We who have the greatest message in the world—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ—ought to be the clearest and most compelling communicators. It’s probably true that we evangelicals generally do well with one-way communication—preaching, lecturing, singing, and writing. It seems, however, that we are not always as strong with dialogue. We don’t always listen carefully. We can be too verbose. We offer unsolicited opinions. We fail to notice. Or we allow ourselves to be distracted by thinking about our response while others are still speaking.
If we struggle in cultivating ordinary conversation, how can we possibly broach difficult faith discussions, which tend to be wrought with deeply held convictions, some of which are antagonistic to Christian faith? The key word here is "cultivating." Like the farmer who prepares the soil before successfully planting a seed, a number of preparatory measures ought to precede gospel conversation. Such measures grow out of prayer and worship—asking God to stimulate our affections and open doors for connecting with others. This much, I trust, is fairly obvious. It is the subsequent steps that I would like to consider. The first of which is the importance of noticing cues that highlight a person’s openness God.
I use the word "openness" and not "interest" because it seems that the latter assumes a greater level of consciousness. The former, "openness," is often true without full awareness. In other words, the human heart craves God even when the desire hasn’t been consciously formulated. Thus, a friend may speak at some length about her area of need—a fear, anxiety, or an inexplicable angst—without every mentioning God, when in fact her words have cried out for God the entire time without realizing it. This is "openness," and this is precisely what we need to recognize.
As you would expect, Jesus was an expert at identifying such cues. Whether it was at a well in Samaria or around those scummy tax collectors (including the little one who hung out in a tree), human hearts lay open before Christ’s compassionate gaze. For instance, Matthew says of Jesus:
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Matthew 9:36-38)
Notice the order. Jesus was moved to compassion when he saw the crowds. Such compassion was instigated by a particular observation: "they were harassed and helpless." How is it possible to observe such details by simply looking at a large collection of people? That is, unless Jesus saw something more.
Seeing the heartache of our friends and other loved ones requires us to consciously take the attention from ourselves and focus it on them. Pretty obvious isn’t it? But it’s easier said than done. Here is an example of how it works.
It was in the early 19th century when a French professor of medicine, René Laennec, invented the stethoscope. In his classic treatise De l’Auscultation Médiate (1819), Dr. Laennec explains how he was treating a young woman who appeared to be struggling with heart disease. On account of her corpulent frame, the young doctor struggled to hear the woman’s heartbeat—that is, until he remembered a lesson he had recently learned from the field of acoustics. At once, he rolled a sheet of paper into a cylinder and applied one end to the patient’s heart and the other to his ear. The clarity with which he heard the heartbeat was extraordinary. The stethoscope was born.
Every physician knows that attentive listening is a powerful requisite for healing, without which there is no diagnosis, and without a diagnosis there can be no personalized application of the remedy. Surely Jesus—the Great Physician—understood this when he looked upon the shepherdless crowd. With keen attention our Lord diagnosed the crowd’s harassed and helpless state, resulting in genuine compassion. In this pattern we find a valuable lesson.
Listen with Intentionality
As a pastor of a local church, I enjoyed taking congregants to coffee and asking them to talk about the issues about the issues that most concerned them. It is remarkable how quickly folks will open up when they are given the opportunity. Honesty and vulnerability of a most remarkable quality would usually follow. In such situations, my job was simple: listen. Listen for patterns. Listen for underlying causes. Listen for regrets. Listen as through a stethoscope to identify the particular malady to which the good news of Jesus would bring healing.
I can give you dozens of examples from what I have learned on the hearing end from a decade of pastoral ministry, but let me tell you about an occasion when a friend applied her ear to my heart. It was weeks after my father’s cardiac arrest when this friend of the family engaged me in conversation about how I was handling it. By that time, I was in way over my head, singlehandedly running the family business. The water line of anxiety rose with each day until eventually I started having panic attacks. Into this dark valley my friend appeared with her questions.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, my friend was applying the pattern of Jesus. She asked probing questions—honest, genuine, humble ones. Her posture wasn’t that of a teacher or sage preparing to impart wisdom; she was simply a friend listening attentively, finding cues that revealed my fears and insecurities. Finally, with some perspective on my angst, she winsomely applied God’s promises of comfort and salvation.
In all of this, my friend not only cultivated gospel conversation; in a way that she couldn’t have fully grasped, she was also God’s instrument for cultivating my soul, as evidenced by my conversion, which followed shortly thereafter. Indeed, this is what makes such an approach to conversation so exciting: we prepare the soil, we plant the seeds, and sometimes—often when we least expect it—we get to witness the life-changing power of God.