I’ve never been a musical guy. I like music and I feel like my taste in music is somewhat discerning. I’ve been friends with musical people. If I’ve noticed one thing about my musically adept friends, it’s that they all love jazz. My jazz-loving friends have also given the strong impression that jazz music is the music of smart people.
I like to fashion myself a smart person, so several years back I decided to give jazz a shot. Around the same time, a friend invited my wife and me to a jazz club in New Orleans. Here was my chance! I was finally going to get why smart people like jazz music! After all, I’m smart… right?
Turns out I hated jazz music. I found it difficult to follow. I found the rhythms to be somewhat discordant. The musicians didn’t seem to know what was going on and had to adapt on the fly. It certainly sounded good and I appreciated the skill of the musicians involved, but I found it hard to follow.
I really had egg on my face as I explained my complaints to one of my more musically discerning friends. All of my complaints about why I didn’t like jazz music were precisely what made it jazz music. It’s highly improvisational, so the musicians probably didn’t know what one another had immediately done. It felt somewhat discordant because the musicians were constantly having to adapt to one another.
Jazz and Evangelism
Full disclosure: I still don’t like jazz. I like a certain amount of predictability in my music which, I guess, makes me less intelligent. I’ve also found that I dislike jazz for the exact same reason that most people dislike evangelism. You never know what you’re going to get.
You never know what you’re going to get from the person you speak with, your fellow musician if you will. He or she might bring in a completely unexpected topic that you are expected to seamlessly adapt to. I might feel like I’m playing my part beautifully and what is being heard appears to be discordant.
It’s the terror and the beauty of the conversation. I think it’s also why most evangelicals, at least the minority of us that attempt to have faith conversations, find a method we like and we stick with it, consequences be darned. We don’t like the improvisational nature of the conversation. We like knowing what to expect and where the conversation is going.
Once, an older gentlemen and I worked together to conduct a ten question spiritual survey on a campus. The questions progressed from the general– Do you believe in God?– to the specific– If you were to stand before God today, what reason would you give to be welcomed to heaven? Several students responded that they didn’t believe in God. But this well-meaning older gentleman plowed through the survey anyway. I took a step back and thought curiously about the rationale for asking someone what they would say to God to get into Heaven when they didn’t believe in God. When I was on my own and a student responded that they didn’t believe in God, we put the survey away. I asked follow-up questions like, “Have you always disbelieved in God?” “At what point did you stop disbelieving in God?” “Do you want there to be a God?” etc.
The older gentleman is emblematic of many Christians. We’re going to get where we want the conversation to go regardless of if it’s the best route to take with a specific person. In the process, we alienate our audience and make them feel like projects rather than people. We may actually push them further away from faith because we don’t acknowledge that the uniqueness of their experience requires a unique course of conversation.
You see, good evangelism is more like jazz than I want to admit. It adapts with the partner. It identifies discordant strands in the conversation and smooths them out with skill. It requires a breadth of knowledge and techniques. And when it’s executed well, it might leave on-lookers confused but impressed.
Once I set up a meeting with a new student in our ministry. He had been attending our weekly worship gatherings pretty regularly but wasn’t plugging in anywhere. I offered to buy him coffee with the intention of learning about his faith background and sharing the Gospel with him. As soon as we sat down he unloaded an hour long torrent of information on me about his life’s passion: illegal street racing.
I know nothing about cars or street racing except that, you know, it’s illegal. But I smiled. I asked questions when I could. Mostly, I listened in terror.
After the hour was up, he excused himself and said he had to get to class. I thanked him for his time and asked if we could do it again. Over the course of that semester, this student and I went to coffee four or five times. Each time after the first we were able to get into significant faith conversations about his background, his doubts, what it would take for him to believe, etc. As the semester wound down and I informed him I would be moving on to another campus, he thanked me for taking time and for listening to him. I thanked him for sharing and expressed my hope that one day soon he would follow Jesus.
None of the subsequent conversation would have happened if I would have interrupted his hour-long spiel on street racing. I could have interrupted him and tried to get to the point of the conversation that I wanted to have, but I would have made him feel devalued as a person. I probably would have made him feel like a project rather than someone I cared about. Instead, we enjoyed a friendly relationship where we exchanged ideas in which he was regularly exposed to the Gospel.
The conversation couldn’t have started out more discordant. I wanted to talk about Jesus, he couldn’t bridle his enthusiasm for street racing. But we eventually smoothed out the rough spaces, brought the seemingly discordant parts of our conversation into harmony, and wound up producing a piece of conversation that might have been exhausting in its breadth, but was undeniably beautiful.
Kinda like jazz.