Earn the Right to be Heard
The American private crawled over to his Lieutenant’s tent and pulled the pin on his hand-grenade. Carefully placing a rubber band around it, he tossed it into the tent. The Lieutenant ran outside to see who had thrown it, but his adversary had slipped into the darkness of the jungle.
Unfortunately, stories like this one are all too real. The unexploded grenade was a warning to the Lieutenant. If he does not change his ways, the next time will be for real. During the unpopular Vietnam War, many West Point Lieutenants were shipped over to Vietnam immediately after graduation. Although these men had a firm grasp on the rules and regulations, some of them did not know how to lead men. To make matters worse, they had not yet developed that sixth sense of jungle survival. As a result, they carelessly led their men into dangerous situations where many Americans died needlessly.
Often when soldiers approached their Lieutenant to point out something the Lieutenant had overlooked, the Lieutenant viewed the recommendation as an attempt to undermine his authority. The Lieutenant often responded with something like, "Sounds like a personal problem to me. Now, go do as you were told, and, if you don’t like it, call 1-800-TOO-BAD." After a period of time, some of these shunned soldiers developed a distorted sense of personal survival. If the Lieutenant did not heed the hand grenade warning, he often ended up being shot during combat. "Friendly Fire" (casualties inflicted by one’s own side) is an easy way to resolve life-threatening problems while in the combat zone.
In contrast to this sad scenario are the Lieutenants who earned the respect of their troops. These Lieutenants lead their troops, not push them. Their troops were willing to go anywhere for their leader. The respect they earned brought obedience and compliance.
Respect has to be earned. You cannot force someone to listen to you. They have to want to hear what you have to say. A person has to want to change before any real change will take place.
When presenting the gospel, we should be careful not to force our opinions on others. Our mission is to present the truth, not force others to believe it. Each person has to make his own decision. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink." You cannot force someone to accept your views. Although your aggressive debating tactics may allow you to win the argument, you have accomplished nothing. A person convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. You cannot force a person to make the right choice.
Calvin was already under considerable stress. Now, with the loss of his job and girlfriend, it was too much for him. He went over the edge. Calvin became very depressed, hiding in his room for weeks. His parents took him to psychiatrists and therapy groups, but with no success. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic. When asked a question, he would carry on a whole conversation with himself before answering.
Calvin’s condition began to deteriorate quickly. Unable to stop this digression, his parents decided to have him committed to a hospital. Calvin did not want to go so a couple friends and I were asked to help persuade him. Of course, Calvin found the argument of going to the hospital much more convincing when three large weight lifters spelled out the benefits.
Once admitted, Calvin was taken to a room filled with about 30 patients. Although he was sick, he was definitely out of place. These patients were totally out of it. They were grabbing imaginary objects out of the air and making funny little noises. People were in their own little world, some walking around with their heads tilted sideways and speaking incoherently
Later that month we started receiving letters from Calvin that exhibited vast improvement. A couple of months later, he was released a changed person. Since the doctors had been unsuccessful in the past, I asked Calvin what brought about the change. Calvin responded, "I appreciated all of the help you guys were offering, but I was not willing to pay the price to change. It wasn’t until I was taken to the hospital and put into the recreation room that I saw a real need to change. I realized if didn’t change, I would end up just like them. Once my heart made the decision to change, my head began to change."
As we deal with the non-Christian, we must keep in mind that until their heart is ready they will not change. Do not become discouraged when a person’s life does not change as quickly as you think it should. It may take a while for the person to see a true need.
"Sharing the gospel" is more than saying the right words. A person has to be receptive before he will take to heart what you are saying. We have to get their attention. This usually involves earning the right to be heard. Many Christians assume a person has "heard" the gospel simply because he has stood politely as a Christian preached at him.
The Florida rain beat down on me as I ran into the grocery store. While I was ringing out part of the Atlantic Ocean from my shirt, a stranger, Tom, walked by and made a comment, "The antiperspirant is located in isle 5." My laugh gave away my Michigan accent and Tom asked what a snowbird was doing down in Florida. I explained I was in the Boot Camp training phase of New Tribes Mission. Tom said, "New Transmission, I never heard of that auto repair shop." I proceeded to explain that New Tribes Missions was not a repair shop. Rather, it is a missionary organization that specializes in reaching tribal groups who have never heard the gospel. When I finished about three minutes later, Tom replied, "Well, if I ever need any transmission work, I’ll look you guys up."
That was a sobering and humbling experience. This solid example demonstrated to me that people enjoy talking, but very few practice listening. Unfortunately, many Christians are not good listeners either. Ironically, these same Christians expect others to listen to them, though they are unwilling to take the time to listen to the unbeliever.
