On Listening & Learning

How we must change to make disciples

by Jim Van Yperen

Whenever I speak to a group, whether in a seminar or sermon, I am aware, sometimes painfully, that there are various kinds of people listening, or not listening to me. If you are a teacher or leader in any sense of the word, the same dynamic is at play. Whenever you speak to a group of people, there are four kinds of listeners in your audience:

  1. The hardened: these person(s) are closed, and tuned out. They either don’t like you, disagree with you, think they already know everything you are going to say, or simply don’t care. They come to the meeting this way and leave the same.
  2. The distracted: these person(s) are more open, but easily distracted. They catch bits and pieces of what you say, but frequently go off on tangents about things never said or intended. Their excitement fades quickly when challenged. 
  3. The nascent: these person(s) are open, believe what is heard and feel better for what is spoken, but they want a quick fix—change without transformation. After initial promise, they fail to mature and eventually revert back to past attitudes, thoughts and desire. 
  4. The inspired: these person(s) are open, ready and motivated by God to hear and apply what is spoken. They listen closely and want help to intentionally put into practice ways for personal growth and maturity.

If I guess, and it is pure guessing, I estimate that in an average audience where the speaker is generally known and the topic is relevant: 15% of the people are hardened; 40% are distracted; 30% are nascent and 15% are inspired. Okay, we could tinker with the percentages, but after thirty years speaking to many thousands of people in a great variety of venues I believe the percentages above are close enough. Moreover, I think it has always been this way, going back to the time of Jesus. You may disagree, but let’s assume for a moment that my guess is accurate. Assume that these four categories and their percentages are the make-up of your congregation on any given Sunday, or classroom when you teach. How will you address this wide mixture of people? What is your strategy to communicate the gospel, or disciple people most effectively? Will you focus on one group over another? If so, which one and why? Will you try to say something to everyone? Or, perhaps look at this from the vantage of the listener? Who is your pastor or teacher speaking to? Of the four categories above, where would you put yourself?

I have been thinking a lot about this lately as we re-examine our strategy for serving the church. I’ve been looking at patterns in scripture: for instance, how Jesus, Paul and the apostles communicated the gospel and mentored disciples. The study has led to some surprising conclusions that I will share later in this article. But first, let me reveal what you have already guessed. My theory is neither new, nor my own. The idea came from Jesus, who told the following familiar parable: 

“Listen! A farmer went out to plant some seeds. As he scattered seeds across his field, some fell on a footpath, but the birds came and ate them. Other seeds fell on shallow soil with underlying rock. The seeds sprouted quickly, but without deep roots the plants soon wilted and died. Other seeds fell among thorns that grew up and choked out the tender plants. Still other seeds fell on fertile soil, and they produced a crop many times that was planted!
  The Sower , Vincent Van Gogh

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh

The story is so familiar to us that we think we understand. But the parable was not understood when Jesus first told it and is frequently misunderstood now. Matthew describes the scene. Large crowds are following Jesus beside the sea. In fact, the crowd is so great that Jesus has to get into a boat for everyone on the beach to hear him. Got the picture? Jesus is addressing a crowd of people undoubtedly comprised of hardened, distracted and nascent listeners. What was his communication strategy?

Jesus launches into a story. No context. No introduction. No “This is what I want to talk with you about.” Instead, he tells a short story about a farmer. When the story is over, the crowd scratches their heads and gives a collective, “Huh?” The disciples look at one another bewildered, “What on earth is he talking about?” This event is recorded in each of the three synoptic gospels and every one agrees that not a single person on the beach understood what Jesus was talking about. How’s that for a communication strategy? 

What are we to make of this? 

What do you do when you are looking for a principle from Jesus that is not there? I’ve learned that it is better (and much safer) to assume there is something wrong with my assumptions rather than something wrong with Jesus. So, what are my assumptions about Jesus that might be wrong? As I thought about this, I realized that I assume whatever Jesus says in the bible is meant to teach something. Further, the common idea of teaching assumes that learning equals knowledge. After all, isn’t this how we study and measure learning in school? These assumptions are so automatic that we are blind to see how our assumptions condition how we listen. We think we come to the text open-minded, but we do not. We are biased by our assumptions. We are always processing information against the accumulated expectations of tradition, knowledge and experience. If these line up, we agree. If not, we doubt. In either case, we miss the point. Could unchecked assumptions be one reason why our discipleship programs bear so little fruit? 

