Kamil leaned over the picnic table with a book in front of him as he talked quietly to his teacher. He was older than the others at the Baobab refugee camp in Rome—probably in his fifties—and held himself in a way that hinted at a former life of education and respect. When I learned he was from a militaristic Islamic society in Africa, I hoped I might have a chance to share the gospel with him.
The open door came quickly when he came to sit closer and asked if we could talk more seriously. I was thrilled for the opportunity but quickly saw that there was something beneath his calm demeanor.
“Can I ask you a question?” He said gravely, with a hint of accusation in his tone. “Why does America hate [Muslims]? Why do they think we’re bad?”
I was a little surprised, and honestly, a little offended, but the Holy Spirit quietly cautioned me to graciously be a sounding board for him. Kamil had been through a lot, and he only knew what he’d been told. I was probably the first American he’d met, and the way I responded would either undergird his assumptions about us all (and our God) or make him question whether they were true.
What happened over the next ninety minutes was amazing. What started as an accusation turned to spiritual seeking in the presence of a loving and sympathetic listener.
As I listened, he began to open up about the emptiness of his faith and his lack of connection with Allah. I was able to share in turn about the God who walks and talks with me and knows me personally. By the time Kamil walked away, he was in tears and had allowed me to write a note of encouragement for him in his journal. My colleague, who had been sitting nearby, was able to pray for him in the name of Jesus.
What a transformation.
Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak
Evangelism always involves proclaiming the gospel, but before our mouths open, there are some things God can do—often working through us—to help prepare the soil of a person’s heart—to soften it, break up the stones, make it ready. Kamil did not come into our conversation ready to hear the truth, but by the end, he was asking. I’m so glad God prompted me to let him speak, even vent, instead of jumping into a gospel presentation. If we are to be good communicators of the gospel, we must incorporate three practices into our interactions with people.
Listen to People
We Christians have great news to share. But sometimes in our rush to share it, we forget that we’re sharing with real flesh-and-blood people who have feelings, hurts, and prejudices. We offer a canned presentation with the focus on what we’re saying, instead of having a conversation. Sometimes in our eagerness to speak truth, we can run roughshod over people.
“Only God knows the heart of the person to whom we are speaking, and he can direct our conversation if we are quick to listen to him.”
Most people around the world with whom we share Christ don’t see truth or spirituality the same way we do. There is not a starting point or set of beliefs we all share in common about the nature of God or reality. This makes listening crucial to effective evangelism. Christian author Randy Newman says it this way: “We need to listen to people’s stories to find out how God has worked and is working. We dare not presume that he needs to fit into our plans or strategies.”
Listen to the Holy Spirit
Listening is also important because we are not alone as we evangelize. The Holy Spirit is at work already and invites us to join what he is doing. We have to be listening to him constantly and following his lead. Only God knows the heart of the person to whom we are speaking, and he can direct our conversation if we are quick to listen to him. There is no way I could guess what was in Kamil’s past or present that was keeping him from trusting in Christ. But Jesus knew, so I listened and prayed.
Identify with Christ First
In today’s politically charged atmosphere, it’s difficult to stay away from sensitive areas of conversation. Almost every off-handed comment can carry a lot of baggage, even if unintended. When Kamil asked about Americans hating Muslims, I bristled a bit. But I had to approach Kamil as an ambassador of Christ, first and foremost. I wasn’t in Rome, in the refugee camps, to discuss American history or politics. I was in there to represent Christ and his kingdom.
When seeking to share Christ, we need to strip ourselves of other loyalties and identify with him alone, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, the one who binds broken hearts and frees captives in Isaiah 61, the one who doesn’t cry out or raise his voice in Isaiah 42.
When I walked out of camp that day, I didn’t care if Kamil loved America. I cared very much if he might one day love Jesus. So I will pray for the Holy Spirit’s work in his life and trust that meeting an American who broke down his presuppositions might be the catalyst for a changed life.
Karen Pearce is a writer for IMB living in Prague. She has dedicated much of the past three years researching and writing about the global refugee situation. She is the writer for the International Mission Study. You can follow her on Instagram.