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The Power of Listening in Evangelism

  • Randy Newman Campus Crusade and the C.S. Lewis Institute
  • 2015 30 Jun
The Power of Listening in Evangelism

Early on in the designing of my research about evangelism, I had to choose between qualitative research (extended interviews) and quantitative research (computerized surveys). In a moment of temporary insanity, I considered doing both. My dissertation advisor said, “Well… you could do both—if you wanted to pursue two doctorates!” I opted for the face-to-face, structured-yet-flexible, 45-minutes-to-an-hour, qualitative interview. And I’m glad I did.

I had my standardized list of 15 questions that I wanted answered by all of the 40 interviewees. But I also wanted to allow myself the option to explore certain things they said with “could you tell me more about that?” or “what makes you say that?” or “It looks like you’re having trouble answering that question. Are you?”

I began each interview by asking them how they became a Christian. I told them they could take as long as they wanted to tell their story. I found that most of them actually answered 5 or more of my 15 questions without my needing to ask them. The rest of the interview pursued the questions they had not yet answered and other aspects of their story that I wanted to hear more about.

A few recurring patterns emerged:

  • Some things didn’t come to the surface until after 30 minutes. I started noticing things around the 35th or 40th minute when people would say things like, “I just realized something,” or, “I never thought of this,” or, “Hmmmm. I need to think about that a little.”
  • I saw some patterns they didn’t see. For example, I would ask if it was the same person who told them two important pieces of information or something like that and several of them said, “Yeah. I didn’t see that before but you’re right.” One young woman didn’t think of something important until we were all finished, standing up, shaking hands, and saying goodbye. At that point, my notebook was closed and my recorder was off, but she said, “Hey, I just thought of something. For me, it had to be anonymous. It had to be a total stranger who talked to me about Jesus because I had alienated all the Christians I knew.” I sat down, took out my notebook, and added more to her story.
  • When people had to find words to express their inner thoughts, the experience clarified their thinking. I wonder if some people actually become Christians while they’re talking about something they think has already happened.
  • It’s amazing how many things surprise you (the interviewer) and them (the interviewee).

So, my point is:

Lesson 11 – We need to listen to people’s stories to find out how God has worked and is working. We dare not presume that he needs to fit into our plans or strategies.

This may seem obvious but you’d be amazed how rare it is. There is a lot of research done through technology that has people check boxes and rate experiences on scales of 1 (totally disagree) to 9 (totally agree). I do think there’s great value in what we learn through such polls and surveys. I read a lot of what Barna and Gallup and Pew and others find.

But there are limits. One extensive quantitative research project sought to learn why newcomers visited, stayed, and eventually joined churches. But, oddly, they never asked the newcomers! They asked the pastoral staff of the churches. I remember laughing out loud when I read that many pastors said the “number one reason” people came to their church was “the preaching.” That may be so. But I can think of more accurate, less biased sources for such information.

There are things we need to learn that won’t surface through the help of Survey Monkey and the like. Pastors would do well to interview people new to their churches to find out why they came or what they’ve learned or where they are on their spiritual journey. Such interviews may turn out to be the most fruitful evangelism we ever do!

Randy Newman has been with the staff of Campus Crusade for Christ since 1980 and currently serves with Faculty Commons, their ministry to university professors. Randy is a Jewish Believer in Jesus and is the former editor of The Messiah-On-Campus Bulletin. He is the author of numerous articles and books including Questioning Evangelism: Engaging People's Hearts the Way Jesus Did and Bringing the Gospel Home: Witnessing to Family Members, Close Friends, and Others Who Know You Well.