How did Jesus typically encounter people? Jesus asked far more questions than he answered. He put 290 different questions to his hearers. When Jesus was asked questions he responded, as often as not, with another question. He went toward his questioners’ backgrounds, desires, lifestyles and assumptions. The one who “knew all people” never stopped inquiring about them.
Why should we be any less inquisitive when we really don’t know our hearers or where they’re coming from? Might it be best to get to know a person so that we can better present the truth of the gospel to them based on their life rather than ours?
An unknown evangelist said: “Before being an answerer, the evangelist is first and foremost a questioner…. I might have thought my job was to be interesting (as I presented the gospel). In fact, my calling is to be interested.”
It seems to be common knowledge that in today’s world, in order to witness about Jesus with people who are unsaved, what’s initially necessary is a relationship with that person. Few people will listen to the gospel if presented by someone they don’t know. It requires an investment of time and energy. I may even have to be the first to confess failures so that repentance is out on the table, so to speak. Being vulnerable in this way isn’t natural for most of us, but it could be critical to helping someone come into relationship with Jesus. Are we willing? Is it important? I think most of us would provide an emphatic “yes!”
Tim Keller, popular Christian author and pastor writes, “Christianity used to have cultural familiarity and modest respect. Most Americans not only had a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity but also tended to respect it, or at least feel they ought to show some respect. That’s not true today.”
Today’s culture makes it increasingly easy for people to live semi-pleasurable lives without ever truly acknowledging and wrestling with life’s big, essential questions. To break through this inner barrier, we need to help people discover the living Jesus. We can’t do that in isolation. We can’t do that from the pews of the church.
Careful listening helps a Christian understand the worldview of their non-Christian friend, allows them to love that person with their time and attention and lets them press back on weaknesses and inconsistencies. Listening also builds credibility, so when the conversation spins toward Christianity, it’s a natural and hopeful turn.
Once we’ve invested in a relationship with an unbeliever there comes a point where we can begin to ask weighty questions: What gets you through life? Given life’s struggles, what are your coping mechanisms? What comforts you? What gives you hope? What’s the real meaning of life? How do you handle suffering? How do you ever really find satisfaction?
It’s among those questions that the true hope and message of Jesus can be expressed. If we don’t reveal Jesus as the answer, we’ll miss the mark in this secular generation of individualism as most people look to themselves for answers.
Developing intense relationships with non-Christians can seem daunting. It can also appear less efficient, certainly, than converting dozens—or even hundreds—at once in a youth conference or weekend retreat. But as author Francis Chan says, “In the tougher soil of a post-Christian culture, it’s the slow preparation that must be done. And as public conversations about Christianity are more and more contentious, the move to intimate conversations makes even more sense for today.”
Don Morris is the USMB national director. He and his wife, Janna, live in Edmond, Oklahoma, where they attend Cross Timbers Church.