The basic principle here is that we need to seek to understand others before we try to make ourselves understood. This is often difficult for believers because we are convinced (rightly so) that we have something everybody should want. To us, it doesn’t matter what someone else believes because we already know that Jesus is the answer.
The problem is that we build walls between ourselves and others by not seeking to understand them prior to sharing the gospel. We’re already convinced they’re wrong and need to accept our truth. However, the lack of empathy we display prevents us from having a voice in the lives of others. Unfiltered and on the corporate level, this can quickly become the local church remaining entirely unaware of the felt needs or struggles of the community we are trying to reach.
This struck home to me recently while visiting with a wealthy philanthropist. Because of his business acumen and financial success, he had it in his mind that he already knew what the community he was trying to impact needed. The problem was that he was dumping money (lots of money) into programs that didn’t work and weren’t having the impact he wanted because he had not taken the time to ask people living in the community what they felt their needs were.
Now, I know it isn’t always this simple. There’s a famous quote of Henry Ford saying, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted they would have said faster horses.” There are in fact times when we do know better what someone needs than they do. It still doesn’t negate the problems that arise when we don’t take the time to listen and package our solutions in a way that makes sense to the people in our lives.
Ford still needed to tell people that he could get them from point A to point B more quickly than they could imagine. He was solving the problem in a way they couldn’t possibly anticipate. In the same way we need to be diligent to offer faith in Christ as a solution to the felt needs of others; something that demands also taking the time to understand before seeking to make Christ understood.