So, let’s start over. What if Jesus’ goal is not to teach us, but to transform us? Suddenly, the parable makes sense, and it was there all along. In fact, the text tells us plainly that Jesus knew he would not be understood, but that is exactly the point. He is not teaching us about seeds and soil. He is describing what he quotes from Isaiah: hearts have grown so dull that “ears hear but do not understand and eyes see but do not perceive.”2 For us, listening means processing words through our brain. But Jesus tells us over and over that it is our heart—our desire—that determines if we understand, and if or how we will grow. In fact, a constant theme of the gospels is that the people who know the most about religion were most resistant to Jesus; but those who knew God least opened their hearts wide to Jesus. Shouldn’t this tell us something about discipleship? Before we examine how, let’s go back to the parable:

After the crowd dispersed, the disciples pulled Jesus aside to ask him what the parable of the sower meant. So Jesus told them:3

“The seed is God’s word. 
The hardened footpath represents people who hear without understanding. The devil takes the word away quickly and they don’t believe. 
The rocky soil represents people who hear with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they only believe for a shot while, and fall away when tempted. 
The thorny soil represents people who hear and believe, but never grow up and life’s cares, riches and pleasures eventually choke out the word.
The good soil represents people who hear and allow the seed to do its work, patiently producing a huge harvest.” 
  Wheatfield and Crows , Vincent Van Gogh

Wheatfield and Crows, Vincent Van Gogh

Jesus describes four kinds of soil that represent how different people receive, or don’t receive, the kingdom of God. We don’t know this until Jesus explains it so, and even then we need help to understand. For example, we miss the point if we apply the story prescriptively, “here’s how to receive the kingdom.” This is not what Jesus is saying. Rather, he is describing what our dull hearts and minds cannot hear or understand without the Spirit’s revelation.

With this parable, Jesus introduces a hidden, mysterious kingdom that disrupts our expectations and resists our need to control. We want pomp and power. God gives us seeds we cannot see. 

The parable tells us at least five important truths about the kingdom:

  1. The kingdom is here, now. There is no soil, no place on earth, where the seed is not sown. 
  2. The kingdom is huge, but appears absent or minuscule to fallen eyes and ears.
  3. Everything necessary for kingdom fruitfulness is already present in the seed. 
  4. Growth depends on the soil. Only soil cleared of obstacles bears lasting fruit.
  5. Kingdom growth is not a work we do; or fruit we produce. 

From beginning to end, the parable of the sower assumes the initiative of a triune God. God scatters the seed. The seed is the word, who is Jesus. The Spirit produces fruit. Father, Son and Holy Spirit create and produce kingdom growth. This was God’s design from the beginning. However, sin tainted the soil and the soil determines whether Spirit fruitfulness is welcomed or impeded. The difficulty for the early disciples, and for us today, is the same problem that has always separated us from God—desire. Our desire—those needs and expectations that rule our attitudes, emotions and actions--is like hard path, stones or thorns that get in the way of both receiving and walking with God. We are, all of us, at various stages of resistance, distraction, or nascence that only God can remove. In fact, our minds are so disordered that our first thought after hearing this parable is that we need to take control, be more committed and work harder in order to become better soil. However, if the parable is descriptive not prescriptive, the point is not what we need to do, but how we got to be where we are and what God needs to do in us. Fruitfulness can come only as the Holy Spirit cleans and reorders our desire. This is why Jesus says to his disciples:4 

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
  Red Vineyards , Vincent Van Gogh

Red Vineyards, Vincent Van Gogh

So, what does this mean about discipleship? If discipleship is about transforming people, not exchanging information, how should we preach and teach? And if learning is about forming character, not accumulating knowledge, how does this happen? 

The Apostle John offers us insight about how Jesus and the apostles practiced discipleship and encouraged others to follow:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us—that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 

John suggests that Christian discipleship involves a dynamic cycle of hearing, seeing, doing and telling others, as follows: 

Hearing. Transformation starts with hearing. In scripture, the Hebrew word for hearing (shama) and the Greek word (akouo) both carry a sense of action. Hearing implies obeying. Hearing identifies a need and summons a call. This is why we say Jesus came to transform us not to inform us. Throughout the gospels Jesus is continually calling people to repent. The Greek word is metanoia, to actively, “change your mind,” not mere intellectual assent. Belief is an active response to the word of Christ. Belief recognizes our need, and exercises confidence that Jesus is Lord. Discipleship is a call to active relationship, to real fellowship with Jesus.

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? . . . Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.

Seeing. Hearing forms a way of seeing. Having our ears opened to the word of Christ, the Spirit now opens our eyes to see what we were blind to before, beginning with our separation. We see ourselves truthfully, that we are not the soil that will produce fruit. We see the obstacles that our desire has placed in the way. Seeing is description, the indicative following the imperative. We do not obey because our desire has become disordered; our love is misplaced. God must open our eyes to see the hope of a new creation, a new identity, activity and reality.

