Reaching the lost. Having a quiet time. VBS.
Christians use an abundance of their own lingo, often condensed into acronyms that send the uninitiated searching for a decoder ring. Yet they are not alone; many professions create their own jargon. Their insider language describes a shared knowledge within their field so members can communicate easily, share their viewpoints, or deliberate on methodology. Sometimes ideas and methods are useful for multiple industries, so people in one profession adopt practices from another. I’d like to suggest that Christians adopt an idea from product designers, and it starts with understanding some funny-sounding jargon: empathy mapping.
You’d be forgiven for being skeptical of the idea that sharing the gospel could benefit from anything produced by marketing professionals or product designers. At first glance, the objectives of a Christian sharing the gospel and a product designer are drastically different: Christians share a free message while designers seek to create and sell a product. Christians would never want to cheapen the gospel by productizing it.
Even so, there is at least one principle Christians can learn from product design: good product design, like good communication of an important message, requires understanding the needs and desires of the audience—it requires empathy. The best solutions are guided by empathy. It’s no coincidence that the iPhone became so successful and helped shape the smartphone as we know it today. Steve Jobs once said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backward to the technology and ask, ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer?’”
One method designers developed to answer that question is called empathy mapping. Empathy mapping helps designers create products that give solutions to real problems their customers face. Carried over into marketing, it shows potential users how the product offers a solution to a need in their life. Consider the iPhone. Gone are the days when we had to carry a planner, camera, and phone. Those things and more are now found in one device. It changed how we live because the Apple marketers delivered a product whose inception began with thinking of the customer’s needs and desires.
The Best Solution
The task given to Christians by the Great Commission is not to create something new from nothing. We are not seeking to design or sell a revolutionary product. Rather, we seek to present the truest solution to humanity’s deepest problems in a way that communicates clearly to a person’s current reality.
Empathy teaches us to listen and not just to speak. It can guide us in how to apply biblical truth to daily life and to contextualize so the good news is more likely to be received as good news. The gospel is a truth that is counterintuitive to the self-righteous, self-reliant tendencies of humans. Furthermore, it requires a response—a person cannot stay neutral to its message. Therefore, the gospel itself should be the only stumbling block to the hearer, not an unclear presentation that has not considered the hearer.
Of course, it is the Holy Spirit who convinces a person of the truth of the gospel and brings life from death. That, however, must not be an excuse; we must strive to present the message as clearly and compassionately as possible.
“We seek to present the truest solution to humanity’s deepest problems in a way that communicates clearly to a person’s current reality.”
Empathy mapping can be a useful tool because it helps us ask some important questions for understanding our audience. One part of an empathy map is understanding what someone “thinks and feels”: the major preoccupations of a person. This includes understanding “pains” such as fears, frustrations, anxieties, and obstacles, and “gains” such as wants and hopes. An empathy map also guides us to pay attention to what influences the people with whom we interact—what they hear, see, and perceive as important.
For instance, through listening to a person, we might realize that he feels alone and misunderstood (pains). He feels like an outcast and seeks a sense of identity and belonging (gains). Although we as Westerners are often most comfortable expressing the gospel in terms of guilt and innocence, and although this person is also guilty before God, he is feeling more shame. He feels shame like Jesus felt when he died as an outcast and criminal. For this man, a presentation of the gospel must include the truth that God loved the outsider enough to become despised himself so that whoever believes in Jesus will be forever included in the family of God. The followers of Jesus are given a new eternal identity and status (Eph. 2:11–22).
Empathy is more than an exercise. It is what happens when we pay attention, care deeply, and listen closely to what people are saying and feeling. Christians should excel in this area because they are called to be missionaries where they live—incarnationally in the midst of the people with whom they display and proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ. Empathy mapping can be a tool to reflect on what is being heard and learned in daily interactions, allowing one to glean greater insights for the task.
Start by Listening
Sometimes, perhaps, we are more concerned with getting out what we know the person needs to hear than we are with really having a conversation and listening to the state of a person’s heart. Here are some questions to guide your listening and create a mental empathy map for the person you hope to share with.
- What are their fears, frustrations, or anxieties?
- What are their wants, needs, hopes, and dreams?
- What do they think about most during the day?
- How is x keeping them from y? (x is a pain, y is a gain)
- What did they learn from their last challenge?
- What’s the first thing they’d want to ask God for if he were in the room right now?
May God guard us against self-centeredness and any unhealthy preoccupation with numbers that would drive us to share in a manner that is obscure to our audience. Rather, may we have joy in the message and genuine care for our hearers. We have a message to share, but to share it well, we must also learn to empathize.