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The scary dynamics of mission – 4: To blow or not to blow

by on April 28, 2015

Wall_Art_-_HornsSilhouetteJim is a musician, he plays the horn. But Jim has a problem: he’s short on performance opportunities. He’s a frustrated performer. Jim’s always on the lookout for people who will let him play. He knows a few other horn players. They get together sometimes and jam. They are his only friends.

When Jim meets someone new, he’s always thinking, “Are they going to be willing to hear my music? Should I ask this time – or wait till they know me better?”

He often drops hints about his horn. He’s hoping, always hoping for that golden moment when someone will ask, “Could you play me something on your trumpet?” And when that does happen, Jim, well, Jim blows his horn. He blows it hard, he blows it loud and long, with all the pent up energy of months of waiting. Sometimes Jim blows people right away. Usually he plays too long.

Jim has noticed that no one ever asks him to play for them a second time. What he hasn’t noticed is that people who know him often warn newcomers, “Whatever you do, don’t let Jim get out his horn. It’ll be the end of you!” This all adds to his frustrations.

Jim’s story is of course a parable for many evangelical Christians. We have an anxious need to talk. Many of us carry around a verbal pay-load we are longing to deliver, and we will launch it on anyone who seems willing to act as recipient. We assess people we meet primarily on their willingness to give us a hearing. We are always on the lookout for openings, opportunities to speak a word. We have been trained to do this, encouraged to do it by church leaders. Taught to do it by experts in seminars. Evangelism is about blowing your horn. If we can’t blow it, we start to feel edgy and uncomfortable. Of course there are those who find it too scary to talk, they are too shy to do it: they stay quiet, just feeling anxious and guilty much of the time because they can’t seem to blow a note.

But the more outgoing of us, when someone does give us the chance to speak, we dump heavily. And we keep at it, we go on as long as they will tolerate. You can see it all the time on facebook.

This anxious agenda of ours is largely self-defeating, as were Jim’s attempts to gain an audience. For us it feels great. Such a relief! For others not so much. It usually come across sounding anxious, intense and self-absorbed.

People rarely come back for more. They warn each other about us. They are always dreading the moment when we might pull out our trumpet, uninvited. And the more we try, the less people want to listen. The more we push, the more they back off. I know there are exceptions to this. And there are specially gifted people who seem to be able to get away with saying anything any time. But for most of us, this approach  to evangelism isn’t working.

The fourth scary dynamic of effective mission is,

Only when we learn to listen will we get a hearing.

Or to put it negatively, until we can form relationships that are more about the other person, and less about our own needs, people will not be open to what we have to say. Identifying ourselves as ‘Christian’ does not usually put people off. But when we come with ‘anxious agenda’ writ large on our foreheads, normal friendship is not possible. And normal friendship is the best bridge to introduce people to Christ.

Listening to others is hardly part of the normal evangelical skill-set which we’ve all been trained in. We have been trained to speak. About our stuff. We tend to think of gospel communication as a one-way transaction: we talk, they listen. Perhaps sometimes they ask questions: we answer. Always one directional. We play the role of expert, they of student. Not much listening involved in this, for us. They are the ones who need to listen!

Not many people are willing to enter into relationship with us on this basis. Most people are looking for something more equal, more balanced, more like a healthy friendship. They don’t want to be your project, or your disciple. We think they are rejecting the gospel, but it’s more likely they’re rejecting an awkward social situation where we seem to be manoeuvring them into a role they don’t feel comfortable in.

Of course people do need to hear the gospel. And yes we are called to share it with them, in words. But – this might sound strange – but for us to get a hearing, we will have to put our anxious need on hold. We have to make this friendship about the other person. Try that for, say, one year. Then you might have a friendship that’s worth spit. You might even have a friend who is interested in why you are a Christian.

Of course this means getting involved in the ins and outs of people’s messy lives and minds and hearts. It also means wrestling with our own inner demons, and getting them under control, so anxiety is not driving us anymore. This is scary stuff. Much simpler to just blow the horn hard, and hope someone likes what they hear.

Only when we learn to listen will we get a hearing.

It holds true when we do get to talk to someone about Jesus, too. After a year of healthy friendship, if questions about Jesus get raised, we tend to get over-excited and switch back into horn-blowing mode, see how much we can get them to listen to. This makes a negative outcome to the conversation likely. This approach says “This Jesus stuff is my stuff, and I want you to take an interest and learn about it.” It says this so strongly, it swamps any possibility that the person might feel, “This Jesus stuff is my stuff, that I’m interested in.” They never get a chance to own the conversation, or feel like it’s their issues that are being aired. We easily alienate people from the whole topic, instead of nurturing the interest they have.

Maybe there was a time when people liked being preached to. If so, those days are gone. For most people, they are going to learn about Jesus through respectful, laid-back dialogue, or not at all. By respectful I mean respecting their interests and feelings and thoughts and ideas. Taking those seriously. By laid-back I mean letting things move at their pace not my pace. Not pushing, giving heaps of space instead. By dialogue I mean listening and responding to what they say, not just ‘trying to bring the conversation around’ to what I want to say. A genuine two-way exchange between equals.

We talk to people about Jesus all the time, here in Canterbury. All week. What we’ve found is that everyone responds better to this sort of approach. Even people who have got connected to the church community and opened up to the gospel, still want to do the dialogue thing, not the ‘teacher-student’ thing. Even my Sunday sermons are shaped by this reality.

The irony is that the less we are driven by our anxious need to talk, the more people want to hear us!

Tomorrow: five things we’ve learned about how to share Jesus through respectful, laid-back dialogue.

From → General

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