By Jim Tune
Earlier in my ministry, I viewed evangelism as almost entirely an act of proclamation. Evangelism meant “telling.” It was shaped by modernism and was largely “proof” oriented in its content and approach. A logical argument would be presented following defined lines of traditional apologetic thought. Equipped with the facts and bolstered by books such as Josh McDowell’s Evidence that Demands a Verdict, I could boldly offer “five arguments for the existence of God” or “seven reasons why we can believe that Jesus really did rise from the dead.”
The problem with this approach is its reliance on rationality above all else and the assumption of a predisposition to theism in general, and to Christianity in particular, on the part of the listener. The focus of our evangelism frequently seems to focus as much on our views of creation, the existence of biblical places as verified by archaeological discoveries, and the incredible preservation of ancient manuscripts. While these ideas should not be discarded, they are not of keen interest to postmoderns embarking on a spiritual quest.
What people need is to be brought into contact with the person of Jesus—the Jesus who ate with sinners, touched lepers, loved people, and embraced the cross. Rather than presenting a case, we invite a dialogue that’s centered around Jesus, his story, and the cross. Rather than appealing to a (supposedly) rational theory alone, we instead lead with the person and story of Jesus as of first importance.
Before we share the gospel story, we would do well to listen to the people we would reach. We listen to understand, realizing that listening is much more than a preevangelistic device for establishing rapport or to gain credibility so that we can get to the real business of telling people. Sometimes just listening can be the most evangelistic thing we can do. The art of listening can prevent us from answering questions no one is asking.
David Fitch suggests our evidentiary approach to apologetics indicates a Christian posture that actually hurts Christian witness. He proposes it is simply disingenuous to come to a rapidly changing culture with an already prepared apologetic. Listening needs to happen first so that we can understand the person and the issues. In an article at www.ethicsdaily.com, Fitch suggests, “The continued popularity of evidentiary apologetics in some parts of evangelicalism reveals a Christendom mindset, which assumes we already know with whom we are arguing.” Mutual respect and a posture of humble listening creates safe space for conversation to take place.
If proclamation is to take place in a way that “gives an answer with gentleness and respect” (to paraphrase Peter), it must flow out of a deep, genuine listening. Sometimes evangelism in a post-Christian culture begins not with our mouths but with our ears.