At last year’s Thanksgiving dinner my three year old nephew prayed, “Dear God, teach us to be good listeners.” Undoubtedly, it was a prayer picked up from Sunday School teachers desperate for some semblance of sanity, yet it’s been my favorite prayer since.
I think everyone just assumes they’ve been listening correctly, but I’ve spent the last decade in ministry and it wasn’t until the last couple years that I truly learned to listen. Here’s what that meant for me.
So Called Vision
As a young, wide-eyed college student, I was asked to help my church bolster its local missions program. Armed with the fiery passion of youth and a 10-step book on visionary leadership, I set off. Over the next five years we started a comprehensive local missions program that served many in our community. The problem? It was my vision that drove its formation, its goals, and its direction.
As an over-confident college student with a savior-complex, leader-directed vision was perfect. All I had to do was make sure that my idea was from God (of course it was), and then all I had to do was convince every one around me that it was a good idea. It was a model that encouraged self-centeredness and manipulation.
Thankfully, God can use twisted intentions to bring about good. Several of the local mission programs we started in that period are thriving today.
The problem with the trend of vision in Christian leadership is that it has very little concern for listening. The only listening that is emphasized, is listening to yourself. When you only listen to yourself, you limit the work of God to your ideas and to your abilities, ignoring the brilliant people around you.
Are we listening?
“To answer before listening—
that is folly and shame.”
–Proverbs 18:13 (NIV)
By the time that I was asked to start King Street Church, I realized that my ideas were usually terrible, but the people around me are full of brilliant ideas.
This time I started with a simple dream; to start a Christian community for folks who had never experienced it before. Instead of starting a community that I thought would draw people in, I asked people around me what this kind of community could look like.
What took shape was far more beautiful than anything I could have dreamed of.
King Street Church has since started fresh expressions that gathered single-mothers, folks in mourning, folks who struggle with mental illness, men who have been recently released from prison, and other forms of beloved Christian community. King Street Church was born out of listening and it has driven us ever since.
How to Listen
Everyone in ministry should be required to take a course in Active Listening. Here are a few of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in listening. Try these as you form fresh expressions of church in your community.
1. Stop Talking.
The first step in listening is to stop talking. This is hard for a lot of people. Deitrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together nails it, “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians because Christians are talking when they should be listening.”
2. Ask open-ended questions.
An open-ended question cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no’. It requires an answer. Example: “What do you love about this community?”
3. Dig deeper.
My all time favorite phrase is, “Tell me more.” Follow up someone’s answer to your question with it. It’s an invitation to unpack a short answer. I use it at work, in friendships, and in my marriage. I don’t even notice myself using it anymore. You’ll be surprised what folks will share when you invite them to.
4. Avoid leading questions.
A leading question is one that insinuates the answer. Example: “Do you think the best part of this community is the people?” I also hear people make a long, eloquent statement and follow it with, “Do you agree?” It gives the answerer little choice but to say what you want them to say. Don’t do it.
5. Listening with your eyes.
You can listen to your community in a lot of ways, not just by asking people questions. You can read census information from resources like MissionInsite, you can sit in third places and people watch, you can learn about the history of your community. Good listening leads to a deeper understanding of your community and your neighbors.
What to listen for when starting a fresh expression
As you prepare to start a fresh expression, listen for answers to some of these questions…
“Who is my neighbor?”
“What do my neighbors care about?”
“Where do my neighbors gather?”
“What hobbies are popular among my neighbors?
“What do my neighbors think about faith and spirituality?”
“What burdens do my neighbors carry?”
“Where has Christ been ahead of me, planting seeds of Christian community?”
Then ask God, “Who would you have me live in community with?”
Join me in repenting for having all the answers. As CS Lewis puts it in The Great Divorce, “We’ve all been wrong! That’s the great joke. There’s no need to go on pretending one was right! After that we begin living.” Set down your vision and let listening guide you as God forms beloved Christian community in unlikely places.
Almighty God, teach us to be good listeners. Amen.
Luke Edwards is the Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and a trainer for Fresh Expressions US. He was the founding pastor of King Street Church, a network of fresh expressions in Boone, NC. Participating in local, regional, and national levels of the Fresh Expressions movement has given Luke a unique perspective into the future of the mainline church in a post-Christian society. You can follow him on twitter at @lukesedwards or check out his blog A Way in the Wilderness (http://www.awitw.org).