Conversations that Transform

Conversations that Transform

These communication tips steer people toward change.

Editor's Note: This article has been excerpted from our Training Tool Shepherd New Believers.

How do we develop attentive, mature people in our small groups? Here are four pastoral practices that are hidden, quiet, undervalued—and surprisingly powerful.

Listen Without Filtering

We know all about the power of listening. We may even teach it. We also know how to fake it.

I used to visit a busy medical clinic with top-flight doctors. I noticed when I had an appointment and the doctor stepped into the exam room, he would keep one foot angled toward the door. He was listening to me, seemingly intently, but his body was saying, "My HMO has asked me to keep appointments brief. I'm leaving as soon as I can."

Similarly, I can nod and give someone eye contact and say, "Um-hmm," but my head may be filled with noise. I may be hurting from a conversation the hour before: How could he say that! I may be wondering, Will this person be good to recruit for leadership? Or deeper still, my soul may be clamoring, I would really love it if you would think I'm spiritual.

"To truly listen is to become smaller," says my senior pastor. "It requires death to self."

Oh, only death? That should be easy.

For me, what most resists dying is the idea from leadership seminars to scrutinize the time we spend with people and do a sort of cost/benefit analysis: Will this person become a new leader? Is this investment in them worth my time? In leading, time is an investment. But in pastoring, time spent with a person is a gift, a grace, a broken bottle of perfume. To listen without filtering is to give our best time and energy to this person, right now, knowing full well nothing may come of it for my organizational agenda, and that's okay.

French writer Jacques Philippe says, "In every encounter with someone else, however long or short, we should make him feel we're 100 percent there for him at that moment, with nothing else to do except be with him and do whatever needs doing for him. Good manners, yes, but also heartfelt availability. This is very difficult, since we have a strong sense of proprietary rights to our time and easily tend to get upset if we can't organize it as we choose. But this is the price of genuine love."

One day, reading Mark 8, I noticed that when Jesus talks with people, he mostly asks questions. I added them up and found 16 questions in that single chapter. Following that model, I am trying to ask more questions of the people I pastor. Sometimes I send questions to people ahead of time, before we meet. Two of my favorites are (1) "What do you like about the kind of person you're becoming? What do you not like?" And (2) "When was a time you felt most alive and in the zone?"

If I ask questions like these and then listen, spiritual gifts emerge, surprising even the person who has them. Hope pushes up through parched soil. People start sentences with, "I've never told this to anyone before, but …" and then continue on; their back muscles literally loosen as a weight, carried for years, rolls off in confession.

I was startled by this, and one day, I mentioned to a therapist in our congregation, "I've been having these wonderful conversations, and I can't believe how candid people are with their pastor."

She looked at me. "Kevin, you don't get it, do you?"

"Um, I guess not. What don't I get?"

"People want to have these kinds of conversations," she told me. "They just don't know where they can, where the conversation will be safe and meaningful."

Safe and meaningful begins when we listen without filtering.

Discern Without Labeling

Most people, even today, assume, If I am totally honest with my pastor, I will tell him about such-and-such sin in my life. In other words, "What is most true and determinative about me is my sin and brokenness."

Meanwhile, taking my cues from the prevailing medical model in our culture, I may enter that conversation with a matching assumption, My job is to discover what's wrong here and fix it, to find where your belief or practice is not biblical or godly, and to correct that.

Those assumptions lead to conversations like this: A person says, "I went to the porn site again," and I dispense a remedy, "You need to get into a men's support group and memorize Psalm 119:9."

That's helpful counsel—addictions never improve without confession in community—yet such a remedy may not help the person change his or her life. That's because both assumptions are wrong—or at least not wholly right. Let me explain.

When someone talks with me, it's hard enough for him or her to talk about sins. But there's an intimacy level that's deeper still, which I call "heart"—the person's true nature, gifts, and call in God. Long before Sam went to the porn site, he was created and loved by God. That is what is most true and determinative about him.

So instead of asking, "How do I fix the holes and hurts?" I ask, "How do I name, affirm, and encourage this person to embrace the heart?" That's the nuclear energy of the soul. As I bless that, it's unstoppable.

To have someone look beneath your pain, sin, brokenness, and see your heroic virtue—that is transformative. To be truly and rightly named—that is one of the most profound and beautiful experiences of life. In fact, the Lord promises to "the one who is victorious" this gift: "I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it" (Revelation 2:17).

Thirteen years ago, before a church service, a friend was praying for me, and he said—I think offhandedly—"Lord, bless Kevin, a leader who speaks the truth in practical ways." Those nine words ("a leader who speaks the truth in practical ways") lodged within me, named me, revealed part of who I am in God. They've given me courage when I did not want to lead and words when I did not want to speak.

