Sharing faith and learning to listen | Beth Rookwood [ANVIL vol 33 issue 2]

Beth Rookwood
After pioneering among young people and in the night-time economy of Leeds, Beth Rookwood is currently serving as pioneer curate in the parish of Morpeth in rural Northumberland. In another life she’d like to be a wedding planner!

‘Evangelism’ and ‘listening skills’ are most often separate workshops on training schedules. Budding evangelists are tutored in speaking, declaring and telling the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Listeners are coached to enable others to tell their own story; to ask questions which clarify meaning and to journey with the speaker as they make their own discoveries.

Both practices are valuable for mission and ministry. Yet rarely, are they set alongside each other. Rarely are connections made between the two. Yet, also rarely, in my own experience, has any conversation, evangelistic or not, had any value, unless there has been listening.

So why the separation?

Much depends, as ever, on our tradition and formation. The evangelistic training I mostly received has been based upon the verse in 1 Peter 3: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer.’ Over the years I have been furnished with diagrams, set-phrases, defensive arguments, plans for how to share my testimony, and well-honed metaphors which all relay something of the biblical narrative. Some of these tools have been helpful, particularly when evangelism has been encouraged as part of a specific event or outreach; when ‘telling the gospel’ has been part of my own, and my hearers’ expectations. However, in everyday conversations, these tools have felt rather awkward as I’ve tried to shoe-horn them in. This style of training has meant that, for me, thoughts of evangelism are often accompanied with a level of fear – a sense that I need to revise my answers in case I get it wrong.

Sharing faith and learning to listen
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My training in listening, however, has nurtured a desire for openness and discovery – of the world getting bigger as I engage with another. It has taught me to respond to the other person, rather than direct them. To ask questions and wait for answers rather than be quick to give them. For me, walking with another and listening to them and to God with and for them, has felt like a more loving experience. Many involved in mentoring, coaching and counseling are promoting listening skills more than ever – recognising them as essential to transformative encounters in conversation and relationships. [1]

In my own experience, applying skills of listening has fostered more discussion, respect, and depths of conversations and relationships, than my practice of evangelism ever has.

Which leads me to consider, is there a way in which these two skills might be brought together as we share our faith?

Three recent encounters for me highlight the need to explore this question more deeply – in thought, and in lived experience.

My first encounter happened during the middle of our 11pm – 1am churches together outreach where we give out hot drinks for free in the middle of our town. The team aims to be a consistent, loving Christian presence, and though not evangelistic in design, the prayers said before and after the outreach are for people to, somehow and eventually, come to faith.

On what was a fairly quiet evening, a man, who looked between 35 & 40 received his hot drink, and appeared to want to chat more.  He began to share some of his current life situation.  Some of it involved a dilemma of whether to send his child to a faith school or not. Some of it was reflecting on his own experiences of church as a child. Some of it was around how he and his wife were struggling a bit at the moment with three young children. Some of it was around how he isn’t really enjoying his job.

Whilst listening in to this conversation, I was startled by the way in which one of our team members responded to what had been said. It followed something like this:

Man: ‘I’m really not sure what to do about sending my kids to a faith school or not.’

Team: ‘Well it’s all to do with what you think about Jesus.’

Man: ‘Yeah I mean, I did go to church as a kid. There’s a good school down the road, or the faith school’s further away. My wife isn’t bothered, but…’

Team: ‘You mean, she has no faith? I guess you just need to pray for her, we’ll pray for her if you like.’

Man: ‘Yeah it’s a bit tough at the moment, we just don’t see each other that much’

Team: ‘We’ll definitely pray. Do you ever go to church? You might find some kind of support there? It’s so good to be somewhere you can learn more about God and who Jesus is, and what he did for us on the cross. I know that’s why I love church. You should go!’ 

As I observed this dialogue take place, I felt increasingly annoyed by my team member – because he wasn’t listening! And then a sense of shame came over me as I realised what was happening. Something that I have let happen to me, so many times…

The team member was in ‘evangelism mode’ – the mode where you are ready to give answers. The mode where you do all you can to say, tell, share anything which points towards Jesus – regardless of what the other person has actually said. My ‘evangelism mode,’ like the mode I had just witnessed, had come to be about speaking and giving an answer. I’d never clocked that it might involve listening.

So…what could be changed? Could evangelism still be evangelism if it was less a one way message out from the speaker to the hearer, and more of a two way dual-discovery of both persons and perhaps even of Christ?

I went back to the verse in 1 Peter to see if there was something there that could help me. I read the rest of the verse:  ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.’

Everyone who ASKS you. It dawned on me, that in order to know what someone is asking, you need to actually be listening to them – not preparing the message you are hoping to give.

