What Dr. Seuss taught me about evangelism
In the children’s book Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss, the character Sam-I-Am attempts to persuade another creature to eat green eggs and ham.
The creature is hesitant, but not because he doesn’t like green eggs and ham. He has never tried them. He simply doesn’t like Sam!
There’s not enough respect and goodwill in his relationship with Sam to even sample what Sam is offering. The real obstacle is Sam himself. And, for many of our friends, the real obstacle to hearing the gospel can be us.
The Bible is clear that Jesus will be a stumbling block to some. But as communicators of the gospel, we want to remove every other barrier there may be, including ourselves.
We have to be tactful in our conversations so people are able to make their decision on Jesus alone.
In many cases we have to work hard to overcome barriers, both real and imagined by our friends, to create enough goodwill and respect for them to even be willing to listen.
When I first learned to share my faith, being tactful wasn’t as important.
The culture at that time was more readily positioned to receive the message of Christ—no one thought too long or hard about how gently the message was delivered. We could get away with just sharing the content of the gospel.
But today people are more suspicious and cynical when it comes to Christianity and our posture has become as important as our message.
The challenge today is to be far more mindful of the way you interact with others as you try to introduce them to Jesus.
Many things contribute to this mindfulness, but perhaps none more profoundly than listening.
This can seem counter-intuitive at first. Sharing the gospel message seems like it should be about us and our words.
But listening opens the door for our words to be heard. Without listening, we can expect to be as ineffective as poor Sam.
Think about it. What does it do for you when someone listens well?
It tells you that they really care. It draws you to them. It helps you know you can lower your guard and share more of yourself. All those things are especially important in spiritual conversations.
Listening builds much needed trust. It also allows you to know how you might tailor the gospel message for them and what they’re dealing with. It may also break stereotypes since they are probably expecting a Christian to be aggressive, judgmental, and a bad listener.
One particular listening principle that can give lift to your gospel conversations and help them go farther is this:
Answer emotion with emotion and logic with logic.
I had an interesting spiritual conversation with a girl on campus once. She was a hardened atheist. She thought a lot about spiritual things, and read a lot of websites, but only to be better prepared to tear down the arguments of people who believe in God.
It’s one thing to find out what people believe, but it’s quite another to find out why.
When I asked her why, I learned that when she was a little girl, she had a younger sister who died. She couldn’t understand how something like this could happen and the adults around her gave her misinformed answers like, “I guess God needed her more than we did.” So she hated God and subsequently chose to believe that He didn’t exist.
At that point in our conversation it wasn’t time to toss out an argument for the existence of God or even explain that’s not why people die.
She was telling me something emotional, so it was time to answer with emotion. It was time to say how sad that must have been, and that I was sorry it happened, and that she had gone through such a difficult loss.
If someone shares something emotional, you must acknowledge and validate them before moving on. If you don’t, you will completely lose them.
There will not be enough goodwill or respect for them to care what you have to say next. On the other hand, if you validate their feelings, it will open the door for them to be willing to hear more from you.
Eventually it was appropriate to ask if she would be willing to talk further about the existence of God, which she definitely was, and we entered more into logic.
Sometimes you don’t get to go any farther than empathy, but God will use that more than you can probably imagine.
This was an obvious story of emotional pain affecting spiritual beliefs, but it’s not always that straightforward.
If someone is sharing something that seems logical, you may just want to ask the ‘why’ question to see if, in fact, there is an emotional objection posing as an intellectual one.
Very few objections to Jesus are merely intellectual. Unfortunately, that’s where many of our spiritual conversations begin and end with non-believers.
Whether they’re bringing up an emotional objection or an intellectual objection, acknowledgement and validation are critical.
In those moments, there is little else that can create the relationship you need to continue the conversation. Without it, you are simply another pesky Sam-I-Am.
Learn to answer emotion with emotion and logic with logic and you will see your conversations with those outside the faith go farther.
- How do you feel toward the people in your life who listen well to you?
- How would you rate yourself as a listener?
- How would being a better listener help you in your conversations with others about Jesus?