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Stories Series: 2. Your Story – Story Listening

People love stories. From earliest childhood right through to oldies like me we love listening to and telling stories. (I suspect the older we get the more we love to tell stories rather than listen to others tell them.) As human beings, stories are our primary way of communicating.

In my previous post in this series, Reversing Church Decline in Australia, I mentioned my training workshop on relational evangelism, Stories of Grace & Hope. In that workshop I unpack three stories that lie at the very heart of faith sharing: Your Story, My Story and God’s Story. Over these next few weeks I’ll be exploring each of these stories and how to use them in witnessing to our friends who don’t know Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Today, we’ll look at the first story – Your Story.

By ‘Your Story’ I’m referring to those stories your friends share with you that point to where they stand in their life and faith journey. Woven through their stories you will find hints of an inner spiritual quest, i.e. if you have ‘ears to hear’. Those hints will often be expressed as a personal search suggesting that the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives. Usually it comes as a quest for one or more of the following:

  • Freedom – from addictions, destructive behaviours, anxiety, guilt, fear, oppression, abusive relationships
  • Fulfilment – finding: a sense of purpose or meaning in life, core values to live by and the power to do so, truth, connecting with creation and with a power greater than oneself, a sense of significance
  • Friendship – seeking: forgiveness and reconciliation with others, knowing and/or finding peace with God, loving relationships, belonging to an authentic and relational community
  • Future – being able to move in a healthy way through times of transition, loss and limitations, finding hope for new beginnings, coping with the end of a significant relationship, dealing with death and concerned about life after death.

As followers of Jesus, in order to discern our friends’ spiritual quest, we need to be able to listen at depth to the stories  they share. Depth listening is one of the central practices in connecting friends with faith. Depth listening isn’t only about getting information from someone – it’s mainly about strengthening a relationship, giving space for the other person to truly be themselves, hearing what’s going on below the surface in that person’s life and letting them know you’ve heard.

Active depth listening is listening with empathy and paying attention to what is being communicated verbally and especially non verbally. It encourages the other to express what they really think and feel. Without self discipline our listening can easily turn into lecturing, defending our viewpoint, interrogation, moralizing, analysis or just looking for our chance to talk about what we want to talk about. Active depth listening is listening to the person’s body language (55% of the communication), tone of voice (38%) and actual word content (7%).

Some important depth listening skills:

  • Body Language – facing the other person, maintaining eye contact (without glaring), having an open posture, leaning slightly forward.

•    Paraphrasing – putting into your own words the gist of what the other person has said.

  • Perception Checking – sensitively reflecting back to the other the feelings you sense you’ve picked up that lie behind their actual words, tone of voice and body language. But avoid responses like, “You must have felt…” That just loads them with your expectations of how they should feel. If you get it wrong, don’t worry – they’ll easily correct you, appreciating that you’ve tried to listen to them.

•    Being Quiet – a good rule of thumb is to let the other do at least 80% of the talking.

  • Questions – gently ask a few follow up questions, especially around their feelings, if you need more clarity without coming across as probing or interrogating.

However, before starting the listening journey it’s vital to establish a positive, mutually trusting relationship with your friend. Such a relationship is built when our lifestyles have the following SHAPE

  • Service – when we seek to genuinely serve them in ways they find helpful (and not necessarily ways we find helpful). Initially, actions usually speak louder than words (although sooner or later words are needed).
  • Hospitality – inviting friends into our personal space where friendships can safely grow.
  • Accessibility – being available, making time to be with non-believers and genuinely enjoying their company.
  • Prayer – evangelism is first and foremost God’s work. As Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father” (John 6:44). Witnessing is a collaborative ministry with the Holy Spirit that is born of prayer.
  • Empathy – walking in their shoes, listening to them at depth, hearing where they’re coming from before speaking ourselves.

Research carried out in South Australia several years ago found that 80% of people first came to faith in Jesus and into the life of the Church because of the influence of a relative or friend. This was contrasted with those who were converted because of a pastor (7%), church program (3%), crusade event or TV (0.0001%), Sunday School (4%), door to door visit (1%) or just came to church uninfluenced by any church activity (5%).

So where to start? In order to develop a lifestyle of intentional relational witness I suggest beginning with developing your Personal Network Map.

Using the grid below list friends, relatives and connections within your personal relational network who, as far as you can discern, are not actively practising Christian Faith.

Family/Relatives/Close Friends      Work/Vocational
Neighbourhood Community      Sports/Hobbies/Interests/Service Groups
Internet Communities (eg Facebook)      Other

Identify each as follows:

X  = Those you see as being closed to personally exploring Christian Faith

O = Those you see as being currently open to personally exploring Christian Faith

? = Those you’re not sure about

Ask the Holy Spirit to place on your heart three people in your Network Map for you to specifically journey with. Write down their names and pray daily for them and for opportunities to share faith with them. (Unless you sense God indicating otherwise, I recommend focusing on those whom you discern as open as they are most likely the ones the Spirit of God is drawing to Jesus – John 6:44.)

In my next post in this series we’ll look at when and how to share your experience of Jesus – My Story.

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