The church has sought to guide the spiritual lives of its members in very practical, reasonable ways. That sounds like a compliment. It’s not. Contrary to Western thought, spirituality is anything but reasonable and practical.
— Jeff Woods

Some years ago we came across the story of Monty Roberts, called the Man Who Listens to Horses (after his bestselling book). Though loosely the basis of the book and film, The Horse Whisperer (starring Robert Redford), Monty’s story doesn’t quite resemble the film’s melodrama and romance. His is the simple story of a man’s affinity with animals, in particular the wild mustangs of Montana’s mountains. Monty grew up on a ranch with his family of horse traders. For generations the Robertses had ridden out into the rugged mountains to round up the wild horses that they would then break and sell to other Montana ranchers. The magnificent untamed beasts that roamed the mountains were all sinew and muscle, all wild instinct and sheer physical power. Breaking them was no mean feat. 

Once Monty’s grandfather, father, uncles, or brothers had captured a mustang and confined it to a corral, they then had to break its magnificent spirit. This could mean weeks of work, as these most spirited of animals were often very difficult to tame. Monty says that some horses were so wild that one of their fetlocks had to be tied with rope around their necks. The wildest, most powerful animals could finally be broken only after much blood, sweat, and suffering. Even as a young boy, Monty Roberts suspected that there had to be a better way to befriend these mustangs than to break their spirits so cruelly. Then, during his adolescence, while riding up in the Montana high country, he noticed that whenever a beast was separated from the herd and left to wander alone in the mountains it often became sick, even to the point of near-death. This got him thinking.

If these were such herd animals with such a powerful, innate instinct for connection with other creatures, then maybe that instinct could be used for taming them. He began experimenting on a different way of “breaking” wild mustangs, until in his early adulthood he developed a whole new method. Now, he travels the world demonstrating this approach. During a 60 Minutes program, Monty Roberts taught the world his method of horse whispering. It involves his getting into the corral with the untamed mustang and staying as far from the animal as possible, without leaving the enclosure. He also refuses to allow any eye contact between him and the horse. By moving slowly, but surely, away from the horse and by keeping his head averted from the animal’s gaze, Monty slowly draws the horse to himself. Even though the beast is pounding the earth with his hoof and snorting and circling the corral with great speed, Monty keeps steadily moving away from the horse. He won’t look at it. He won’t approach it. 

As astounding as it sounds, within an hour, Monty can have a wild mustang saddled and carrying a rider quite happily. When asked his secret, he says, “These animals need contact with others so much, they would rather befriend their enemy than be left alone.” When he discovered this method of “whispering” into the horse’s deepest longing, he told his weather-beaten father and uncles and brothers that there was no longer any need to crush the mustang’s spirit. He demonstrated his new method, but to this day, in spite of the evidence that it works, Montana ranchmen still use the traditional approach. 

Monty’s story reminds us of the church. Even though he has discovered an effective way of listening to horses (his own term), the old Montana horsemen won’t budge. They’ve been breaking horses their way for generations. Why should they change now? 

The church might say, we’ve been “breaking” sinners like them for generations. Leave them to us. But the old method of crushing the spirits of seekers who don’t fit the conventional, stereotypical church testimony won’t be effective any longer. Many people are avoiding the church like the plague. It’s time for us to develop a spirituality of engagement with not-yet-Christians. That will involve true listening and genuine presence. 

The traditional method of reaching not-yet-Christians has been to bludgeon them into a recognition of how broken they are. To crush their spirit. To tear them down and bring them to their knees (we’re sure we’ve heard evangelists actually speak like this!). 

There’s very little genuine friendship happening. When churches do befriend unbelievers it’s often so that they might become Christians. And it’s assumed that the way to become Christian is for them to see how truly bad they are. Surely, not-yet-Christians see how disingenuous this is.

True friendship is God’s calling, in and of itself. If people find friendship with Jesus through our friendship with them, that is the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead of having such a combative, manipulative spirituality of engagement with others, we believe the church needs to recover a spirituality of engagement that whispers into the souls of not-yet-Christians. As Monty Roberts appeals to his wild mustangs’ deepest longings, we need to develop an ear for listening to such longings in our friends and engaging them with respect, grace, and compassion. How can we whisper into the deepest longings of not-yet-Christians? - Excerpt from The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch

(Part 2 to follow)