Sed Contra: Learning to Listen

Deal W. Hudson
May 1, 2002

It’s difficult for those of us in the evangelism business to listen. After all, if you’re proclaiming the “good news,” isn’t it you do the talking? But it shouldn’t always be this way. Evangelism begins with listening: first to the Word of God and then to those who must hear it.

Anyone who evangelizes successfully begins by finding a point of contact with his audience. It’s a mistake to assume that everyone has a set of problems that we already understand and can address in a language we already know. Which is why successful evangelists begin by asking questions.

This month CRISIS begins a new project titled, “Christianity From the Outside.” We’ve asked nine prominent non-Christians to answer a series of questions about their attitudes toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. And we’ve requested that they be frank. One cannot address the real concerns of non-Christians until one knows what they are, and that requires moving beyond the normal gestures of indifferent courtesy.

Our respondents have given us their views without pulling any punches, just as we asked them to. Their answers are varied. Some we expected. Others are surprising, encouraging, and even challenging. We’re grateful for their willingness to speak so freely in the “enemy territory” of a Catholic magazine.

In the next several months, we’ll be asking some of the best contemporary Christian thinkers to address the important issues our respondents have raised. Ralph Mclnerny and Rev. James Schall will get us started in June.

Those of our readers interested in apologetics will find this series especially useful. More importantly, all of our readers will be better prepared to understand and respond to everyday resistance to Christianity. What you read in this article, articulated with great sophistication, is much the same as what you might hear from your next-door neighbor. And perhaps some of the concerns—maybe even some of the outrage—you find in the responses will strike a chord with your own private questions and doubts.

Please feel free to write in and respond yourself; this project will work best with participation from you as well. Don’t worry—all nine respondents are public persons and veterans of the rough-and-tumble of verbal jousting. But please do remember charity and respect. After all, we did invite them to be open.

This project will have another reward: It’s an opportunity for greater self-knowledge for those who want to proclaim the Christian faith. There’s an old saying that if you really want to find out about yourself, you should ask your enemy. He’ll often give you a more accurate appraisal of your virtues and vices than you’d get from the flattery of friends and like-minded acquaintances. While we certainly don’t consider the respondent’s enemies, we do appreciate the outsider’s perspective they’ve given us.

No one would ever say it, of course, but Christians sometimes talk as if they believed non-Christians must be stupid. Much easier to dismiss or pity the doubter than to address his doubts. This isn’t only uncharitable; it’s intellectually lazy. The honest Christian will sometimes find himself called to share his faith with someone who is obviously smarter than he is. This shouldn’t alarm him—as long as he understands his faith as a gift rather than an intellectual achievement—but it should humble him; and in the effort to preach the gospel, humility is just as important as courage and confidence.

Sometimes it takes brutal honesty to evoke self-scrutiny. If we wonder why so many people simply ignore what appears to us to be the compelling truth of Christianity, it may be that we have become so blasé about its true that we’ve neglected to make it compelling. If we listen closely, our critics can actually help us shape our message more effectively.

So enjoy this first installment of “Christianity From the Outside.” I’m confident you’ll find it both fascinating and instructive.

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