Before reading this post, answer the following questions: (1) Your favorite movie, (2) your favorite classic book, (3) your favorite Netflix series, (4) your favorite historical figure you would like to meet, and (5) your favorite Christian discipline and book on that discipline.  Okay, here are my answers:

  • Favorite movie: Has to be Casablanca (you just can’t beat Bogie)
  • Favorite Classic book: The Three Musketeers (Jo read it out loud as we driving back home after our honeymoon – I think Dumas had just finished writing it)
  • Favorite Netflix series: The Last Kingdom (Someday, I’ll name a dog, Uhtred)
  • Favorite historical figure: Søren “we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers” Kierkegaard 
  • Favorite Christian discipline: anything but evangelism!

When I first became a church planter, I had great hopes that I would become a really great evangelist. It didn’t happen. Now, I feel I am really good at outreach when people come to me (I’m a great salesperson when people come into the store), but I am terrible at starting up spiritual conversations that go places outside of “the store.” And that is why Mary Schaller and John Crilly’s book, The Nine Arts of Spiritual Conversations: walking alongside people who believe differently, may be my favorite book on evangelism ever (Tyndale Momentum Publishers, 2016). Had someone given me this book in college or seminary, I might not have learned to hate the very word, “evangelism” (even today, I shiver when someone mentions the word). They distinguish three major aspects of reaching out to those around us. There is the Getting Ready Stage (consisting of noticing, praying and listening). There is the Getting Started Stage (consisting of asking questions, loving and welcoming). And there is the keeping it going stage (consisting of facilitating, serving together and sharing). If this is what it looks like to do evangelism, sign me up! Just reading the table of contents has lowered my blood pressure! 

Here are three quotes that jumped out at me.

  • “The goal [of evangelism] is to help people feel safe and loved, not attacked or made to feel like a ‘project.’”
  • “Christ followers have been taught to give gospel presentations rather than to engage in spiritual conversations.” 
  • “In Jesus’ view, an activity as small as giving someone a cup of cold water is so important that a reward is associated with it (Mt. 25). In today’s evangelistic economy, little things don’t seem to count for much. But in reality, it’s those modern-day ‘cups of water’ – like paying attention to people, listening to them, and praying for them – that bring refreshment and give others a taste of Jesus’ love.”

And three more quotes that Crilly and Schaller quoted:

  • “What Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote still holds true: ‘Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because Christians are often talking where they should be listening.’” 
  • “Our friend Hugh Halter has said, ‘When I start a relationship with a seeker, I plan on a five-year commitment.” 
  • “Todd Hunter said: ‘I’m willing to bet the farm that in our postmodern Christian society the most important evangelistic skill is listening.’”

Now, the whole book is really good (even if it had been written just to teach us how we can have better conversations in general, it would be well-worth reading), but the two chapters on listening and asking questions are spectacular. That’s probably the case because we (generally speaking) are bad at both. Most of the time, our primary motivation in listening is so that we can have a turn to speak. And we often listen for something that will allow us to jump in and change the whole direction of the conversation (Them: “I am so overwhelmed that I am just dog-tired.” Me: “I used to have a dog. We called him, Uhtred.”) And we often listen, just so, when it is our turn, we can play the part of the expert, the one with all the answers. But the key to effective evangelism is found not in speaking, but in listening. Why? Because in our culture, listening is a sign of love. When we truly listen to the other person and are not just waiting to share our thoughts, we communicate that we care about them and value their opinions, their perspective and their past (our opinions are often formed in our past experiences). I love this quote: 

Jesus told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. When we listen, we are giving the attention that most of us long to receive. Allowing another person to speak, with the goal of knowing them as an individual, is more than simply hearing or comprehending; it also reveals God’s love. In fact, it is ‘being Christ’ to that person.

Here’s the point: if we define evangelism as an act of love for our neighbor, then listening has to be at the top of our priority list. Our job is to let the other person tell their story and give their side of the story.  And if we do that, most of the time, our neighbor will return the favor and ask us what we think. And if they don’t ask you a follow-up question, that’s okay. You have plenty of time (remember: it’s a five-year commitment). In short, listening (not interrupting, not telling, not correcting) is job one. As a bonus, Schaller and Crilly invite us to refrain from giving advice for a week. As homework assignments go, that is a remarkable gift.  

But that is just one of the nine arts. My second favorite art is “asking great questions.” Let’s review, I’ve taken two high-level courses on evangelism. I’ve read almost 30 books on evangelism. I’ve been to a half-dozen conferences where evangelism was the main theme. I’ve listened to more talks, sermons, and seminars than I can count. And I have never once heard anyone say that curiosity was a crucial value in evangelism. Until now. Schaller and Crilly write:

“Curiosity, as it relates to relationships, is the humble, sincere interest to know more about another person and his or her thoughts, beliefs, passions and doubts. Curiosity helps us move onto spiritual conversations authentically, without canned or awkward transition. After a conversation is started, curiosity is the lubricant that keeps it going.”

Curiosity leads us to ask great questions. It inspires us to seek to understand the other person: their hopes and dreams, fears and disappointments, joys and sorrows. It fuels us to find out about their past, how they got to where they are, what they think, and where they are going. And the more questions we ask, and then listen to their answers, the more connected we are to them (again, we value the relationship more than we value sharing the right answers).  And why do we do this? Because Jesus was a master at asking great questions (by one account, Jesus asked over 150 questions in the gospels) and because. . . .

“When we ask a question, we place others at the center of the conversation, and many people find this refreshing and irresistible. Questions help others process and own their decisions. They also help people rethink deeply rooted assumptions and probe unexamined motives and values. Good questions invite people to look in the mirror, wrestle with what they believe, and search for dependable, solid, proven answers.”

Brilliant! Simply brilliant. Instead of telling, evangelism is simply asking good questions; and in so doing, we place people on the path to self-discovery and, hopefully, to God-discovery.  As a bonus, here’s our homework: keep a log of good questions you hear this week and then identify what makes them good. As we develop the art of asking good questions, we become far more skilled in the task of evangelism. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also has the power to save the lost. 

Thirty books, half a dozen conferences, hours of talks, but none of them, in my opinion, hold a candle to The Nine Arts of Spiritual Conversations. It is the best practical guide to evangelism that I have ever read, and I highly encourage you to find a copy and read it (you can even borrow mine if you promise to return it!). The best thing about this book: it makes evangelism exciting, fun, meaningful and even lovable. And if a book can do that, well, it is worth its weight in gold.