"missional development"


I've become fascinated by our weakened ability to listen intelligently. Many more times than I wanted to keep track of in the past cycle of elections, people, not just candidates stopped listening. I'm not sure if they ever intended on listening.

Listening can feel like a slow process. It may not be all that that slow, it is just that the pace is being determined by others. Listening feels like waiting, it feels inactive. It is especially that way when one is listening to something disagreeable, incorrect, challenging, or not fully thought through. We want to refute, correct, defend ourselves, or critique. But what if we were just to listen? What might we hear?

"Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice," Jesus said. Notice that Jesus doesn't tell us that the truth is the possession of any one. It is the other way around. Truth possesses us. We are held in truth, but perhaps only to the extend that we get ourselves tuned to its ring.

Today I was talking to one of our students who is volunteering at a senior residential facility. He is studying to become a health care administrator so he can eventually work there. As he was telling me about the pure enjoyment he receives from listening to the residents. They talk about family. They talk about trips. They tell stories of the land, its changes and the transitions in their lives and the life of the community. But these residents often feel cast off and alone. My student described the deep appreciation the residents have for those willing to spend time and just listen.

Much of this kind of listening is slow and deliberate. For those of us who keep trying to be active and get things done, this kind of listening feels like a waste of time. We know that it isn't a waste, but there is often an ambivalence that keeps us swaying between getting tasks done, stating our own opinions, and moving on to the next subject. But for the residents at this senior living center, the greatest gift seems to be listening.

Why does such listening have to be limited to such times and places? What happens when we live in a society that has placed so much value on correct answers, knowledgeable opinions, and quick responses and relinquished the responsibility of actively listening well? What all do we miss when so much of what we say and hear becomes derivative drivel lacking any insight?

We need to learn to listen again.

Listening for Fuzzy Brown Squirels

Jesus may be the answer, but seriously, listen closely to the question.

A dear brother who passed away this past summer, Richard Regier told me the following story.  Richard had a gift for not allowing shallow piety to stay around long. His piety was deep and a bit wry, and more than a little rough around the edges. When we would laugh about the church trying to give shallow but pious answers to difficult questions, we would call those "fuzzy brown squirrel" answers. Answers like, "we just need to pray more," "we just need to study the Bible more," or, "we just need to let them know Jesus is the answer." Now those aren't bad things, it's just that they don't often get to the real issues at hand.  So here's a brief rendition of the story Richard told me....

The preacher asks all the kids to come forward during the service for the "children's sermon." He begins, "Good morning, kids. I'm going to describe something to you and I'm going to ask you what I'm describing." The children remain quiet, wanting to hear the details so they can get the answer right.

The preacher goes on to describe the mystery creature. "What is small and has little pointed ears? It also gathers food in the summer and fall and buries it around the yard. In the winter it goes to find its buried food to help it survive through the cold months. It has tiny black eyes, a fuzzy brown tail, and easily climbs trees. What is it?

As this point the children are quiet, and looking a bit uncomfortable. Then one child raises his hand and answers without conviction, and a confused look on his face, saying, "I know that the answer is Jesus, but it sounded like a fuzzy brown squirrel."

Had the conversation taken place anywhere else, I suppose the kids would have mentioned the squirrel first of all. But since the story takes place in a church, the range of correct answers is limited. In congregations, there seems to be sets of answers that are always "appropriate" regardless of the questions.

But the old answers don't work.

Six years ago, I was among a group of people working with church leaders. One of our group was Alan Roxburgh. Alan had just published the book, The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition. In this book, Alan describes how Christian leaders were lost in contemporary culture for lack of clear maps, misunderstanding the different terrain of cultural connection, and the loss of a satisfactory and effective Christian-centered world.

This past week, Al posted on his blog, at The Missional Network, that the disconnect Christian leaders experienced six years ago appears to be alive and well. Al was working with a congregation and wrote about them,
"The people of this church are currently looking for another way of reaching the people around them. One idea was to place a box on the wall were people in the community could place their prayer requests so that the people of the church (most of whom drove in to the 150 year old church building) could pray for them. These and other ideas where shared. These are good people. They know the world has changed, that their church is not connected to the neighborhood and that the Spirit is calling them into the neighborhood. But their focus remains stuck in the narratives of how to help people and meet their needs. Such actions are not wrong. Indeed, this is a part of the calling of God’s people. That’s not the point! What I am observing is that these long established defaults are so deep and so powerful that good people in our churches simply don’t know what else to do."

Shifting from Default

There are "long established defaults" that limit our thinking, and above all, our imagination. The limited imagination of the church is reflected in the little story about the fuzzy brown squirrel. How can congregations begin to hear differently so that the old defaults don't become first responses? Or, how do the default responses actually become the imaginative applications of being church?