Doing. Hearing and seeing may form knowledge and even belief, but they will not form character. Remember, God’s purpose is to transform us, not convince us. Faith must find expression. Here, discipleship becomes a practice field, the arena where concrete habits and practices of faith are engaged and enacted. This-is why James and Paul state that Spirit-life is revealed by the fruit of what we do, not by what we say.

In the discipline of living out our faith, the obstacles of desire, failure, suffering and hardship are revealed, and an opportunity for healing and real life change is offered. Transformation comes out of engaging the chaos, not controlling it. Physical learning, (engaging in specific disciplines, habits and practices that identify and address our needs) joins intellectual and emotional learning. Character is formed as fellowship is restored with with God, enabling the believer to have genuine fellowship with others. 

Telling. Finally, discipleship comes full circle and begins again as the disciple proclaims what the Spirit has opened through hearing, seeing and doing. In the ongoing process of personal growth, the disciple calls others to the word of Christ. Telling others gives clarity to our learning and lends permanence to the formation of our character. Proclaiming the word of Christ is confessional. “This is what God is doing in my life and in the world. This is what I have heard and seen and touched.” In confession we affirm our intention and confirm our commitment to transformation. That is, our words are both reflective (narrating what God has done) as well as generative (our commitment to what God will do.) In confession, we externalize an internal reality, confirming the hope in us while proclaiming hope for others in Christ.

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.8

Note again that the Trinity is active throughout every stage—hearing, seeing, doing, and telling. God is the initiator. Jesus is the subject. The Spirit produces fruit. The role of the disciple is to actively believe, that is, to submit and to obey to the work of the Master Gardener. This means that what we hear, see and touch is all God’s doing, a work of grace. We work out--with fear and trembling-- what God has already put in, what God compels us to do.

With this understanding as foundation, we are now able to return to the questions posed at the beginning of this article. How do we communicate the gospel and disciple people who have varied levels of interest? What would discipleship look like in such a gathering? 

I offer three principles for effective discipleship, based upon Jesus’ example:

1. Think process, not event. 

As we have learned, the primary goal of Christian communication—sermon, seminar, or class—is spiritual discovery, not intellectual instruction. Instruction happens and it is important, but discipleship is primary and discipleship is measured by fruit, not knowledge. We have lost this truth. For example, in the course of my life I’ve sat under some brilliant professors, heard great expository preachers, and listened to very engaging teachers. Like you, I’ve laughed and cried, been convicted and led into deep reflection through the words of effective communicators. I have learned the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words, about history and archeology, and have accumulated knowledge about many things. Yet, at the very best, (even if we grouped all of them together), the most these events provided was an opening for change. No event transformed my character. None can, because transformation is a process not an event.

Yet, most churches plan and act as if the Sunday sermon is the primary agent for discipleship. Church has become a program with the sermon the main event. The better the speaker the better the event. We put a lot of stock in the speaker, and our speakers buy the stock. Pride is a constant threat, and no wonder. Lights, staging and platform all promote the wisdom, humor and charisma of the speaker, rather than pointing people to the cross of Jesus Christ. We’ve made the pastor a celebrity. The larger the church the more removed the speaker is from people, the more his or her privacy is protected, the less people hear, see or touch him or her personally. Do you see how this is exactly opposite of Jesus, Paul and the apostles? Jesus discipled people by being with them. The greater the crowds the more he walked in among them, listening, talking to and touching people. You might say, “That is not practical in this day and age.” Really? Was it practical for Jesus? Is it possible, instead, that we are taking ourselves much too seriously, and the example of Jesus not seriously enough?

The art of preaching is describing reality as seen through eyes and enacted through the hands of Jesus, a perspective often very different from our own. This means that our preaching must be centered in and come from community. We preach out of common life and brokenness, being confessional, and careful not to preach what we have yet to own. In the end, the very best of public speaking (sermons, seminars etc.) cannot make a disciple. Discipleship requires being with people. Discipleship is the process of God opening ears to hear and eyes to see, that our hands might serve and our feet might walk with Jesus.

2. Engage life, not facts. 

You might think that I am against preaching. Actually, I believe preaching is vital. Two points must be taken into account, however. First, character does not come from a lectern. Discipleship requires community. Second, preaching and teaching have different purpose. Preaching is proclamation. Teaching is, or ought to be, a form of mentoring. Preaching addresses many with varied interests. Teaching addresses relatively few, ideally those who have ears to hear. Of course, God is able to transform any heart, in any situation. Since we never know what heart God is changing (including our own), we must always speak in a way that invites every person—whether hardened, distracted, nascent or inspired—to encounter Jesus. 

