Listening – the Bridge to Witnessing
This devotional thought comes from OSWM, a Watchman serving the Lord behind a West Coast state prison walls.
Prison life is hard, rough, and lonely. One of the saddest times of the day is ‘Mail Call.’ With a few letters in hand, guards walk long corridors, each one housing up to 90 men. The corridors, usually very loud and chaotic, grow quiet as the guard approaches one or two cells and calls out a name.
Big men, strong men – fighters, gang leaders, ruffians, wait patiently, hoping the guard will approach their door next and call their name.
Sadly, most names are never called. The reality is, life in the fast lane on the streets yielded buyers and contacts and gang members, but no real friends. This never hits harder than mail call. As the guard walks away, eyes turn moist, and the chatter slowly picks up again – a kind of diversion against the pain.
I am not above these men, but for the most part, I am different. I grew up with good parents, did well in school, am married, have a home, and a precious family.
I am not a fighter. I was not convicted of a violent or drug-related crime. I am not better than any, but I am different from most, which can be a challenge in the critical work of witnessing.
Most books or seminars on this subject note the importance of “finding common ground” as you witness to people. That approach is logical, and at times Jesus employed that strategy – to fishermen He spoke of becoming “fishers of men,” and at one point climbed in Simon’s boat. To those who knew sheep, He spoke of being the “good shepherd.”
Sometimes finding common ground is difficult, as is currently the case for me. In those times, do not underestimate the value of simply listening.
I have found that if I create opportunities to talk with inmates one-on-one, these lonely men will open up to me. They all have stories, some incredibly sad, and they all hurt. Few know where to look for a remedy.
So I listen, show empathy, ask a few questions to show I’m tracking with their story, and gently look for openings to point to the One who can bring healing and peace. Jesus is the only lasting Remedy.
Some of the stories are shocking – like the man who was taken out of town by his drug-dealing parents and abandoned at a Walmart when he was just 10 years old. Some stories focus on crime exploits or the glory of High School days. But no matter what the topic, if I listen well – to the man, and the Holy Spirit, I can weave spiritual truths into the conversation.
Listening is a stepping stone to witnessing, and it helps build relationships that often yield future – more focused – witnessing opportunities.
What follows are a few suggestions to help you grow in witnessing through listening:
- Look for common ground: If it is readily apparent, asking leading questions on common-ground topics can help initiate conversations. If no common ground is apparent (or of course, if the Spirit leads you to guide the conversation in a different direction, then ask leading, gentle, personal questions. For me, that might look like, “So where is your home-town? What do you do during gym-time? When is your exit date? or, How long have you been in?” These exceedingly simple questions should not elicit a yes or no response. The goal is to get them talking. Once the ball is rolling, the conversation generally flows with a few wisely timed prompts.
- Affirm what you can: Well-placed affirming statements show that you are genuinely interested and keep the conversation from lagging. Sometimes this isn’t easy, but it is almost always possible. To the drug dealer who out-witted several competing dealers and absconded with their drugs, I said wryly, “Well, that was a creative solution to your supply problem.” To the gang leader who talked to me about a fierce gang war, I commented on his courage. Affirming comments do not need to condone behaviors. Jesus’ parable of the shrewd manager is a great example (Luke 16:1-8). Affirming words do, however, buoy conversations and facilitate opportunities to witness in those openings.
- Lead the conversation but listen more than you speak: Let the Spirit direct your steps, but in general, limit your words – your stories – your counsel. Unless they solicit your counsel, most people will say more, and trust you more, if you counsel, rebuke, and speak, less.
Don’t be confused; I am a conservative evangelical who believes the Lord’s return is near.
A sense of urgency drives me to initiate these conversations. But the Spiritual “fruit,” patience, helps me give lonely and hurting men the opportunity to share their hearts and stories without judgment.
This increases the probability of future conversations and openness in the present. It is completely appropriate to inject spiritual comments into the conversation and always close with your testimony.
- Offer practical spiritual advice carefully. The art of listening is difficult for “fixers.” Many are prone to quickly respond to comments with, “here are the five things you should have done, or need to do.” Avoid, or at least minimize these types of responses. As the Lord leads, insert a couple helpful suggestions from Scripture. For example, one man had an idea for a business when he was released, so I encouraged him to seek counsel from a few organizations or services I thought would be helpful. We ended the discussion with, “The Bible says, ‘There is wisdom in many counselors.’”
- Hold a confidence: Being able to keep a confidence is essential to any success. People will not open up and talk with you if they do not trust you. But, if you are known as a trustworthy confidant, future conversations are more likely. Opportunities to talk with others may present themselves when you are known as someone who can hold a matter in strict confidence.
- End strong: Let the Spirit guide and help you share that faith in Jesus is the beginning of the answer to every question and struggle in life. Close by asking to pray for them.
Watchmen, pray for an opportunity to be a witness through listening. When you may have felt the urge to jump right in before, try letting the Spirit lead. You may be surprised at the open doors that result from opening your ears.
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