Listening In Discipleship
Discipleship, Part 4
by Jared & Laura King
“Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.” This is the title of John Maxwell’s popular book on leadership. It’s also the foundation for many framed statements hanging in offices around the nation reminding people to try to speak less and listen more. That is, afterall, what asking “great questions” is trying to get us to understand, isn’t it? That often in leadership we speak too much and listen very little.
Growing up, I thought discipleship was being attentive in Sunday School Class as the teacher spoke for an hour about all the things they knew about the Bible. The more I listened the better I would absorb the information of the teacher who was helping us become more like Jesus. As if sitting in a classroom where I listened and the expert taught was turning me into a disciple.
But that’s Bible class…not discipleship. There is a fundamental difference between sitting in a lecture and discipleship. Lectures tend to be one sided transfers of information from an expert to a learner. Discipleship is two people together growing closer to Jesus. Lecture requires the expert to do most of the talking while discipleship requires the one discipling to do most of the listening.
Listening is not just critical, it will often be the difference between success and failure in discipleship. Questions require thoughtfulness followed by prolonged moments of listening. Asking great questions mandates that we then listen as people provide us with their answers. In other words, questions lead to listening. And discipleship is all about meeting another person in the midst of their story to then connect them to Jesus’ story. This requires knowing people’ stories and discovering who they are as people. Asking great questions and listening to people creates deep connections that will often lead to unlocking and opening doors that were previously closed.
Think about the way evangelism has traditionally been discussed. Most of the time when people talk about why they don’t participate in evangelistic moments as much as they know they should, they will often express fears of not knowing enough, of not being equipped, of feeling afraid or unsure about how to get people to talk about God. While these feelings are certainly valid for a lot of us, they reveal a misunderstanding of the starting place of evangelism.
We have often been trained to hone in our elevator pitches for sharing the reasons for our faith. We are asked, “if you only have 3 minutes with a person how will you share the gospel with them and share your testimony?” Now, I am not opposed to people knowing what they would do if asked the reason for their faith. However, this fear and hesitancy with sharing faith and engaging in conversation with people who do not yet have faith stems from a place of feeling obligated to share our perspectives and our positions before we ever give the other person a chance to speak.
What if we reversed the script and instead of feeling an obligation to get our 60 second pitch dialed in, we started with great questions that lead to great listening. I believe discipleship is less about me getting other people to see my journey of faith with Jesus and more about me helping them discover where God has been in their story all along. But we can’t do this without learning to become the best listeners on the planet.
Now, that may sound like an over inflated expectation of the power of listening. But in our post-Christian world, where people are less and less likely to be convinced of the truth of Jesus through argumentation, we have to develop the skills of listening and seeing within their story the fingerprints of God. And after having spent lots of time listening to their doubts, their fears, hesitations, questions, joys, adventures, their heart, their life, we can begin to piece together the activity of God in their life for them to begin to see. This piecing together takes a great deal of highly intentional listening to create.
Over the past year and half I have been a part of a group that my friend Drew Dixon invited me into based around developing the skill of listening. Every month we come together to simply invite one another to share something specific, around a predetermined topic, to simply listen to the other person share and to listen to God as he speaks to all of us. This listening group has been an unbelievable place to learn the power and necessity of listening. We live in a world where the value of listening is rarely utilized. We are trained to speak into the void in hopes that people will hear. Which is a bit ironic to me. The world of social media has taught us that we all live in a deep constant longing to be heard in a world where no one is listening. Which makes groups like the one I have been a part of with Drew so important as it reminds us that listening empowers change and life-giving inspiration in understanding one another.
This past month in our Listening Group, Drew mentioned that he has started a new group online with people who have had a negative experience with church and faith. This new group is built around the idea that most of the time there are no spaces for people with this kind of story to process their experience, ask questions, and be heard. Drew, a trained Spiritual Director, asked the question, how do I carve out space for people to simply have the opportunity to have their stories heard in order to process their past?
The need for creative spaces like this for people to be heard is only going to become more and more important in our post-Christian world. No longer will people be satisfied with TED Talk Sundays where information is passed along with no means to engage and dialogue with it. People want to be listened to and they want the opportunity to share. Which means our church and personal spaces will require a shift to meet this ever increasing demand in Post-Christianity.
So how do we listen better? One of the strangest things about living in our modern world is this constant feeling like we have forgotten how to have human relationships. We have forgotten how to have meaningful conversations with the people around us. We have forgotten how to take a genuine interest in the things other people are interested in. I am sure there is a blog or two to be written concerning the cause of this phenomenon. But It seems like a lot of the work we do is to remind people simply how to form relationships with the people around them. The things we are teaching our children is what we are trying to teach an ever increasingly disconnected adult world. Here are three simple ways to become a better listener in our discipleship of others.
First, ask 3 categories of questions. Stan Granberg did a lot of work developing these 3 questions for his “Sharing Faith” workbook.
The first question is the polite question that is targeted at the surface level information. “How are you today?” “Are you having a good day?” These Polite Questions are to break the barrier to get to the second category of questions called the Interest Questions. These are questions that are relevant to the context or situation you find yourself in with another person. If you are attending your kids soccer game you can ask another parent which kid is theirs. This helps establish an interest in what is happening beyond the neutral polite question. Then finally you can begin asking Caring Questions. These questions signal to the other person that not only are you interested in what is happening but that you care about them as people. These questions often get to how the other person feels about certain things. You could ask, how does your child enjoy being in soccer? It takes the conversation one step deeper and establishes a foundation for further meaningful dialogue. So first, ask good questions from the 3 categories above.
Second, “be quick to listen and slow to speak….” as James 1:19 tells us. It seems like the more common life posture is the opposite of this verse. We tend to be people who are quick to speak and slow to listen. But in discipleship we have to be willing to sit in the midst of people’s stories with them. Which requires that we be quick to listen and slow to speak.
Finally, take a genuine interest in the interests of others. It frustrates me that this is on this list. But it seems like more and more we are quick to ridicule people for their interests rather than taking an interest in what they are interested in. If you are not into musicals that is completely ok. You don’t like sports? Totally fine. Not into history, math, or science…I get it. But what if we decided that we would become interested in the things we may not be interested in for the sake of connecting with the people around us?
Several weeks ago I stood in front of my church and admitted that I am the least artistic person that I know…and I am pretty sure the least artistic person you know as well. I don't have that ability to see what artists see. But we have numerous incredibly gifted artists at our church and I have learned to fall deeply in love with art because I deeply love the artists in my church. I was never super interested in Crossfit until Laura became super interested in it first. And now we both are passionate about it. The quickest way to kill a discipleship relationship is to be actively uninterested in the things the person you are discipling is interested in. Learning why they love what they love, asking questions about that interest, and engaging in the interest with them is often one of the greatest ways to create trust and connection that will unlock vulnerability and dialogue.
Listening is critical in discipleship. If we can’t listen we can’t disciple. I am convinced that discipleship in a post-Christian world will require that we become some of the best listeners on the planet as we then, through our listening, find ways to connect people’s story to the story of Jesus.