A few years ago I attended an evangelism conference called Vital, hosted by Q Place. In one of the sessions, Randy Siever, a former pastor and Young Life staffer, asked everyone in the audience to find a partner and discuss three potentially controversial subjects: gay marriage, immigration reform, and the New England Patriots. Sounds harmless enough, I thought. But here was the clincher: Only one partner could share his or her opinions; the other could only listen and ask questions.
The resulting conversation intrigued me, and not because of my discussion partner’s feelings on immigration or the Patriots. It surprised me that I would have so much trouble keeping my own opinions to myself. Try it sometime. It is amazing—and disturbing—how hard it can be simply to listen and ask questions.
Why was it so hard? We live in a “telling” culture. Via Facebook and Twitter we tell the world what we had for breakfast, how our in-laws drive us nuts, and how this or that celebrity got arrested again. The extent of listening goes as far as pushing a “like” button or making a comment and calling it a day.
We could take the pessimistic route and make gloomy predictions about what this behavior portends for our future. But as Christians with a desire to see the world renewed and redeemed, we could instead see an opportunity. After all, people obviously desire to be heard by others in hopes of hearing a response. People crave engagement. They want someone who will acknowledge and respect their thoughts and feelings. For Christians living in this technologically interconnected but relationally disconnected culture, communicating the unconditional love of Christ could mean simply demonstrating curiosity about other people.
In today’s evangelistic economy, little things don’t seem to count for much. But Jesus’ method of disciple-making was highly relational and practiced through simple gestures. Consider how Jesus initiated a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He simply asked her, “Would you give me a drink of water?” Jesus could have made water flow from a rock—or at least he could have provided a way to draw his own water from the well. He did not need to engage this woman. But he did. Why? Relationships start with simple questions and actions that build bridges and encourage trust. Jesus’ simple question initiated a deep conversation with rippling spiritual consequences.
The Western church needs to follow Jesus’ lead and reclaim relationships as the foundation for spiritual growth. David Kinnaman, author of You Lost Me, outlines the reasons why Millennials are leaving the church. Those reasons include perceptions of the church as shallow, exclusive, unfriendly to those who doubt, and overall disconnected. This disconnect has led to nearly three out of every five young Christians (59 percent) abandoning the church either permanently or for an extended period of time after age 15. If this trend persists, and if the church does not re-evaluate and innovate, then we risk neglecting what could be a marvelous opportunity to help rising generations navigate an increasingly complex cultural context.
So just when the church needs a fresh approach to evangelism and discipleship to fit the cultural context, we find hope in applying the simple practices Jesus demonstrated in his own ministry. We can pair simple relational skills like noticing, listening, and asking questions with being creative about when and how we engage in spiritual conversations. As we combine simple practices with personalized expression, we come to understand discipleship as an art.
Interestingly, that session at the Vital conference was called “The Art of Noticing.” It fits well. After all, there is no universal formula for discipleship, since no two relationships are the same. If we start seeing discipleship as an art, where spiritual conversations are regularly practiced and personalized, we might start seeing some radical kingdom growth.