There are many lonely people in this world. Everyone has concerns and problems. Being able to talk to someone who cares is helpful and therapeutic. A college student decided he would conduct a small test. He put an ad in the paper that read "I’LL LISTEN. You do all the talking and I’ll do all the listening. Your cost is $25 per 1/2 hour." To his surprise, dozens of people responded. If we are willing to listen, we will be tapping into a natural resource. If we show respect and courtesy by listening, we will find others will begin to reciprocate it back to us. When we win their hearts, we earn the right to be heard. In fact, people will start asking you for your opinion. A native once said to a missionary, "You have built a bridge of love from my heart to yours and Jesus walked over." People can tell if you care about them or just care about making another "convert."
A good communicator is someone who
spends time listening than talking. Showing
a person that you are interested in him
will open his heart more than polished
"Are you German?" the elderly man asked. "I have some German in me," I said, looking rather puzzled. "I thought so," the man said proudly. "You have strong German features. I saw you a couple hours ago and have been watching you since." At this point the theme song from the show Twilight Zone started playing in the background. I was 20 years old at the time and in my third year of missionary training. This firmly built man, Albert, was once a Nazi SS storm trooper in World War II. Although it has been 30 years since the war, the ideology of the "superior race" was still burning deep in his soul. Albert proceeded to tell me how the Jewish population was destroying the economy of the prewar Europe. He explained, in intricate detail, why it was necessary for Germany to remove this "cancer" from society. "The Jews had to be exterminated!"
During our conversation Albert asked me what brought me to the Fort Lauderdale Beach. I explained I was on spring break from school and was here visiting some friends. After learning that I was attending a Christian school, he asked me, "You don’t really believe in God?"
I responded, "Yes. In fact, I had a good talk with Him this morning."
Tilting his head sideways, like a dog listening to a high pitch sound, Albert stared at me in total disbelief. Finally he said, "No. No, you can’t be serious!"
Seeing I was serious, Albert asked how an intelligent man like myself could possibly believe in something so absurd. After explaining the difference between "religion" and a relationship with Christ, Albert wanted to hear more. At his request, we talked for two more hours about God.
During our conversation, Albert told me how earlier that day two Christians had approached him on the street and tried witnessing to him. Albert had told them, "You obviously have mistaken me for someone who cares. You guys appear to be intelligent men, so stop giving the impression that you’re brain dead. Now, beat it."
I learned many things from that experience. Yet, the lesson with the most impact was the realization that what we perceive as a heart "hardened to the gospel" may be receptive if approached differently. What we sometimes assume to be a rejection of the gospel message, is only a rejection of the way it is presented.
We should be aggressive in our witnessing, but never rude or inconsiderate. There are many styles of witnessing and each has its own place. We must realize that some of our approaches actually turn people off to Christianity. Do not assume that just because you have blasted the gospel at someone, you were doing God a favor. If your approach turns the person off to the gospel, you are only making it more difficult for the next Christian who wants to share Christ.
I do not want to give the impression that all "cold turkey" witnessing (approaching a complete stranger) is counterproductive. Although cold turkey witnessing has a greater potential for turning non-Christians off, many people have been led to the Lord through it. Thus, be open when the Lord tells you to go to a stranger and share Christ with him.
The snow and wind burned into Karen’s skin as she fought her way down Fourth Street in New York. Crossing the busy street, she felt God leading her to speak to the policeman directing traffic at the middle of the intersection. Karen tried to brush aside this absurd notion, but the burden grew more intense. Finally, Karen did what was probably the craziest thing she had ever done. She walked to the middle of the intersection and began sharing Christ with the policeman. In front of thousands of people, the policeman began to weep. His life was falling apart and he had planned to kill himself that night. Because of Karen’s obedience, the policeman accepted Christ.
Although God uses cold-turkey (CT) witnessing, it should be motivated more by God’s leading than our zeal. We should focus most of our energy on aggressive "friendship evangelism" (FE). In FE, friendships are used as springboards to share the gospel. You will find people much more open when you approach them as a caring friend, rather than a religious zealot. In addition, because the person has shared with you many of his personal problems, you can help him with a variety of difficulties.
I feel it is very important to emphasize that you are not to use friendship as a means to a end. You must genuinely seek to develop true friendships with those you meet. Your concern for them must be sincere. If you are not, people will view you like the used car salesman who pretends to be friendly for the sole purpose of selling a car. You must make it a point to ask God to give you a true love for those you meet.
FE is not sitting back and witnessing only to your friends. It involves actively seeking new opportunities. CT and FE are similar in that both continually seek out new opportunities. Both often involve denying your own desires in order to present the gospel to a lost soul. However, CT and FE are very different in several ways. CT is usually a one-time-deal, whereas FE involves building a friendship over a period of time. The biggest difference, though, is the effectiveness of this style of witnessing. First, FE removes much of the fear and intimidation associated with witnessing, making it something that any and every Christian can do. As a result, the gospel is shared more often. Second, this approach produces more openness to the gospel; thus more converts.