And a penny dropped. Is that what I’ve been doing all these years? Looking for a successful sharing of the essentials of the evangelistic message whilst in a ‘mode’ – rather than just having a normal conversation with someone?

And was what I witnessed that evening, and what I’ve done so often, actually the opposite of ‘successful’ evangelism? It certainly didn’t foster deeper personal relationships – nor, I don’t imagine, a turning to Christ.

So what might it look like, to channel the desire to share my faith with others in ways where evangelism and listening skills are practised together?

I wanted to intentionally try this out, and the opportunity arose recently with a lady I am getting to know. Her husband has started attending a local church, and has gone home talking about it. Whilst we were out jogging one day, my friend told me how she couldn’t get her head around why he would be enjoying it so much – given that her only experience of church was one where it was rather dull. She said he also somehow seemed more calm and she was glad for him especially as they’d been feeling a bit lonely since moving up here and his job had been really stressful. She left a gap in conversation which seemed to ask for input or my views on what she’d shared.

I breathed through my fear of the ‘evangelism mode’ and asked the Holy Spirit to help me listen, and to direct my words – words which I hoped would help my friend move closer to knowing God’s love for herself. I said:

‘I am so sorry you’ve been feeling lonely.’

This statement unlocked hours of conversation. It also unlocked a new friendship and, for both of us, new journeys of knowing Christ. She spoke of feeling alone and unloved. Of the challenges of being a new mother. Of being the wife of a busy husband. Of sometimes not knowing where to turn. I could relate to a lot of what she was saying. I listened. Nodded. Laughed when she laughed. Felt teary when she felt teary. When she spoke of not knowing where to turn, I felt that nudge from the Holy Spirit. Was this the question she was asking all along?

Me: I know this might sound weird, but that for me is what knowing Jesus is about. When there’s nowhere else to turn I talk to Him. He speaks to me. It’s like He comes to live inside of us when we ask Him to.’

She laughed, ‘What like an invisible friend??!’

I answered sheepishly ‘Well kind of! But a friend who is also God. I know that sounds a bit strange – but do you know what I mean?’

The conversation continued. We were both speaking of things of faith. We were both saying the name Jesus easily, normally. No clever one-liners. Just naturally. I didn’t present the whole gospel. I didn’t give her a run-down of the creed and lead her in a special prayer. I don’t think I’ve described Jesus as an ‘invisible friend’ before, and I’m not sure I would again – but I listened. Listened to what she was asking, and I tried to listen to God. My friend is now, in her own words, ‘warming up to God.’

Evangelism and listening, leading to deeper relationship with Christ and each other. It felt good. It felt real. It felt full.

I continued to ponder.

I sat on the train the other day after a long journey. An older lady came to sit by me. I didn’t really want to talk, but I prayed – ‘Lord, help me share something of you.’ I felt that nudge of God to ask the lady how she was. She replied ‘I buried my son yesterday.’ I replied, ‘I am so sorry.’ The lady then spent the next bit of time telling me about her son. About the funeral, about his life, about other family members. I tried to listen deeply.

At the back of my mind were the bible passages I speak on at funerals. The hope I could tell her about. The God who would ‘walk with her through the valley of the shadow of death’. The events at church I could invite her to. The busy thoughts of how I could offer to visit her.

But rather than say anything. I listened. She wasn’t asking me anything at all. I almost felt desperate – that I had to say something, give her something – what could I do? Pay her taxi fare and tell her it was to show her God loved her? Tell her I’d be praying for her? I waited again for that nudge of God to prompt me into word or action. But it didn’t come. We got off at the same stop. I pointed her in the direction of the taxi stand. She turned to me and said ‘Thanks for listening’ and I watched her walk away.

Three encounters with three different people. Three people who I believe God loves and invites into friendship with Him. Three people who I believe God wants to experience the blessings of His kingdom. Three people, as with thousands of others, with whom God calls the Church to share the good news. How that is done will be a decision by those who come into contact with them.

Will it be in the ‘mode of evangelism’ – where a prepared message is preached regardless of what is being asked? Or might it be that those who have a message to share begin to practise everyday evangelism by starting with listening.

We are learning to listen to culture and context, and of course these are essential missiological skills. Perhaps we might also prioritise listening to God and to others especially when things of faith are spoken about. Listening for their questions with love and insight, seeking to discover what they are asking, then together, using natural and authentic words, moving towards an uncovering, a taste, of ‘the hope that we have in Christ.’ Perhaps that’s what Peter wanted us to do all along.


[1] See for example Keith E Webb, The Coaching Workshop for Christian Leaders,, 2015 used by Fresh Expressions to train Missional Coaches.

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