An open lecture from Lynne Baab for the launch of her new book, The Power of Listening.

As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.

John 17:18

Go into the community, see where the work is, and join in.

For her study on Listening Lynne Baab conducted interviews in 31 churches in America and Britain, and two New Zealand Methodists who happened to be on hand during her interviews.  In the majority of cases church people were not practising intentional listening.

She cited the case of a foodbank in Seattle where a church foodbank put on a meal to provide a space to sit down with their clients.  After five years of doing this the providers became aware the major need of Seattle’s poor and homeless was work and housing.  When they began to listen in this social space the thrust of their mission changed.

Spire, First Church of Otago, Dunedin, by Dave Baab, 2008

Spire, First Church of Otago, Dunedin, by Dave Baab, 2008

Congregations vary widely in their commitment to listening to the wider community.  They listen to themselves and provide support.  There is a lot of work going on there.  Intentional listening to the wider community may be thin on the ground; and we need to identify and recognise our wider communities.

Most of the interviews were not working on debriefing after listening to the wider community.  What was happening was a lot of reflection and the use of contemplative prayer, usually at an individual level.  This was not related to listening for mission.  The decision on communal mission is not rushed.

Lynne raised the confusion between consensus and discernment.  Consensus means a situation in which there is general agreement; and any number of motives behind that proposal.  Discernment is the prayerful reflection leading to understanding of direction.  Discernment should have a high level of agreement.  It doesn’t have to be 100%.

Many obstacles keep Christians from listening well: we don’t want to hear because of institutional fear; we don’t have the resources available to respond to voiced needs.  The obstacles need to be addressed.

Pastoral care listening is integral to mission.  It shows up in the life of Jesus in the gospels.  In a diverse society we don’t share the same language of faith, so we need to listen harder.  We cannot assume that we know what motivates other people or what their needs or desires are.  Our leaders need to be listeners.