Everyone knows that you can look ten pounds thinner with a well-known slimming trick: clothing with vertical lines elongate your shape and give you a more svelte appearance, right? Wrong! Vision scientists Peter Thompson and Kyriaki Mikellidou say that what we learned about wearing vertical stripes, and not wearing horizontal stripes, is exactly backwards. Vertical stripes on clothing make the wearer appear fatter and shorter than horizontal stripes do. Horizontal stripes actually make objects appear taller and narrower. This phenomenon was reported by German physicist and physician, Hermann von Heimholtz, 150 years ago. Heimholtz’s report never got picked up by clothing designers, but now we know that he did indeed have a great eye for fashion (Scientific American Mind, July-August, 2012).
I love it when long-held assumptions are challenged and proven wrong, partly because it encourages me to test some of my own assumptions. We grow up thinking and learning certain things that sometimes just aren’t true. I would rather live half of my life being wrong than do so for my entire life. That’s why I don’t take offense when you can prove me wrong. It helps me to learn and make corrections in my thinking and behavior.
With that in mind, I want to challenge a long-held belief relating to ministry and evangelism. This long-held belief concerns how we listen to another person. When I was first taught how to share Christ with others, I was taught to listen for an area of life that I had in common with the other person and then relate my story to theirs. For example, if a person mentioned that they enjoyed football, I might swap a football story with them. Or if they were dealing with a difficulty in their life, I might relate a similar difficulty that I experienced. The term for this is “counter-story.” I was taught to listen for an area of commonality, share my counter-story, thus demonstrating that we have something in common. The theory is that by demonstrating that we have common ground they will be more receptive when we talk to them about Jesus. At least that’s the theory.
While the use of counter-story can work, I now believe there is a better way, a much better way to share the gospel, and it begins with listening. Consider this: when someone tells you something about themselves, and you share a counter-story with them (a story about yourself that is similar to theirs), you have just removed the focus from them and placed it upon yourself. More than likely you have been taught that sharing your counter-story will help you build rapport with the other person. But what you are actually doing is making the conversation about you and not about them.
For example, if I were to ask you, “How was your day?” And you responded, “I’ve had a bad day.” I could respond by saying, “I know what you mean. I’ve had a bad day too.” Such a response would put the focus on me and my day. A better way for me to respond would be: “I’m sorry about that. Can you tell me more?” This invites them to share more with you, so that you can learn more about them and better serve them. It is amazing what people will share when you listen. Then, when it is time for you to share a story, you can share a biblical story that relates to their situation.
Imagine this scenario. A person tells you that they have a problem with a coworker. As they describe the situation, you might say, “Jesus actually said some things about that. Jesus said ‘Love your enemies … bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you’” (Luke 6:27f). If the subject of their concern is wayward child you could share Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal from Luke 15. If a person is concerned that their sinful life makes them beyond God’s willingness to save you could share the story of the Woman at the Well in John 4, or the woman who wept on Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. Or you could tell them about Saul consenting to the murder of Stephen before Jesus saved him and gave him a new name – Paul.
These are just a few possible scenarios. But the principle is this: listen to their story and ask them questions that prompt them to share. Refrain from sharing a counter-story. Instead, look for an opportunity to connect biblical truth to their specific situation. By doing this, you will keep the focus on them, and you will share God’s truth in a way that relates to their present situation.
And, yes, I’m still trying to convince my wife that she looks great in horizontal stripes!