A recent encounter reminded me of a warning phrase I picked up a while back: “Everyone is talking and nobody is listening”. Not only have I been observing how tragically true this can be in many of our churches, with resultant misunderstandings, distorted relationships and living-by-soundbite but I’ve also been wrestling with finding a way of – more importantly – moving beyond analysis of the cause and symptoms of the problem to design of a practical response, a re-imagining of church that becomes a place of listening – a place where we “seek first to understand, then to be understood”.
How can we create a stronger culture of “deep listening” – the kind of listening that digs deeper than first impression, deeper than the impatience to do something – anything – right now. What hampers listening, what are the promising signs and how can we “eliminate the negative, accentuate the positive”. One member of a congregational leadership team was at least honest – “I know we need to pray, but can’t we just shortcut that bit and get on with it”. A new member of a council for a church in a desparate state visibly displayed his impatience by – pretty much solo – dreaming up and setting up the kind of events that he knew in his childhood, and then getting cross when nobody turned up. It’s easy, too, to buy into a soundbite version of bible study and prayer to inspire and guide our efforts which goes something like this: the disciples prayed and God did stuff – so we just need to pile enough prayers into God’s slot machine and stuff will happen.
How do we move from this desparate blunderbus approach of panicked activity to the place where prayer and bible study, the eagerness and resources amongst our church members and the culture and needs of our communities and neighbourhoods all come together to create a faithful, credible, sustainable mission-shaped enterprise
That’s where 3Dimensional listening comes in. Listening:
- to the world around us, our neighbours and neighbourhoods as well as the wider reality of nation and nations. Listening to our context and those who create it by their engagement [and lack of engagement] in local society and our global village.
- to the church we are part of, the people of the present day who are each part of the Body of Christ, this growing vine, expanding household, living temple, waiting bride – the local, denominational and universal people of God. And the recent and long history of what God has been doing in this place amongst these people.
- to the God we know through prayer, scripture, worship, the saving love of Christ, the inspiration and presence of the Holy Spirit, the historic account of God’s work in and through his church and world.
But I can hear the response of our contemporary church already, before I’ve opened my mouth. The dark side of parish ministry is that it can be so relentless – a daily grind of deadline after deadline, meeting after meeting, task after task. Never finished, there’s always another pastoral encounter, another colleague to meet, another public engagement to prepare for. All worthy things, the stuff of our calling, but yes, you can get too much of a good thing. Where are we going to get the time and resources to do this listening?
Like much of commerce and industry, church ministers talk to me of their need to change their work patterns as they adjust to the growing culture of less paid staff and “volunteers” – all doing more work, trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot [oops - a litre into a half litre container]. There’s no time for listening – barely enough even to get the job done.
When this overload gets to a point of disfunction, the consequence of this minimising of the listening element of our life is that nothing is done well or effectively, shortcuts are taken, relationships suffer, cynicism and despair kick in. When demands grow and never seem to shrink, the wish to rapidly bolster numbers and boost morale induces more guilt than motivation. That’s when clergy and their lay church officers start falling out and cracking up and, in classic Christian language “turn in themselves”, closing ranks, closing minds, closing options. No space for re-imagination, just enough energy to crank the handle. Listen – I haven’t got time to listen to you.
And not only parish clergy and church ministers. Central church staff are sucked into the world by way of the “if only … myth. ” If only I had a secretary, If only I could employ another colleague or assistant, If only our department had a bigger budget, If only our boss was more available, If only … But the overarching ethos still remains as “If only, I can keep the machine ticking over”. The fundamental nettles are not being grasped.
But re-imagining our environment, our identity, our vocation and task is not an optional extra, it is the very nature of being God’s people. And we can’t do that without active, imaginative, consistent, thorough listening. Listening to the stories of the lives of neighbours and strangers; listening to our fellow Christians to one another to discover our values and motives; listening to the God who speaks with endless wisdom, love and authority. If our actions are not defined by these things, then they are hollow and devoid of meaning. We live in relationship with our neighbour, our church community, our one true God. and relationship comes from our listening more than it comes from our talking. Who was the wise one who said “we have two ears and one mouth – which indicates we should listen twice as much as speak”?
Is there hope in this spiral of despair? Paul offers the assurance that “we are hard pressed but not crushed”. Paul [to me] doesn’t present himself or his God-talk or his model of ministry on the kind of British “stiff upper lip” that just reckons “just grin and bear it, chaps”. Nor does he espouse the notion of “just put in the hours, work long, work hard” Paul was never a proponent of the “argument weak, shout louder” party. He called the churches to “march to a different drum”. His whole theological, pastoral and mission-shaped project was centred on God rescuing our true humanity, true community, true spirituality.
