Occasionally I am asked what Christians need to do to reach the postmodern generation with the gospel. My answer is that I am not particularly impressed with the available programs, and I don’t believe ministry should be left to professionals. I have no formula for reaching the world, and believe none exists. I am confident, however, that God is at work, and that we can engage our post-Christian culture with discernment. And that we can incarnate the love of Christ with four simple things: learning to listen, being authentic, opening our lives and homes with warm hospitality, and giving the gift of unhurried time.
Simple things. They are also the most radical expression of Christian faithfulness possible in our postmodern world. And they are so rare in evangelical circles as to constitute a scandalous denial of the gospel.
In reality, of course, they only sound simple. Everything in our culture and churches leans against them. On the deepest level, however, they capture something of what is at the heart of our cove-nant calling before God. Best demonstrated by Jesus, they define something of what it means to be incarnational in a lost world. Or as John Perkins put it, “Jesus did not commute from heaven every day in a fiery chariot.”
When was the last time someone really listened to you? I don’t mean merely sat quietly waiting their turn to speak—but truly listening? Their body language and focus made you the center of their attention, demonstrating they cared about what you thought and felt. Their questions proved their interest in you, that you were worth knowing. They listened actively, asking more questions to be sure they understood. They proved their willingness to enter your world, with all its brokenness, even if it cost them.
Can you think of a more meaningful expression of love? If you can’t remember such a time, doesn’t your heart ache for it? The question I’d like to pose here, however, is this: Do we listen this way to our non-Christian friends and neighbors?
We often think of witnessing primarily as proclamation: telling the gospel to someone and inviting a response to the claims of Christ. And there is truth to that, since there is good news to tell. What must be remembered, however, is that proclamation always occurs within some sort of relationship. Even when I speak to a group—on a campus, perhaps, or at a lecture at a Borders Book Store—I must make human contact with my listeners. If I fail to tell the gospel in terms they can understand and find plausible, it is “proclamation” only in the sense that a public speaker is making noise before a crowd.
Jesus faithfully proclaimed the good news, but if we trace his ministry in the Gospels we find he listened as well as spoke. Which is a bit surprising, since if there was anyone who didn’t need to ask questions to learn what his listeners thought, surely it was Jesus. His divinity allowed him to know what was on their minds before they opened their mouths. Occasionally he simply acted on this knowledge, amazing his audience with his insight into their hearts. Repeatedly, though, he asked questions, and in the ongoing conversation shaped his message to their ideas, doubts, and fears. His message never changed, but it also was never merely regurgitated.
The importance of listening, however, extends beyond our gaining information. Asking questions and listening changes us. More specifically, it affects our reading of the Scriptures.
To see what I mean by this, consider the preaching ministry of pastors and teachers within the church. I mention them here not to put them on the spot, but because their proclamation of the gospel is public enough to provide a ready illustration. “When we study the Bible,” Tim Keller says, “we only extract answers to the questions that we implicitly or explicitly have on our hearts as we read it.” Some pastors, for example, concentrate on theological books, and so their sermons tend to reflect the questions of interest to theologians. Ordinary Christians may find it interesting, but it is often far removed from the concerns of everyday life. “It is not really true that some sermons are too academic and thus lack application,” Keller says. “Rather, the preacher is applying the text to the people’s questions that he most understands—other academics.” Other pastors, on the other hand, interact primarily with believers. Christians feel “fed” by their sermons, but hesitate to invite non-Christians. The sermons address their concerns, but not the concerns of unbelievers.
This applies to us as well. Our “people context,” Keller says, will shape our reading of Scripture and our proclamation of the gospel. So we must learn to listen, and we can do that, Keller says, by varying our reading and by varying those with whom we talk.
Varying our reading is relatively easy—assuming we’ve planned our lives to include sufficient reading in the first place. We can make sure our reading includes work by thoughtful non-Christians who provide a window of insight into the hearts and minds of those who do not share our deepest convictions and values. At a retreat I was once asked what single magazine I found most helpful in understanding our pluralistic, postmodern culture. “Rolling Stone,” I said. “It allows me to listen in as postmoderns discuss pop culture in light of the questions and issues that most concerns them.” One participant commented that they “wouldn’t allow such filth” into their home. Ignoring the fact that Jesus warns us not to identify evil in externals but rather in the heart, the point is not that everyone should subscribe to Rolling Stone, but that we each need to listen to those we are called to reach with the gospel. It is true that magazines produced by fallen people contain the sad traces of their fallenness, but who can claim exemption from that? “All our righteous acts,” Isaiah says, “are like filthy rags” (64:6).
Entering another’s world
Varying who we talk to is more difficult, and certainly more threatening. At the least we should always have one non-Christian for whom we are praying by name, daily, asking not just that they come to Christ but that we be used in the process. As well, we should each find natural ways to interact meaningfully and regularly with unbelievers. It may involve joining a book discussion group, an investment club, or some other forum where friendships can be forged and where conversation flourishes. Such opportunities abound, though most of us are too busy to take advantage of them.
Listening can also take a more radical form. Students at the Francis Schaeffer Institute, for example, are given an assignment worthy of being emulated by all discerning Christians. They attend a meeting in the community where they will be in the minority and will find it easier to disagree than to agree. Perhaps it’s a lecture sponsored by pro-abortion activists, or a talk on Buddhism or neo-pagan spirituality. The assignment is to listen, to demonstrate that we care enough to learn about the things they hold most dear. And when we do speak, to demonstrate that, contrary to popular opinion, evangelical Christians can be thoughtful and discerning and compassionate—even when outside our comfort zone.
“Christians are frequently too quick to give answers,” John Seel and Stephan Fisher write. “Unless we can identify with a modern seeker’s sense of meaninglessness out of our own life experience or out of empathetic reflection, our answers to their deepest longings will seem trite and sentimental.” The very thought of rendering the gospel trite and sentimental should be a great horror. Identifying with the seeker brings us back, once again, to the notion of Incarnation, of entering another person’s world to bring them the gospel. And though Jesus did more than listen when he entered our world, we certainly dare not do less. Listening opens doors into hearts and minds and lives so our good news makes sense. Listening also changes us, just as the Incarnation forever changed the Second Person of the Trinity. We will read the Bible differently, attuned to a set of questions that are the heart’s cry of our neighbors.
Listening is winsome because it is an expression of compassion. An entering into someone else’s broken life, at the cost of sharing that brokenness. If our listening is mere silence masking our preparation for the next assault on their beliefs or values or lifestyle, our hypocrisy will be evident and the conversation soon terminated. Never was Christ accused of such duplicity. His listening was earnest and his questioning sincere. Sinners flocked to be with him and to hear him talk. Perhaps if we learn to listen we’ll find them more ready to listen to us. But even if they don’t, we’ll know we have loved them as our Master loves us.
Questions1. Tell about a time when someone really listened to you.
2. What are some of the barriers to listening? Are there particular barriers that exist for Christians listening to non-Christians? How should we respond to them?
3. To what extent does the doctrine of the Incarnation inform your definition of witness and Christian faithfulness? What are the implication of Incarnation in following Christ?
4. “Christians are frequently too quick to give answers. Unless we can identify with a modern seeker’s sense of meaninglessness out of our own life experience or out of empathetic reflection, our answers to their deepest longings will seem trite and sentimental.” Discuss.
5. Consider the notion that learning to listen includes varying our reading. How would you assess your reading over the last year? What should you plan for the next year?
6. Consider the notion that learning to listen involves varying whom we talk with. How would you assess your track record in this regard? What plans should you make?
7. Tell about a time when someone really listened to you.