For my research on listening, I interviewed 63 church leaders – lay and ordained – about the role of listening in their congregational life and mission. A Presbyterian minister told me, “We’re failing in the wider church to listen to each other well. It’s our central failing right now.”Daniel, a theological college lecturer who teaches evangelism, said, “We’re coming to understand the centrality of listening. The danger is to think it’s a part only of the beginning of the process, but the need for it continues.” He advocated a repeating cycle in all forms of ministry and mission: listen-reflect-act-listen-reflect-act.

Much of the emphasis on listening in congregations has focused on pastoral care. Listening as a part of caring ministries matters now as much as ever, because personal needs are as complex, if not more complex, than in years past. Listening skills have also been emphasized for cross-cultural mission. I am convinced, however, that in these rapidly changing times, listening skills are essential for all aspects of congregational ministry and for all kinds of mission.Many of my interviewees expressed their belief that healthy congregations are composed of people who listen well.

Several of my interviewees also pointed out that as the West moves deeper into a post-Christendom culture, the people coming into congregations, as well as the people in the wider community, are less likely to be operating from assumptions they share with each other or with the people already attending the congregation. With worldwide migration reshaping our communities and congregations, people in our neighborhoods, workplaces and congregations bring diverse perspectives from their varied cultural and religious backgrounds. In order to understand how to minister in this changing world, my interviewees indicated that we need to know what people value and how they think.

Many writers focused on congregational mission today emphasize the necessity of paying attention to the local community, watching for God’s presence and action already there. These writers encourage congregations to partner with the Holy Spirit, who is already working in the communities beyond the walls of the church. This kind of paying attention requires the ability to listen, and I believe seminaries and congregations fall short because we seldom affirm or teach those skills for the purposes of congregational mission. Most of my interviewees agreed with this premise.

Listening to God is another aspect of listening that is gaining attention in our time. My interviewees noted that many congregational leaders have become weary of thinking about church as a business. Many are looking for authentic experiences of God’s guidance through consensus building and communal discernment, rather than through decision-making models shaped by business or government. Listening is an essential component in both consensus and discernment. And, in fact, becoming a better listener to the people in our lives can help us grow in the ability to listen for God’s voice, and growing in listening to God helps us improve our ability to listen to the people in our lives as well.

Dr. Lynne M. Baab is the author of numerous books about Christian spiritual practices and congregational life. She is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister who teaches pastoral theology in New Zealand. She blogs at www.lynnebaab.com.

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