By Jared Johnson
The “headquarters” of e2: effective elders is in Indianapolis, a metropolitan area of nearly 1.5 million people. Whether in the bustling downtown or in suburban neighborhoods, one never fails to see someone running around—literally and figuratively—wearing those all-too-familiar earbuds. Music, podcasts, audiobooks, and more flood the auditory canals of our fellow Hoosiers.
Of course, ubiquitous earbuds also communicate this strong nonverbal message: “Don’t talk to me; I’m occupied with something more important than conversing with you.” People who wear earbuds aren’t listening to us, but they are listeningto someone.
Could that change? What would it take for urbanites to remove their earbuds and listen to people of faith? What if we would begin to listen tothem? As increasing numbers of people choose to live in urban centers, listeningbecomes a means to an end.
Paul modeled this for us. His practice was to go to the urban centers of the first century. He wanted to take the good news of Jesus to people who had never heard of his death and resurrection. For example, in Acts 17, Paul traveled to Athens, where he walked through the city listening to conversations and observing its residents. Paul listened . . . and then he spoke. With great goodwill, Paul conversed with nonbelievers after listeningto them. Human nature hasn’t changed. What worked then can work now.
In the fast-paced financial and demographic crucible of an urban center—where most people are not believers, according to social scientists—listeningwins the day. Like Paul, let’s listen first and speak later. Choose to give others the proverbial floor.
It’s not about being polite; rather, it’s biblical and purposeful. In the opening lines of his letter, the half-brother of Jesus gave this well-known command: “You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak . . .” (James 1:19*). In the context of an urban center, living among the unreached, the art and skill of listening is a means to an end.
This is not intended as a platitude. Listening is truly a spiritual discipline that can try us greatly and stretch our character. The word listen appears in Scripture hundreds of times, and if something is repeated, it’s important. It should catch our attention. When Jesus was transfigured, God said to the three disciples, “This is my dearly loved Son. . . . Listento him” (Matthew 17:5). In each of his seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus said: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches.” Jesus wants us to listen. It’s a discipline to practice, a skill to acquire.
We all probably have heard the admonition that prayer needs to be “two-way communication.” We must spend time listeningfor God’s reply. But with unreached people all around us, listening to “them” can be a profoundly grace-filled act.
- Listen until it hurts.
- Listen when you prefer to vent.
- Listen despite being maligned . . . and whilebeing maligned.
- Listen when retaliation, correction, or even “damage control” seems like the only alternative left.
Keep listening. Outcomes are not up to us. Obedience is.
Listen first. Listening—giving a nonbeliever the floor for as long as they want and longer—builds a relationship into which we can, later, introduce Jesus. The time spent listening builds relational capital that can weather difficult conversations. We should expect that introducing Jesus at some point down the road will be difficult.
For those who rebuff our introduction of Jesus, some would say, “Shake the dust and move on” (Mark 6:11; Luke 9:5). But such an application doesn’t fit the context of relationship-driven evangelism. Jesus sent his followers on a limited-duration, itinerant mission in Mark 6:7-13 (see also the parallel account in Luke 9:1-6). The disciples were traveling through towns, and some people refused to listen. But we aren’t passing through urban centers, we live in these spaces, pursuing friendship with our fellow city-dwellers and “loving our neighbors as ourselves.” Stay with them. Keep listening. After all, if we walk away from them, how will they see the bright light or “taste” the strong salt of Jesus’ way (Matthew 5:14; Mark 9:50)?
Outcomes are not up to us. Obedience is. And irrespective of the outcomes, we should “live wisely among those who are not believers”; we should “make the most of every opportunity” and have conversations that are “gracious and attractive” (Colossians 4:5, 6).
Listening can be emotionally, mentally, and spiritually hard work. And it’s worth it. Listening will build the relational capital needed. Listen, and then listen some more.
Someone might choose us over earbuds.
*All Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.
Jared Johnson serves as operations director with e2: effective elders.