At the heart of this, Paul spoke of our human weakness, inadequacy, brokenness – not hiding our failings but owning up to being blind and needing the gift of God-given healing, being imprisoned and receiving the grace of God’s release from captivity, being lost and needing God’s direction, devoid of our own maps and compasses to navigate our adventure into the future, to the fallibility of our instincts and childishness of our wisdom. Receiving good news, redeeming love, restoring health, renewing power.
That’s why we need our 3Dimensional listening. There are many tools and resources – I know, I’ve used or researched most of them – to measure the health of the local church, or to discover a set of needs in the local community. But in themselves, they fall short by a long chalk if simply rolled out our bought in as a bums-on-seats machine. There are no formulas for a healthy church or a transformed community, God is not a slot machine who receives our prayers and churns out our prescription for health and life.
- Merely “meeting the needs of the community” as if the church is just another secular volunteer service provider is missing the nature of “church” – it’s one-dimensional listening.
- In the same way, merely analysing the degree to which parts of our church may reach our self defined benchmarks of healthiness is pretty pointless in isolation from words that lead to action and transformation – a different version of one-dimensional listening; merely setting a Mission Action Plan in place because the church down the road “found it helpful” is reducing our missional calling to fiddling whilst Rome burns.
- Merely returning to familiar biblical texts to pull them apart again or rehearsing the received canon of set prayers of the church, without re-imagining our context and the future that God has set before us is nothing less than setting up the orchestra on Titanic’s decks.
We need all of these things, but with patience, waiting, thoroughness, commitment, determination to truly apply ourselves as God’s people to serve God’s purposes. 3Dimensional Listening, deep listening, takes time and energy, takes us to our depths of our brokenness as well as our heights of our hopes as it opens up to us the things that have remained hidden – things we don’t want to know or own up to, a well as those things that affirm and encourage us. There are no shortcuts. 3Dimensional Listening takes us to a new reality. “We only learn to the degree that we acknowledge that we might be wrong”. Only when we reckognise that we have something to learn – do we learn.
Listening to the world around us, [Listening Out] our neighbours and neighbourhoods as well as the wider reality of nation and nations. Listening to our context and those who create it by their engagement in local society and our global village.
- The problem with all our listening is we hear what we want to hear just as we see what we expect to see. Part of deep listening is resisting the temptation and pressure to pick on a soundbite and extrapolate from your words to my framework without even realising what is going on. Worse still is the state where we assume that that strangers and neighbours around us share our worldview and motivations. “When we A.S.S.U.M.E, we make an A.S.S out of U. and M.E.” . Especially when hurried or panicked, our own worldview shouts at us far more loudly than the whisper of our neighbours. Our own history and experience defines our “social reality” and clouds our ability to hear strangers on their own terms.
Listening to the church we are part of, [Listening in] the people of the present day who are each part of the Body of Christ, this growing vine, expanding household, living temple, waiting bride – the local, denominational and universal people of God. And the recent and long history of what God has been doing in this place amongst these people.
- My earlier comments aren’t intended to decry our history or our church’s past activities. But history is history, and our past activities are based on a different social context. The past informs our values. If the church has been a “learning church”, [eg a shared understanding of why we did things, why we stopped doing them] then the telling the history becomes part of piecing together a jigsaw, unravelling a mystery, seeing Jesus walking ahead of us and bidding us “come”. Equally, today is today, and getting a handle on our present membership of the body of Christ, their insights, abilities, connections to the community or neighbourhood, our willingness to serve, pray, act, work for God’s purposes in the present reality is a key indicator of what God might do through the people of today’s church.
Listening to the God we know, [Listening up] through prayer, scripture, worship; listening afresh to the account of the saving love of Christ, the inspiration and presence of the Holy Spirit, the historic and consistent account of God’s work in and through his people and his world.
- A key part of building a 3Dimensional Listening culture is that it’s not just the remit of the key minister, or the mission/outreach keenies, or pushed into an occasional item on the church council meeting. It’s about creating a whole church culture where all are aware, all are involved, all are active, all are influenced by the notion that “the church is missionary by nature”; Worship and Mission are two sides of the same coin; if our worship gatherings allow us to breath in, then mission is the way we breath out. So our approach to prayer, scripture, worship is inseparable from our share in being God’s children and God’s servants, listening for his call to serve his purposes
That’s the theory. What does it look like in practice? That’s for another post. In the meantime, a closing observation. with recent books such as “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay” Frank Partnoy and “Thinking, Fast and Slow” Daniel Kahneman, maybe there’s an indication that the church is a step or two behind the world around us, that there’s not the need for hurried, panicked temptations to look for a quick fix. There remains that ancient wisdom: “Sin in haste, repent in leisure” or the more recent “For every complex problem there is always a simple answer ….. and it is always wrong”. After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples and said “wait”.
Listen, I’ve got an idea … let’s wait.