FE, by its very nature, is non-pushy. It is, therefore, less "offensive" to the non-Christian. The non-Christian does not feel the Christian is "after something" and because of this, he does not put up the normal mental barriers. This is the key to the success of FE. With these barriers down, the non-Christian is open to what the Christian has to say.
Mental barriers stop the heart from hearing the gospel. Reducing the mental barriers should be a high priority for the Christian. Any approach that causes a person to become defensive is counterproductive. Being argumentative seldom accomplishes anything. No matter what, do not allow the discussion to deteriorate into an emotional debate. The higher the emotions, the less receptive the person becomes. The purpose of your discussion with the non-Christian is not to prove that you are correct, but to present the truth. It is easy to let your pride take control so that your only objective becomes winning the argument.
When discussing a topic, be careful not to put the person down with your words or the tone of your voice. Do not make fun of a person’s beliefs; this is a quick way to turn him off. Mocking them by saying something like, "Are you operating with a few light bulbs burned out?" or "What color is the sky in your little world?" will only cause them to resent you and your beliefs. Sarcasm should have no part in your presentation.
As a correction officer at a prison, I deal with many tough, unsavory and sometimes violent men. Many of these guys have never developed refined communicative skill and are tactless in their approach. It does not take much for a conversation to develop into an argument, or something worse. Even with these volatile men, I have found it is possible to de-escalate most situations. There is truth in the phrase, "It takes two to tangle." It is difficult to have an argument with someone who does not argue back. In fact, the person provoking the fight begins to look silly when everyone else remains calm. Proverbs 15:1 states, "A soft answer turneth away wrath." Even when a person is angry, I have found that a soft, calm, yet firm, response defuses most situations. If these principles are effective in the prison environment, just think how effective they will be in eliminating arguments concerning "Christian topics."
There are two types of FE; short-term and long-term. I use short-term with people I will probably see only once and long-term with people I can arrange to see again. I continually look for new opportunities. Whenever I go out, I make it a point to be friendly and I regularly strike up conversations with people I meet. Some conversations last only minutes, while others may last hours. A friendship will start with some of these people, then arrangements can be made to meet them again. After several talks, the non-Christian’s heart is prepared and open to the presentation of the gospel.
Early in the initial conversation the person begins to see I am a good listener and truly care. This opens many new doors. I ask many questions regarding comments they have made. Though they are doing most of the talking, I am controlling the conversation. The direction of the conversation is controlled by the questions I ask. These questions allow them to express their feelings on a variety of subjects. As the conversation progresses, they begin to open up even more and express personal concerns. Listening carefully as they open up provides a wealth of information. I watch for facial expressions, changes in their voice or other clues of problem spots. Then I say something like, "I noticed that you cringed when you were talking about your brother, is that a sore spot?" They often respond with, "Yes, he’s dying of cancer." or "Yes, we haven’t gotten along since he wrecked my new car." Pursuing these issues allows the person to share his heart with you.
After the conversation is over, the person will often say, "I really enjoyed this conversation. I’ve told you things that I’ve never told anyone before. I can’t believe it, I just met you. We ought to do this again sometime." At this point, I am free to arrange to meet him again for coffee in the near future.
During the following meetings, I direct the conversation to more sore spots and other areas involving church or God. I have found that if you talk to a person long enough, the subject of church, death, or God will come up. Since these subjects arise through natural conversation, the person does not feel defensive and thus, can talk freely about them.
When death becomes the topic of conversation, I control the outcome with questions like "You mentioned that your friend had cancer, is he afraid of dying? What are his feelings about heaven or hell?" Church is another hot topic, usually used with negative connotations. "My neighbor goes to church, but he’s the biggest hypocrite around." I usually take the lead with questions about what church the neighbor goes to or what they feel is the purpose of church or religion.
Once the conversation is started, I can interject the question, "Do you think your friend knows for sure he’s going to Heaven?" This often causes them to ask me if I think it is possible. "Yes, beyond any shadow of doubt, I know for sure I am going to Heaven." I put out enough bait to stir their interest, and yet, I resist the temptation to give a full explanation. They will usually ask for more information, thus, it appears that this conversation about God is their idea.
Most non-Christians assume that a person’s eternal destiny is based on how good or bad they live, thus, no one can know for certain that they are going to Heaven. Therefore, when I mention I have a "contract" with God that guarantees I am going to Heaven, people become curious. I say something like, "Just as you have a contract written in black and white that says the car you bought is yours, I have a contract with God that says I am going to Heaven." Once again I wait and let their curiosity prompt them to ask for more of an explanation. I then explain how the Bible clearly shows the way a person can go to Heaven. We do not have to "hope" we are going to Heaven. The Bible states in "black and white" what is necessary, we can know for sure.
As I mentioned earlier, long-term FE may take days or weeks. Short-term FE condenses the process into a couple hours. Future opportunities to see the person and the Lord’s prompting are the primary factors in determining which style should be used.
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