The Importance of Listening

By James M. Rochford

Listening is crucial to evangelism. No one likes being cornered in a conversation, and there needs to be a lot of give and take in evangelism. To put this simply, we should move from giving presentations of the gospel—to having conversations. We should move from declaring to sharing our faith. Paul Little writes,

The voice any person likes to hear best is his own. Everyone likes to talk, but some do more than others. Many people would give anything to find someone who would just listen to them. When we listen long enough, we not only begin to know and understand an individual; we also gain his gratitude and his willingness to listen to us, enabling us later to speak relevantly to him.[1]

Consider the importance of a meat thermometer. On the outside, a Thanksgiving turkey might look well done, but we don’t know this until we use the thermometer. In the same way, listening is like a stethoscope to the human heart. We can find out what is happening inside the heart of a person by simply listening—an invaluable tool when sharing Christ. The Bible emphasizes the importance of listening. James instructs believers to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (Jas. 1:19). Paul tells us to have “self-control” (Gal. 5:23). Solomon writes,

“Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions” (Prov. 18:2).

“Spouting off before listening to the facts is both shameful and foolish” (Prov. 18:13).

“A plan in the heart of a man is like deep water, but a man of understanding draws it out” (Prov. 20:5).

“When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Prov. 10:19 NIV).

“Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Prov. 17:28).

Even though Jesus had perfect understanding into God’s will, he still asked 150 questions throughout the four gospels. Did he do it because he didn’t know the answer? Or was it that he did it (not for his benefit) but for theirs? Randy Newman writes, “I once did a study of how Jesus answered every question that was asked of Him in all four gospels. Answering a question with a question was the norm. A clear, concise, direct answer was a rarity.”[2]

Benefits of being a good listener

We discover a person’s misconceptions. An individual could have one of innumerable misconceptions about Christ. By listening, we learn to understand what a person is working through.

We discover how God might be already moving. God is active in people’s lives, and we should learn to discover this.

It takes the pressure off of us. Instead of being the one who needs to answer all of the questions, we can start asking them. Newman writes, “Shifting the burden of the response is important because as long as we’re on the defensive, the questioners are not really wrestling with issues. They’re just watching us squirm.”[3]

It makes the person feel understood. Often, if we can just understand our friend well, this communicates more than anything else we could ever say.

Types of questions

Clarifying questions. Try and summarize their view. Don’t try to disagree with it—just try to understand them first.

Echoing questions. Repeat back what you’re hearing. This isn’t patronizing if done right. It helps the person know that you’re listening to them. “So, it seems that you’re saying __________. Am I hearing you correctly?”

Wondering questions. “I’m wondering why you feel ______________. Could you help me understand that?”

Reminding questions. You might see somebody weeks later. You can open up a spiritual conversation by saying, “I remember a couple of weeks ago you said _____________. I have been thinking about that for the last two weeks… Can you help me understand that better?” You can reclaim old conversations this way.

Agitating questions. Some questions can create tension to polarize the non-Christian. For example, “If you died tonight, where do you think you would you go?” “If you were wrong about your beliefs, would you want to know?” “What do you think about Jesus’ statement that nobody can come to the Father except through him?”

Good questions to start conversation

“Would you consider yourself an open-minded person, or do you feel like you’ve already made up your mind about God?”

“I went to a church like yours before, but in all the years that I went there, I never heard the message that you need to receive Christ. Have you ever heard anything like that before?”

“Would you be willing to call out to God to see if he exists?”

“Have you ever been to a Bible study like this before?”

“Do you have any Christian friends or family? What was your experience with them? Good or bad… or ugly?”

“Did you grow up going to church? How does this meeting compare with your past experience?”

“What is the main thing holding you back from receiving Christ?”

[1] Little, Paul E. How to Give Away Your Faith. Chicago: Inter-Varsity, 1966. 32.

[2] Newman, Randy. Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010. 27.

[3] Newman, Randy. Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People’s Hearts the Way Jesus Did. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010. 29.