Reading through the Sermon on the Mount, I’m struck by how Jesus’ style defies classification or category. In fact, he breaks many conventional rules of good communication. His words can be dense and deeply profound, beyond what is easily grasped. He is straightforward, even terse at times, moving rapidly from subject to subject, metaphor to metaphor. He speaks with an economy of words so packed with meaning that one is quickly overwhelmed. I want to say, “Wait! Please stop, let me think about that.” There is no dumbing down with Jesus, no jokes or anecdotes that go off in tangents, no unrelated stories. Yet, he is accessible and approachable. He does not duck out the side door afrerward. He enters the crowd, stops to listen, and brings healing through touch. 

Most of the people Jesus engaged in dialog fall into the distracted category. They were common people; fishermen and laborers; they were people on the street, the lame, ill, and demon possessed; outcasts from society, prostitutes and tax-collectors. They were people who had a need, and knew it; people who were not living right, and knew this too. They knew the pain of being judged. They needed the gospel proclaimed, not dissected. They responded in droves to Jesus words—both for what he said, and how he said it. Jesus gave them dignity. He looked people in the eye and spoke the truth in love. He spoke directly and conversationally, like giving counsel to a friend; from the heart, and always with the other’s interest in mind. He related truth in visible, practical and artful ways, often through examples, metaphors and stories. He asked questions that really mattered. Often, he started by engaging people with something familiar, a common assumption or tangible need in their life, then invited them to see how the gospel changed perspective and called them to a new way of thinking, feeling and acting. “You have heard that it was said of old . . . but I say to you . . .” In other words, Jesus entered into our human condition while directing us to a divine reality. He pointed us to himself and to the Father, but for love, never to impress us with knowledge or logic. He spoke boldly, naming sin and calling out hypocrisy, especially in those who claimed to know better. Knowledge, for Jesus, was more often a barrier than vehicle to faith. In summary, Jesus described a reality that transforms the way we think, feel and act, then invites us to join him there. What if you crafted your preaching and teaching with this approach and goal in mind?

3. Practice. Practice. Practice. 

As we are discovering, discipleship is a complex process, not a single event. It is generative and cannot be controlled, coerced or imposed. The problem is that we confuse change with transformation and, like shallow or thorny soil, remain content with change alone. It is easy to attract a crowd, but much harder grow disciples. Eventually, the attraction wears off and people revert back to learned behavior. Jesus attracted great crowds too, but he was never impressed by them, as we are. He knew what was in their hearts. He knew that few would really follow him.  

Exciting growth and change can happen quickly in your church too, but your ministry will be measured by fruit, not attendance. 

Sustained character transformation is God’s work over time. It is a process that takes lots of practice. By practice, I mean the spiritual habits that are intentionally and continually rehearsed within a disciplined community, such as: prayer, confession, communion, dialog and study of scripture, giving and reviewing counsel; partaking in common life—in parenting, daily meals, life transitions, prayer for healing sickness and for wisdom in crisis; bearing one another’s burdens, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. In short, our character is formed as we embody the one another commands. Here, where the Spirit is welcomed into the midst of the community, our disordered desire is identified and reordered, and the habits of negative behavior are unlearned, replaced with spiritual fruit. Imagine that.

What this means

Here are five simple principles for preaching that you might want to consider as you consider the example of Jesus:10 

  • Think about shortening your messages to 25 minutes or less; 18 minutes is ideal11 
  • Be sure to invite a tangible, immediate response for everyone—hardened, distracted, nascent and inspired—to begin translating hearing into sight and activity; whether personal reflection or spiritual practice, such as confession, communion etc.
  • In seminars or classes, do not speak for more than 12 minutes without inviting some kind of active engagement or response from the group
  • Provide a meaningful example or story to illustrate a point every 10 minutes, at least
  • Actively recruit the 15% who are inspired into a deeper pathway of dialog, prayer or practices that form character

In the months ahead, Metanoia Ministries will be focusing on conflict prevention as well as intervention. This means devoting more time to providing seminars that go beyond the introductory to engage people in creating the kind of community where peace can flourish and where lasting character is formed. We will be offering more resources--audio,video and print--for leaders All along the way we’ll be looking to come alongside those inspiring women and men (the 15%) who God is already at work prompting to go deeper into community and discipleship in their ministry setting. Perhaps you are one.


1 Matthew 13:1-9

2 Matthew 13:13-15

3 Matthew 13:16-23 

4 John 15:1-8

5 1 John 1-4 

6 Romans 10:14,17 

7 Galatians 5

8 1 John 5:6-7

9 Philippians 2:12-23 

10 I came to these recommendations after examining, identifying and attempting to follow the actual practices Jesus as recorded in scripture. You may disagree, but I ask you to do so from an honest look at scripture, not the bias of a strategy.

11 I cannot find any sermon or teaching of Jesus in scripture that exceeded 18 minutes. Perhaps the TED talks stole this principle from Jesus?