I will never forget the afternoon a friend and I were doing door-to-door witnessing as part of a training course in personal evangelism. We were halfway through our standard approach when the woman interrupted us with: “Why are you doing this?”

She took us by surprise. We didn’t have a ready-made reply. Moreover, we were taken aback by the way her personal question had instantly penetrated our armor of impersonal witnessing. Fortunately, my friend had enough sense to scrap his canned approach and simply share what Jesus Christ had done for him. I also had the chance to tell of the love of Christ that was changing my life. For the first time, that woman really began to listen to what we were saying.

After that I began to evaluate some popular approaches to evangelism. In many cases we are missing an essential part of personal evangelism: the art of listening.

Very few people are good listeners. Yet nowhere is the art of listening more important than when Christians share their faith. Too often, however, we try to “sell” Christ to others. We reduce our message to easy steps; we learn how to work around negative responses and we avoid questions; we try to collect “decisions” for Jesus Christ.

When we use this salesmanship method of communicating the gospel, we overlook two basic principles of communication: (1) communication is a two-way street, and (2) new ideas are best communicated at a level of mutual trust and understanding. The key to both is listening. Listening is crucial for three reasons:

First, listening helps us to understand others. The only way really to know where a person is in his spiritual pilgrimage is to get to know him personally. This comes only by listening to him, and it involves much time, effort, and self-giving—especially with our families, neighbors, and fellow employees. We learn to read the emotions that cloud their thinking and affect their will. We also learn to read between the lines of what they say. We must make the effort to understand what the other person is trying to get across to us, and not think only of “telling a message.” We are so often anxious to quote a verse of Scripture, or lay some spiritual truth on everyone we meet, that we fail to take the time to listen to and understand the other person. If we listen, we will know when it is our time to speak, and more important, we will have earned the right to speak.

Listening is also crucial because it helps others to understand themselves. All of us have a deep-felt need to communicate. The only way a person can understand himself is by sharing his thoughts and feelings with others. The Christian who knows how to listen gives the other person this opportunity.

The importance of this fact cannot be overemphasized with regard to evangelism. Many people reject the gospel because it seems to run contrary to their convictions, or because they have an “uneasy feeling” about it. When a person is allowed to get his feelings and objections out into the open, two things happen. First, the Christian has an opportunity to answer the arguments and objections he raises; and second, more important, the non-Christian is helped to see the strengths and weaknesses of his own position, which he may be putting into words for the first time. As he understands his own ideas better, he is then able to examine the claims of the gospel and, under the Spirit’s direction, to change his mind. This often occurs after many hours of attentive listening.

The third reason listening is essential in personal evangelism is that listening lets others know we care. Christians talk a great deal about love, but often they fail to show love in its simplest and most basic form: by listening to others. When you really listen to another person, you are saying, in essence, “I care about your thoughts and feelings. You are important to me. I am interested in what your ideas say. I want to share your hurts and problems, your pleasures and victories.”

This kind of listening requires humility, acceptance, and vulnerability. Usually, we are so intent on getting our ideas across that while others talk, we are busy working on what we want to say next, and so we don’t really listen to them.

Humility requires us to set aside our thoughts and ideas until the other person indicates a desire to hear them. The humble witness recognizes that the other’s need to be heard is just as important as his own need to speak.

Acceptance says to the other person, “I take you just the way you are. You can be yourself with me. You can let your guard down and open up your heart without fear of being rejected.” Too often, as evangelists, we give people the immediate impression that we are out to change them. They catch this attitude and rightly resent it. Our prime duty is not to be change agents; we are simply to introduce others to Jesus Christ. He accepts people just the way they are. He changes people after they come to know him.

Vulnerability means allowing others to get close enough to see how Christ really operates in our lives. Christians often think their faith gives them 20–20 spiritual vision and the right to inspect the lives of others while carefully hiding their own. Listening in love, however, involves an openness on our part that will expose us to the insights, ideas, and criticisms of others. Our reluctance to allow others to get close to us is probably due to our fear that any sign of weakness, human failure, or admission of ignorance on our part is a fatal blow to our witness of the gospel. Such fear is unfounded. One of the beauties of the gospel is that God not only accepts weak, sin-ridden, ignorant human beings like ourselves, but as part of his redeeming work he also gives us the holy courage to face up to and admit our failures.

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The Holy Spirit can make listeners out of us, but we need first to recognize our need. Evangelism is entirely the Spirit’s work, from seed planting to harvest. Canned, impersonal, “salesmanship” evangelism runs the danger of being unspiritual.

Listening does not mean Christian witnesses never have anything to say. The gospel is good news that has to be told. On the other hand, if the attitude of the messenger does not measure up to the quality of the message, the message itself may be misunderstood and rejected.

Witnessing is sharing the gospel. Listening is sharing ourselves. There is no separating the two for anyone who would be an effective evangelist for Jesus Christ.

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