. Consequently, he began telling everyone who would listen about Jesus and asking if they wanted to become a Christian.
One Sunday a man visited who really didn’t want to be there. He was invited by a family who were members. He was a skeptic, but he attended just to be polite. At one point, the young man approached the visitor and asked, “Do you want to be a Christian?” “No!” the man exclaimed. The boy looked at the skeptic for a moment and then responded, “Well, then you can go to hell.” And he turned and walked away.
While that story sounds extreme, it does illustrate a quality that is overlooked in evangelism. A recent Barna survey posted on their website revealed there is “a stark gap between who non-Christians want to talk to about faith and the Christians they actually know.”
As you wade through the statistics and data, the research basically says that Christians are not good listeners. Too often we are so focused on sharing “our story” that we don’t listen to “their story.”
Since “our story” is the good news of the gospel about God’s saving grace, it is easy to excitedly short cut the process. We talk before we listen, and we quote Bible verses prior to really developing credibility. We try to bring the prospect to Christ before we learn where he or she is in life.
Several years ago in an Outreach Magazine article, a non-Christian made this observation about those who tried to convert her: “I’d say 75% of these people don’t really care who I am. They just want to build up their church or something. They don’t even ask me what my name is.”
In the Barna survey, 50 percent of non-Christians and unfaithful Christian respondents said they wanted to dialogue with someone who “does not force a conclusion.” However, only 26 percent said that applied to practicing Christians they knew.
When you study the one-on-one methods of Jesus, He asked questions and listened. He helped the prospect see where they were, and then gently led them to see where they needed to be. A wonderful example in found in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Brooke Hempell, senior vice president of research at the Barna Group, said the findings showed that “as we find popular culture increasingly distanced from Christianity, non-Christians may need a lot more time to digest and come to terms with what the gospel proposes or offers them.”
Not everyone may be ready to go from A to Z in a single conversation, and pressing the topic forward may feel forced to the non-Christian — to the point of turning them away,” said Hempell.
Jesus’ parable of the sower reminds us that not everyone will listen or obey the truth. And, of those who do, some will fall away. We cannot force acceptance or obedience to the gospel (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23).
“Evangelism is not salesmanship,” one writer reminds us. “It is not urging people, pressing them, coercing them, overwhelming them, or subduing them. Evangelism is telling a message. Evangelism is reporting good news.”
As you consider your interactions with others in evangelistic efforts, these questions may help:
- Do I hastily judge others based on their first sentence, and then tune them out for everything else?
- Do I ignore and dismiss what others say when I disagree?
- Am I spending more time thinking about what I’m going to say next, rather than listening?
- Do I often interrupt others? Argue with them? And talk over them?
- Do I struggle to really listen and understand the views of those with whom I disagree?
- Do I resort to unkind retorts or angry answers, when others don’t respond as I think they should?
Two biblical admonitions remind us of the importance of really listening and responding appropriately. The first is James 1:19: “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath …” The second is Colossians 4:5-6: “Walk in wisdom toward those who are outside, redeeming the time. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.”
Adapted from Ken Weliever