Listening as a Radical act of Love and Mission
When is the last time you caught yourself saying, “WHAT?!”
Whether it was in response to a family member, a colleague or a friend, we’re all guilty of asking someone to repeat themselves unnecessarily.
We used to ask someone to repeat themselves because we couldn’t hear them, but it seems that we more often ask for repetition now because we’re simply not paying attention.
In our ever-changing culture, conversation has changed. Maybe I shouldn’t be quick to accuse you of a perturbed, “What?!” It’s possible you grunt a sound like “Huh?!” instead, or a formal “Pardon me?!” You might even use a “Would you please be kind enough to repeat what you said?!”
Regardless, I fear we’ve become a people who are in constant distraction mode. With screens all around us, and the average commercial that is marketed to last 30 seconds or less, our attention has been trained to have an insatiable appetite for something different, something better, or something more. We put our phones down briefly, pause our TV’s momentarily, and with an eye roll we try to apologize for the fact that we’ve all become horrible listeners.
If we embark on a journey of becoming better at listening, we are more poised to hear what is happening around us. We will better hear the voices of others as they express their thoughts, passions, and even their opinions. The advice we often give to children is that we were created with two ears and one mouth. This logic dictates we should listen more than we speak.
“…quick to listen, slow to speak” is the advice offered up to us by James, the brother of Jesus.
Busyness is often correctly assigned blame for our inability to listen. Distractions abound in today’s world within fast paced lives that many of us seem to pride ourselves in. The text message culture has somehow dictated than an immediate response is required. Some people even scroll through their favourite social media feeds while pretending to listen to the people around them.
Christians are notorious for filling their lives with “Christian” things, thinking maybe only in their subconscious that more “Christian” activity somehow adds to their spirituality. Clergy are often well intentioned, but church goers continue to feel as if they are assessed on a regular basis. Here are some examples of internal questions that run through people’s minds. It’s unfortunate that questions like these are even vocalized at times.
· Did you attend church on Sunday Morning?
· How many Sundays did you attend this month?
· Why didn’t you come to prayer meeting on Tuesday?
· Have you joined a Bible Study or a Small Group?
· There’s a men’s or women’s conference coming up…did you sign up yet?
· Why aren’t your children attending our youth programs?
· We need more volunteers; are you serving anywhere?
· When are you going to invite your neighbour to church?
· Are you giving money to the church; how much more can you give?
It’s as if somehow within the busyness of Christian life, the idea is being propagated that we might be more accepted by a loving God because of our Christian activity instead of hearing what he has already told us. We are loved unconditionally.
The busyness of what is described above can distract us from two critical things.
Our ability to listen to one another, and our ability to listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Both of these emerge as blocks that hinder our ability to witness where God is moving. Consequently, we miss seeing God on the move where we live, work, and play.
During this unique time in global history, churches have been closed for months. Along with those closures much of the busyness of Christian activity has also stopped. Some of it just moved online. But even before the pandemic, Canadians weren’t flocking to traditional churches as a solution to their spiritual quest. Church attendance has been on the decline in Canada for decades now, and many churches have closed. Many more might never open again as a result to this abrupt stoppage caused by COVID-19.
Over the course of my twenty years of life in Canada, I have listened to countless stories of many different people. The list below is in no way meant to be comprehensive of all Canadians. It’s also not an attempt to put people in boxes making sweeping generalizations. It’s just a sampling for you to consider. And the descriptions are simply meant to model examples of what people often feel.
Grandma took me to Sunday School when I was young, but my parents simply saw it as a break for them on Sunday Mornings. I remember some of the stories, but as I got older, I got busy with other things and I stopped going to church. I now have children of my own, and I’m wrestling with profound questions about my own spirituality, but I’m not sure my memory of church will help me with answers to these questions.
I was baptized Catholic as an infant. I remember attending some classes and I even got confirmed. But then life got busy. My church attendance slowed to visits at Christmas and Easter with my parents. But I don’t do confession; it just feels weird. I would love to talk about questions that I have, but I’m not sure where to turn. I don’t like all the abuse scandals I hear about. I suspect there is abuse of power and money too. When people ask me what religion I am, I describe myself as a “recovering catholic” hoping that the person will laugh and the topic will change.
My parents were academics and although they taught me to think critically about the world, they always mocked organized religion. I’ve never really checked it out, but from what I hear religion has been the source of more problems in the world than a place that offers up solutions. I love serving my community. I’m generous with my money and I consider myself a good person. I firmly believe I don’t need religion in my life, but I do have profound spiritual questions. I wish Christians were approachable enough to have a conversation with me where I don’t feel judged by them.
I was born as a Sikh. I was born Muslim. I’m an immigrant to Canada, and the thought of converting to another religion would not only be akin to betraying my family, but they would also likely never speak to me again. I’ve heard about Jesus, and his teaching intrigues me. But I don’t think I can just walk into a church with a head covering. Security would probably meet me at the door and ask me to renounce my faith before I can even hear more about this Jesus.
Why would any of these people check out a Sunday Morning Service to answer questions they might have regarding their own spirituality?
Most people’s impression of church is a Sunday Morning for those who somehow fit. Church is not typically seen as a place where people can go to explore questions about spirituality.
“Won’t they check my behaviour at the door?”
-Ask me if I drink too much?
-Ask me if I’m having too much sex and with whom?
-Ask me if I already believe in Jesus before they’ll let me in?
Progressive churches are using phrases of invitation in their marketing such as “Come as you are”. In most cases, this is well-meaning, and if someone dares to try it out, it might even work. I wonder though, if a more proper phrase to contemplate would be “Go where they are”. And when I say “they”, I mean everyone with whom you come into contact. A neighbour, a colleague, a local business owner, an extended family member… everyone has questions about faith and spirituality whether they want to admit it or not.
Are we prepared to listen when they ask questions?
Are we fostering environments with these people where they feel comfortable asking questions?
Maybe it’s time to change what we care about.
Jesus in his mission was constantly on the go, connecting with people who many in his culture deemed unworthy. They didn’t fit.
The great commission often gets translated and ascribed to missionaries… “Go into all the world and make disciples…”
A more accurate rendering of this would be for every follower of Jesus “While going [wherever you are in the world], make disciples…”
The mission of Jesus was all about movement. The invitation was to follow him, but in so doing he asked us to be focused on multiplication. “While going make [other] disciples.”
Maybe it’s time to invite your neighbour over for a back-yard beer instead of inviting them to church. Are you relationally connected enough to your neighbour to receive that same invitation in return, or are you too busy doing Christian things?
Are you ready to listen to those around you?
Are you listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit as he leads you into conversations with those around you?
Consider removing some of the excess noise of religious expectation. Contemplate how well you are listening. Jesus made time to listen to the stories of others while going.
We can also become more aware of what God is doing around us becoming better listeners while going.