November 12, 2012

Evangelism: Learning to Listen Pt. 1


Image: example of a timeline I quickly drew for the purpose of this post

Note: This post is part of a series on the subject of "evangelism." The other posts in the series can be found here.

About a year ago, I was sitting on the steps of First Presbyterian Church in San Diego with a young man who was homeless. I had my arm around him as he wept–he wanted to die, was utterly without hope. I asked him a simple question, "Would you tell me your story?" For the next thirty minutes, he shared with me his life story that began in a happy home and ended waking up that morning, not fully aware of what had occurred the night before. As he finished his story, wiping away his tears, he concluded with his doubts in God and God's presence in his life as he glanced up at the bell tower behind us. And at that moment something came to mind. I invited him up to my office, pulled out a pad of paper and pen. I scratched out a timeline of my life–childhood, teen years, early adulthood, marriage, etc. I ripped off the paper from the pad, handed him the pad and pen. I said, "I'm going to get you some coffee. While I do, would you write out your timeline?"

When I returned with a cup of coffee two pieces of paper were already crumpled on the floor as he worked on his third start. He looked up and said, "This is gonna take me awhile."

Over the next week, I got to know this young man better. He talked through his life. He would point at certain points and talk about what happened in greater detail. I would ask clarifying questions. I had ulterior motives in this project. I had a hunch this guy needed long term help but as is with many people on the streets, his story was confusing. Writing it down helped me understand his trajectory and how best our church and others might help him. I picked up on the idea in a leadership class at Fuller Seminary. Dr. Robert Clinton had advocated using timelines for leadership development. I just hacked the idea for my own purposes. But that young man discovered something as we talked through his life: we discovered that even as bad as life was at the moment, there was good news riddled throughout his life–God had been showing up everywhere.

When it comes to evangelism–sharing the good news–it starts with you. You can't share good news that you haven't experienced yourself. As I was beginning to imply at the end of my last post on the subject, being evangelized is being invited into a particular narrative. That narrative, that story, for Christians begins with Scripture. Exiled Israelites knew the story of deliverance and redemption. They recalled it and looked for its imprint in their own lives. In the same way, we have to find the signs of God's storied imprint on our own lives.

Evangelism feels icky when we hear colonizing undertones (or overtones). We hear talk of one person bringing a better god to another person and it's just so off-putting to we twenty-first century, postmodern westerners. I couldn't agree with such a concern more. But here's the truth: God is already there. Our job is not to "bring" God. But, just as St. Paul did, we are simply to point out God when God goes unnoticed.

But as I said, it starts with you. And one of the best ways I've learned to uncover God at work is to draw out a timeline of my life and then talk about that with others, usually in a small group. As I've led groups in this exercise, people have told me how exciting my life seems when I retell my story. Honestly, I'm a normal guy with a pretty white bread life. But when we begin to see God at work in our lives, it's like going from your grandpa's black and white T.V. to a hi-def big screen. Everything simply becomes more colorful, brighter and deeper. I spent many years in my early adulthood going to a Calvary Chapel. I heard some of the most incredible testimonies and concluded that my Christian life was quite boring. That was until a tattooed, middle-age drummer (now, I'm becoming that guy) whom I deeply respected convinced me of the opposite. As he learned about me, he reflected back to me where he saw God showing up in big ways.

Seeing the good news of God showing up in his life changed that homeless person I mentioned above. He still battled with addiction. But he was able to see where God had shown up in his life and had learned to talk about it in normal, un-weird ways.

How about you?

Evangelism begins with listening. Listening to the often hushed, sometimes loud, tones of the Spirit showing up in our lives. When we begin to learn how to see God at work in our own lives, we'll be better prepared for listening for God showing up in others.


Anonymous said...

daniel so said...

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