Listen before you jump, says priest

Posted on February 14, 2012

By Stuart Mann

Many people who want to start fresh expressions of church are keen to roll up their sleeves and get working on plans and strategies. But one of the best things they can do before all that is to listen, says the Rev. Nick Brotherwood, the assistant director of Wycliffe College’s Institute of Evangelism and the incumbent of St. Stephen’s, Westmount, in the Diocese of Montreal.

He says that without really listening to the people in the neighbourhood and the wider world, potential church planters can make assumptions that turn out to be wrong and can lead to a lot of problems and missed opportunities down the road.

“We take a lot of things for granted and I think that gets us into trouble,” says Mr. Brotherwood, who led a workshop on missional listening at the Vital Church Planting Conference.

He says it’s more important than ever that Christians, particularly members of mainline denominations, put aside their attitudes and assumptions and really take stock of where the world is at these days. “We’re in very different times than the one the baby boom generation grew up in. This is not the culture I grew up in and thought I understood. If I make assumptions, it can be a dangerous thing, and it would be better if I could do more listening than assuming.”

He says deep listening goes beyond creating new forms of church or attracting new people to a worship service. It’s something Christians need to reclaim and make part of their everyday lives, he says. “Is listening something we do once and then check off our to-do list? Or is it actually more about an ongoing attitude, that we need to be people who are always listening, not just when we’re starting a new venture that might become a new form of church, but living out our lives as disciples of Jesus?”

He says Jesus’ first disciples were always listening. “They stick with the rabbi and listen and watch and observe and copy and get it wrong and make mistakes and ask questions. This isn’t something you do for three years and then get a diploma and stop doing it. It’s about ongoing listening. How do we listen as much as, or more than, we talk?”

He says missional listening is about a new engagement with the culture and a fresh engagement with God—what God is saying through scripture, but also what God is doing outside the church. “Finding out what God is doing and joining in—that’s what missional listening is about.”

To do that, Christians need to become humble, he says. “We need to be willing to say, ‘I’m not sure that I know.’ We don’t have all the information and the right answers. Sometimes we don’t even have the right questions.”

In practical terms, listening can start by looking at how your neighbourhood has changed over the years, he says. By noticing the changes and trends—and being honest about it—Christians can get a much better understanding of the context they now live in. For example, how many women now work outside the home? How many people work at home? Where do people spend their leisure time? Where do they congregate?

“What’s going on, and how might we respond to that as followers of Jesus?” he asks. “It’s about opening up a conversation and developing an attitude that is open to the proposition that God is at work in the world, and one of our jobs is to try to pay attention and say, ‘What are we up to here?’ It opens up a dialogue between us and God but also between ourselves.”

He says that if the main reason for listening is to fill up the church, Christians are in for some hard lessons and disappointments. “It’s not all about trying to get bums in pews,” he says. “Part of our listening will tell us why people aren’t interested in coming to our churches no matter how friendly we are or how good the coffee is or how nifty our videos are. They’re not interested in that, and some of what they will say will shock and surprise us. If in the end our goal is to get more bums in pews, maybe we need to challenge that. Is filling up a worship service all there is to following Jesus?”

He says Christians shouldn’t be discouraged by the need to be humble and listen—quite the opposite. “We’ve got an opportunity now because we haven’t got a society that’s demanding that we’ve got to be church in a specific way. We’ve now got the freedom to say, ‘What does it mean to be church? What is our core task? God, can you help us here, because we’re not sure that our ideas have been all that successful?”

He adds, “To what extent are we Jesus-shaped? Or are we being shaped by other forces? It’s not about beating ourselves up. It’s about saying, ‘Ok, so what are we going to do now as we look into the future?’ We can listen and re-examine what our core task is.”

For more about the Vital Church Planting Conference, see the video: