Why Listening is the First Step of Evangelism

Normally we think of evangelism as a process of telling. We are proclaiming or sharing something.

And it is that, of course, but I’ve become more and more convinced that effective evangelism starts with listening.

Here’s the thing: most evangelism strategies focus only on the telling part. They help people figure out what to say, how to present, the right things to proclaim.

I’ve become more and more convinced that effective evangelism starts with listening. - Ben Sternke Click To Tweet

One size does NOT fit all

There are two problems with these kinds of approaches:

  1. They assume that everyone has the same problems and pain-points, and
  2. They assume a fairly narrow definition of the gospel that only has to do with forgiveness.

First let’s talk about people’s problems.

People generally are open to the gospel (or anything new generally) when life stops working the way it used to. When they have a problem or are experiencing some kind of pain.

Too many evangelism strategies simply assume that the problem people are experiencing is that they feel guilty for their sins, but I’ve found this to be less and less true.

The way we think about the gospel has been over-influenced by the Reformation, when people were feeling really guilty about their sins. For them, a gospel that proclaimed their sins were forgiven and their guilt gone was tremendously good news!

But for lots and lots of people today, that’s just not the presenting issue. That’s not the problem they are experiencing. At least not first.
The “presenting problems” of the people I know are usually things like:

  • Loneliness and friendship issues
  • Family pain and estrangement
  • Justice issues
  • Fear and insecurity
  • Shame

For a number of reasons, people generally don’t feel guilty about their sins all the time.

Instead of trying to make them feel guilty so we can give them a solution, perhaps we ought to think about how the good news speaks to the actual issues they’re wrestling with. Which brings us to our second point (about the gospel).

The many-splendored gospel

Here’s the thing about the gospel: It is about more than forgiveness. The gospel is SO MUCH BIGGER than a free ticket to heaven!

I like the way Dallas Willard put it: The gospel is the good news that life with God in his kingdom is available to everyone.

This means, yes, our sins can be forgiven (and need to be forgiven). But it also means:

  • The lonely can be set in families.
  • The broken can find restoration.
  • The sick can be healed.
  • The despondent can find purpose.
  • The weary can find joy.
  • The shame-ridden can be known and accepted.

It means a LOT, in other words. There are a million implications. A million facets to the diamond of the gospel.

It’s kind of like a big house with lots of doors. The house is life in God’s kingdom, but the “front doors” are as various as there are situations, circumstances, and personalities.

One door is labeled “Friendship” and that’s how they find their way into the kingdom.

Another door is labeled “Forgiveness.”

Another door is labeled “Justice.”

Another door is labeled “Community.”

They’re all doors into the kingdom, so they all lead (eventually) to abundant life, but they are different entry points based on the perspective and “presenting problems.”

Listening for the right door

So how do you know what facet of the good news to proclaim in a conversation?

How do you know what to do? Typically people want to share the good news. They want to tell their friends about the life they have in Christ.
They just don’t know how to do it without coming across a salesman.
Here’s the secret: it’s actually WAY easier than memorizing a perfect gospel presentations.

Here’s the first step: listen to people and be curious about them.

Don’t try to force-feed a pre-packaged “gospel presentation” to someone who isn’t really interested in the “answers” it provides.

The first step in evangelism is listening to people and being curious about them. - Ben Sternke Click To Tweet

For example, someone may be sharing their sorrow over a long-term relationship ending. They are knocking on the “Intimacy” door, or maybe the “Friendship” door.

But if I think the “Forgiveness” door is the only legitimate way in, I won’t be really listening to them, I’ll simply be trying to guide them to a different door.

“Too bad you feel sad about that relationship, but what you need to feel is guilty about your sin. Then I might have some good news for you.”

Can I suggest that this is a bad strategy? Of course it is! Don’t force-feed. Instead, we listen.

Listening is a key component to evangelism, because I don’t know what facet of the good news to open and share until I understand a bit more about the person I’m talking with.

An evangelism example

So, let’s try this kind of evangelism out in the scenario I mentioned above (the sad person whose long-term relationship recently ended).

After appropriate listening and question-asking (and most people don’t ask nearly enough questions), a simple articulation of the gospel for this person might sound like this:

“I can see that this really hurts for you, doesn’t it? I think the reason it hurts is that you were made for covenant, you were made for relationships, you were made for intimacy with others.
“You were made to be seen and heard and welcomed and loved. God created you that way, and he sees you, and hears you and welcomes you and loves you, and he’s grieving with you over this broken relationship.”

Now, I just made that up off the top of my head. I’m not sure it’s very “good,” because it’s a made-up scenario, and it would obviously change a lot based on who I was talking with and how well I knew them, etc.
But hopefully it gives you an example of how listening is the first step of evangelism.

One of the very best ways to be an evangelist is to simply cultivate a healthy curiosity about other people. You’ll find yourself in all kinds of interesting situations!

Your turn: any interesting examples of evangelism situations you’ve gotten yourself into? Good examples and bad are welcome!

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About the Author

Ben Sternke

Ben Sternke is an Anglican priest, church planter at The Table, leadership coach/consultant with Gravity Leadership, and also helps churches and nonprofits hone their messaging and cultivate their online presence with Lifesize Digital. He lives in the Indianapolis area with his wife Deb, their four kids, and a little dog named Edith.

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