1. Change the question

The church doesn't have to respond out of habit. Rather than asking how do we reach new people, perhaps the question how do we let new people reach us. What would it be like if we entered our neighborhoods and communities as aliens, seeking the hospitality of strangers?

2. Eavesdrop

It doesn't take long to realize we have sheltered lives once we spend some time in other places. We don't have to go far out of our way - to a hospital, a prison, a shorter-term mission, we can just hang out in the neighborhood. A few years ago I was a substitute teacher at our local high school. I heard sarcasm, swearing, laughter, anger, mostly in the form of stories. Stories about others, about the weekend experiences, and occasionally about the assigned homework. But in hearing stories, you hear the values, hopes, and expectations of others.

3. Learn a new language

I am still surprised when I meet grow up, mature people, who do not know what a "tweet" is, our how to "update their status". The landscape of social networking has altered the ways in which people relate. Certainly, there are drawbacks from the habitual dependence on smartphones to manage our relationships. But not engaging it it does not improve our connections either.

4. Tell some stories

There are lots of people who want to inform me. They want to define things. There are some things that are best described that way, but wikipedia might actually do a better job of explaining some things to me. There are lots of places to go for definitions, news, instructions and directions. But there is no other place to go to find what has shaped a person's values, what has touched them deeply, or how they became the people they have become other than to hear them out. In listening to the stories of others, offering our own stories as an interface, the two stories acknowledge the meeting and the creation of a new story, a shared story.

I Want a Fuzzy Brown Squirrel to be a Fuzzy Brown Squirrel 

The only reason the story about the children with their piously correct answers is because default happens. It happens when churches try to do what others have done because it worked elsewhere. It happens when the same methods of searching out answers are used decade after decade. It happens when answers re-tread previously journeyed paths.

When Isaiah spoke for God, asking, "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it?" (Is 43:19). It is not God that is restrained into the default answers. If we keep discerning the same things over and again, it is we who need to change. God is already doing a new things, along with our communities, our neighborhoods, the larger world. Why would the church expect itself to be the only things static and unmoved?

Listening to Lifehouse

Working out at the gym, I usually scan Rhapsody for new songs that are good for working out. Sometimes I give up a strong cadence in the music for music that makes me think. Getting lost in thought sometimes is just as good as getting lost in the beat.

One song that caught my attention is by Lifehouse on their newest release, Almeria. The third cut on the album is Nobody Listen. Beginning with a variety of news reports in the background, just being noise, just being talking heads, sets the stage for one of the problems that bothered has me about the way our society ineffectively tries to talk. Over time, we become cynical, numb, and eventually disengaged from too many voices and not enough conversation, not enough thought.

So, take a listen and read along. I hope you like it.

Here's the link to Youtube video:


Listening: Is there anything to hear?

I was inspired by the second presidential debate. I'm not really sure what the opposite of "inspire" is, but this debate did it to me. Regardless of which candidate I wanted to win the debate, and which candidate I wanted to win the election, I was flabbergasted by both of the candidates.

the "talking-but-not-listening" epidemic
As I considered my frustration, it kind of poured out. I felt like I had hit some kind of limit. That all the noise of debating and arguing; posing and positioning had finally crossed some threshold.

Where did we begin to go wrong as a society in communicating? Since most of our culture is informed by commercial interests in competition for viewers, delivery of information is less important than viewers, readers, or listeners.  Was it the Springer Show? Was it the when Rush Limbaugh or Dr Laura went on the air? And more to the point, why did these manifestations of an "in your face" entertainment style actually gain ratings, receive sponsors, and build up market share.
Would it be a reach to be concerned that entertainers are simply giving us what we have asked for?

Over time, we have become a talking-at culture. Listening to the presidential debates and the discussions afterwards, there was little discussion about the source and origin of the positions taken by the candidates. As I listened to others at ball games, neighbors, and friends, I began to see how people were unable to discuss their personal interests and concerns about a wide range of subjects. When people opened up about their positions, they were more like pronouncements. Pronouncements about which there was no reasonable conversation.

Over the year, I want to look at communication, but especially listening. Along with listening, comes the need:
  • to create more effective ways of speaking
  • to create trusting relationships so people are willing to discuss their personal interests rather than positions
  • to understand what occurs in the brain when listening to fear inducing communication
  • to understand ways to speak in order to be more effective
  • to develop tests and tools to measure and assess different listening styles and skills
  • to develop better ways to listen for decision and discernment
  • to develop skills in listening to history, cultures, and experiences of others
  • to find processes that sharpen our listening and discernment for groups
  • to work at listening so as to begin to hear each other in peace
  • and to find confidence in faith that God, too, can be heard 
Next week, I'll be thinking about the time it takes to create listening environments. Listening can be slow and needs time.

Looking forward to hearing from you!