Spiritual Conversations: The Art of Listening

So, then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.”  James 1:19

In my years as a missionary, a pastor, and witness for Jesus Christ, I’ve had the privilege of verbalizing the wonders of Jesus and the gift of His salvation in a variety of venues, both formal and informal. Yes,I do enjoy talking, but ministering the gospel to the person who has not yet met Christ includes much more than telling them about Jesus. Listening is also a critical component to effective God-honoring conversations about spiritual matters.

Listening to others accomplishes much in our witness. And not just listening, active, intentional listening.

Active, intentional listening will follow questions. As we listen, we are gathering critical information about what a person thinks, what they feel, and what they believe.

In witnessing conversations the ultimate goal of listening is to find out if that someone is open to hearing more about the truth claims of Jesus. The initial goal is to simply find out if they’re open to engaging spiritual matters at all, and if so, what is their spiritual orientation. 

In simple terms, we initially, through questions and listening, are taking a person’s “spiritual temperature.” This is qualifying somebody.

To qualify someone is to find out two things:

* What is their “God-paradigm?”
* Are they open to engaging  spiritual matters and more specifically – the truth claims of Jesus and the Bible?

First of all, everyone has a God-paradigm – a view of God and/or spiritual things. They may be an atheist or agnostic, they may believe in a personal ‘God’ or supernatural being. But everyone will have some view of God and/or spirituality. Yet someone’s tradition or lack thereof growing up and where they are presently may be two different things. Part of questioning and listening includes this inquiry in so many words: “Spiritually, how did you get here from there?” 

Active listening will inform our witness and also enable us to effectively contextualize the gospel. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:22, “I have become all things to all people, so as to win some to Christ.”  In other words, he witnessed to people where they were, which meant he had to first understand where they were coming from. Remember when Paul went into synagogues, he reasoned with the Jewish people from the Scriptures, the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. 

But in Acts 17 on Mars Hill, Paul addressed the Athenians, people not well versed in the scriptures:  

“Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you: God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of Heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:22-24).  

Paul, a good example, knew his audience. Additionally, his listening skills helped his witness.

At some point we’ll want to find out if that someone is open to sharing about their God- paradigm. Some people may not want to talk about spiritual things. Respect their wishes and pray that some soon tomorrow they would be open. At the same time, continue to love, serve and pray for them, praying God would move in their hearts and give them a curiosity to find out more at some point.

A few years ago, at Starbucks began chatting with an elderly Catholic gentleman I’ll call James (not his real name). Like myself, James was and still is a regular. Early on, when he found out I was a minister, he mentioned that he typically didn’t talk about religion and politics. But as we built a rapport and a degree of trust, he opened up and shared about both politics and religion. In fact, he got to a point where he opened up about his personal life. I had the opportunity to share my Catholic high school experience (yes, this Jewish boy attended a Catholic high school for academic and athletic reasons). 

After building trust and rapport at Starbucks, James and I are now friends and hang out on occasion, watching ball games at Buffalo Wild Wings. I’ve had the opportunity to share the gospel and plainly communicate that we can only get to heaven by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. James even happily takes an Our Daily Bread 3-month devotional booklet when it comes out, and tells me he reads it and likes it.

Now this friendship may have taken a different arc, as I didn’t talk about Jesus until James was willing to talk about Jesus. Yet, through listening and respecting boundaries, the wall regarding the discussing of religion crumbled and opportunity arose for us to have spiritual conversations. 

Wherever anyone is on the spiritual continuum, we ultimately need to find out if they’re open to exploring the truth claims of Jesus and the Christian faith. If you’re witnessing on the way you can be more direct much sooner. If you have regular touch points with a person, there is time for trust and rapport to grow before you go deeper. In either case, an individual will either be open or closed. If they are open, be prayerful about what info you can share. There are many tremendous books, DVD’s, websites and other e-resources available. I would recommend resources from the following people: Josh McDowell, Ray Comfort & Kirk Cameron, Norman Geisler and Lee Strobel, to name a few. I’m also available via email or phone for personal coaching or to recommend a timely resource.   

Remember, after sharing information with someone in your personal sphere of influence, follow up to see how they’re processing things you’ve discussed, for people need time to digest information and grapple with faith issues. 

In sum, questions provide the platform for listening. Listening affirms others, informs our witness and allows us to humbly and gently share the truth in love as doors of opportunity open. Next time, we’ll focus on answering questions and objections. For now, pray, engage, pose questions, and yes, listen, and listen well, all for Jesus’ glory! 

Lord Jesus, please help me to be a more effective listener in my witness to others. Amen.

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