Labeling, the demonic inverse of naming, focuses on what's wrong with a person. It locks the person in a category. It's too lazy to discover that person's true uniqueness and to stand in awe of it. For example, our church is in a college town, so we're blessed with many students. The moment I think, Here's yet another bright college student, post graduation, trying to figure out his life, I have labeled, not named. I have stopped listening. I cannot see the person's heart.

Invite Without Fixing

At this point, you may be wondering, "Yes, but don't you need to address sin?"

Of course—but that usually isn't effective until after I have listened without filtering and discerned without labeling. Then, when I call people to repent, I can bring possibility and hope. For example, I told one young man struggling with using porn, "You are an artist. You have a longing for beauty, to be captivated by that. Your true calling is being obscured by your use of pornography and illicit images. Those are false images that blind your ability to see. I'm calling you to fierce vigilance now because I believe in and want to see you protect your gift."

Yes, we talked about porn filters, but what was central was inviting him into something better than porn. Why?

Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), in his famous sermon "The Expulsive Power of a New Affection," explains: "The best way of casting out an impure affection is to admit a pure one; and by the love of what is good, to expel the love of what is evil."

My word to this artist was what I call a "pastoral invitation." It's pastoral because it comes with an element of spiritual authority. But it's also an invitation. I don't want to control or to fix, and I can't anyway. This person's life is his life. God was working in it long before I got here and God will still be working in it long after I leave. All I offer is an invitation to one or two things that will help this person grow in Christ, to love God and others more, to live out of his heart.

In Invitations from God, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun explains: "Invitations from the Holy One serve God's dream for the world. They don't call me to become what I produce, what others think of me or what I know … . They let us know that we are wanted, loved, named, and known."

What does a pastoral invitation sound like?

For one businessman, I invited him to "move toward the weak, vulnerable, poor, street people. That's when you come most alive and are at your best."

For a young guy starting out in ministry, I invited him to "watch the RPMs. You are able to give much because of your willingness to live sacrificially. But doing too much for too long, with too little rest and too little money, can overheat the engine. Rest."

For another person my invitation was a question: "Have you ever considered that you may have apostolic gifts, to start new works for God's kingdom?"

Offering such an invitation is scary and awesome. I often feel I don't know what to say (and I usually don't offer an invitation until I've listened for at least two hours). I pray earnestly to God that I would say what he wants me to say and not say what he doesn't want to say. To do this well, we must have shepherding hearts, and we must be able to speak the truth in love.

Follow Up Without Nagging

The first three pastoral essentials build a relationship; I must walk with the person and not just drop him or her. So I follow up periodically. But following up doesn't mean I ask, "Are you doing what I invited you to do?" It's not accountability the way most people understand it. I'm not here to check up on him; I'm here only to catch up on how he's doing, and then pray together.

This is not laissez-faire; instead it trusts that God is better at growing this person spiritually than I am. And when I don't see progress, I must be patient. In Interior Freedom, Jacques Philippe challenges me here: "If the Lord has still not transformed this person, has not relieved him of such and such an imperfection, it is because he puts up with him as he is! He waits, with patience, for the opportune moment. Then I must do likewise. I must pray and be patient. Why be more demanding and impatient than God? I think sometimes that my haste is motivated by love. But, God loves infinitely more than I do."

Spiritual development always seems to come in a slow, quiet, mysterious way. You can't see soil getting richer.
Yet throughout the Bible this is the primary way faith has been passed on. Moses works with Joshua; Eli trains Samuel; Jesus calls the apostles; Timothy's grandmother Lois trains up her daughter Eunice, who trains up her son Timothy; Paul calls Titus his son in the faith. When it comes to helping people grow into spiritual maturity, the Bible gives us the Clarence Principle: the older teach the younger, and those more mature in the faith guide those who are newer in the faith. We can trust the process God has ordained.

— Kevin A. Miller is associate pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois; adapted from our sister publication Leadership Journal, copyright 2012 Christianity Today.


  1. Which pastoral practice above rang most true to you? Why?
  2. What prevents you from employing these practices with members of your group?
  3. How can you incorporate the suggestions above into the conversations you have with your group members—especially those newest to the faith?

Free Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: Regular access to innovative training resources, Bible-based curriculum, and practical articles.


Conducting a Spiritual Self-Audit

Twelve questions to keep your personal accounts in order.
9 Ways to Help Group Members Take Ownership of Problems

9 Ways to Help Group Members Take Ownership of Problems

The struggle is real—and we have to own it if we want to change.
How Is the Bible Changing You?

How Is the Bible Changing You?

Assess how you've grown after completing a Bible study.
Easter Reminds Us God Offers New Life

Easter Reminds Us God Offers New Life

Post-Easter icebreaker--reflect on the new life God has given you this past year.
The Four-Step Discussion Method that Works for Any Study

The Four-Step Discussion Method that Works for Any Study

This simple small-group format teaches disciples to obey God.
Four Keys to Transformational Discussions

Four Keys to Transformational Discussions

Create an environment for life change with these simple tips.