Learn and Listen



“For God so loved the world,” wrote St. John in his famous gospel. I assume he was talking about this one – the world we actually live in. And it is this world that God redeems. If we are to play a fruitful role in the mission of God, it will require us to love this world as God does - and to love it, we will need to know it.

“Learning and Listening” is first of the seven disciplines required of people who lead fruitful congregations.

When the change around us has reached a certain level, we can no longer rely in “technical” fixes to remain fruitful in mission. Technical fixes are what we are used to: adjust the time of worship, start using projection or drums, switch to one-room Sunday school curriculum, hire a staff person to do what volunteers used to do. When these things don’t help, odds are that what we are in is not a “problem” it is a “mess.” And messes require adaptive change. Adaptive change requires a different kind of leadership - not leaders who have the answer to the problem, but leaders who can liberate and focus the creative abilities of the congregation toward their core mission. Adaptive leadership is required when what we know from the past no longer adequately applies to the present in which we are living.

1.     Learn and Listen. Almost everyone in a mess sees only their little part of its difficulties. Change leaders listen to everyone who is stuck in the mess in order to begin to comprehend the scale and scope of the mess. Good leaders become experts on the mess. They learn how various stakeholders experience its breakdowns, possibilities, and concerns. They listen to what is not being said as much as to what is being said.

Why is church so hard to do these days? Even though there are apparently “successful” congregations in various places across the country (Church of the Resurrection, Ginghamsburg, etc.) there is still a lower percentage of Americans involved in Christian community than at any time since 1940. And data about people under thirty indicates they are only ½ as likely to be involved in a Christian community as their parents and grandparents were.

It turns out that no one really knows the answer to the question of how we will convey the faith to a post-modern culture. When it comes to reaching emerging generations with the faith, we’re in a mess. Why? What has changed? What is it about “church” and the way people live now that makes the connections so much more difficult to make?

That question is the most critical question for missional congregational leaders. Just like a missionary going to a foreign culture must learn everything she can about the culture she is approaching, so missional leaders in our churches will do everything they can to understand the worldview and daily lives of the people who live around them and who find the Christian community we are used to irrelevant to their lives.

The next most critical question for missional leaders is “What is God asking of the people in my congregation?” Discerning an answer to this question requires that leaders do some serious and deep listening to the people in their congregations. What do they hope for their church, for their community, and for the world? What do they love to do? What are their skills and capabilities? Frederick Buechner wrote that our vocation is found at the intersection between our heart’s deepest desire and the world’s deepest needs. God is calling your congregation to use its own unique spiritual giftedness to incarnate some specific part of the mission of Jesus to their community and time.

Until you can begin to help your congregation connect these two things: the congregation’s spiritual gifts and the community’s character, there will be no fruitful mission. Make sure you are listening to your congregation and learning about the people in your mission field. Engage your congregation in the important questions. Who are we? Who is our neighbor? What is God asking us to do for the mission of Christ in our place and time?

Steve Ross
Rev. Steve Ross is the Director of the Oregon-Idaho Conference Vital Church Project. Previously he served as Assistant to the Bishop for the Oregon Trail District.