Listen Out

       Last week we focused on the importance of being a good listener, in particular with a focus on listening to God. This week we are going to pay attention to the second aspect of “double listening”, which focuses on listening to our culture.

       I think most of us would say that we have a pretty good idea about the culture we live in. This is often true in the spheres of influence we find ourselves in. However, in reality when it comes to having an objective understanding of what’s going on beyond our places of work, social groups, the clubs that we are affiliated with it can often be the case that our perceptions aren’t always accurate.  Before I go further it is important to clarify that I am writing to those based in a local church context who are seeking to understand their culture so they are able to respond to the needs of their community in relevant and helpful ways.

 

 

So how can we gain a better understanding into our culture and and bridge the gap so that we can engage more effectively in ways that bring the kingdom of God to our streets? 

“Pray with a bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other”

Karl Barth

When Barth wrote this the newspaper was the best ways to access current affairs. I’m convinced that if this Barth was around today he would have said, Pray with a bible in one hand and a device in the other. In the 21st century we have never so rich on information. We have access to 24 hour news which keeps us up to date, as and when events unfold, we have social media platforms giving us information and in real time. As well as this we have access to a comprehensive range of data all at the click on a button. All we have to do is ask google! For example: I can find out the, the social deprivation, the ratio of single parents, the divorce rate, age profiles of the populace, life expectancy, crime levels, employment percentages, the ethnic diversity, standards of education and other socio-economic information.

For a church that takes the Great Commission seriously knowing that we have the ability to harvest so much information, with relatively little effort is exciting!  When we take the time assess the data available we gain invaluable insight toward the needs in our community. Such information can help to guide us in deciding the form of outreach which will add greatest value to our community (I will post a few website addresses at the bottom of this blog to help you understand more about your unique cultural context). But this should not be the only information that we refer to.

Jesus Asked

When I read about the ministry of Jesus I am shocked to read that the all-knowing Son of God was documented asking a staggering 307 questions during his short time on earth. Jesus was interested about understanding the people he was sent to save, he wanted to know their needs (Mark 10:51), understand what they thought and most importantly he wanted to engage in dialogue.

When we do outreach and evangelism we often set out solely on our assumptions (what we think people need and want, or simply assuming the thing that helped us in the past is bound to be thing that will help them), whilst neglecting to take the time to ask people: how can we practically help you?

This could simply be going out onto the streets and asking people “what three things would they like to see happening in their community?” It could be more focused such as “if they church could help you practically, how…”

Ask the Right People

A great way of learning about the cultural contexts and need of your community is to identify those in key positions of influence. By doing this the church is able to build a positive relationship with those outside the church, gain a better insight into what is going on in the different sectors of society and be able to identify opportunities for the church to help and encourage through prayer and in practical ways.

Below are a few examples of key people that you might want to engage with:

·         Your local MP

·         Local Councillors

·         Head teachers

·         School Governors

·         Youth group leaders

·         Local Care homes

·         Police Community Support officers

·         Leaders of local organizations (W.I. Scouts, Guides)

·         Social workers

       Once we have identified these people we are in the position to make contact, ask them key questions, listen to their experiences and most importantly we can build relationships with them. By doing this bridges are built between our churches and the community in which we live, we learn about what going on from those with the expertise and we gain a better insight into their needs and we gain opportunities to help and practically display God’s love in action.

John Stott concludes in ‘The Contemporary Christian’ that bad listeners make bad disciples.’ By taking the time and effort to listen to God through prayer and meditating on His word we give ourselves the best chance of hearing from Him and thus staying faithful to our tradition so we don’t buy into the temptation to compromise or capitulate in order to become relevant to those outside church. 

 

When we listen to God and listen to culture we gain the ability to engage in a ways are that are authentic not only to our faith but that are relevant to the world we live in. We can therefore respond practically in ways that meet their needs and truly show the love of Jesus.

“Bad listeners make bad disciples”

John Stott, The Contemporary Christian

Listen Up

Growing up I was often told by those in authority, “God has given you two ears and one mouth, you should think about using them in those proportions!” Pretty harsh hey! To be fair I was a chatty kid and I had lots of ideas and silly theories to share with the nearest pair of ears.

But looking back there was wisdom in what my critics had to say.

In James 1:19 the apostle reminds his readers that “…Everyone should be quick to listen and be slow to speak.

“… Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak.” James 1:19

Generally listening is not is a popular concept, I mean when was the last time that you heard somebody being criticized for listening too much! This is especially true in today’s fast paced world of multi-platform social media and on-demand everything. It is clear to see that lots of people have a lot of things to say but finding a good listener isn’t so easy.

 

As the learning mentor for need-orientated evangelism I could be tempted to buy into the lie that to be a good evangelist, I need to focus my efforts on how to deliver a perfect gospel presentation, become an expert in apologetics or put on a slick event with all the bells and whistles (all of which are great things), however all my efforts are wasted if fail to attentively listen to:

 

            I.         What God is saying (through prayer and reading the bible).

          II.         The cultural context that I live in.

The reason for this being that if we fail to listen to God we run the risk of becoming unfaithful and if we fail to listen to what our culture is saying before long we will become disconnected or at worse irrelevant. As John Stott concludes: ““Bad listeners do not make good disciples.”

The next two blogs will seek to unpack why listening is one of the most unused and underrated tools of the effective evangelist. Part one of this blog will briefly explore how we can become effective listeners of God and the impact this can have for out outreach and evangelism. Part two will seek to explore the importance of listening to what our culture has to say are explore the effect that it may have for the church in that context. We will then draw together what it looks like to be people of God who listen to both God and culture.

 

 

PART ONE – Listen Up: Listening to God

“Your word is a lamp unto my feet, a light to my path.” Psalm 119:105

Have you ever played pin the tail on the donkey? If you have you will know that when we are blind folded and lose our vision it doesn’t take long until we are embarrassingly dis-oriented. In Psalm 119 we glimpse some understanding into what helps King David to be a ‘man after God’s heart’. It is meditating on the word of God, and as a result is acts as the light which guides him through life!

 

Plumb lines and Spirit levels

Earlier this year I moved house and as a result I had to put up some shelves. I must confess that I am not the most practical person when it comes to DIY, there was one shelf in particular that I put into position, and I could swear that it was perfectly level, it wasn’t! When I put the spirit level on the shelf the bubble was nowhere near the middle, it was miles off. The problem was that I had trusted what I perceived as level. The shelf was perfectly parallel to the ceiling (which I assumed would be level) and from my perspective it looked good. It was only when I put a spirit level on top of the shelf that it became clear that the ceiling was not level at all and neither was the shelf! It is only when we put a spirit level or a plumb line next to something that we can confirm whether or not that we are on the right track. That’s because plumb lines and spirit levels are an absolute reference point they do not change.

“We must not be enticed to sacrifice truth on the altar of modernity.”

John Stott, The Contemporary Christian 

As Christians our reference point must be the Word of God. God’s word is the anchor that keeps us grounded, even when the fiercest currents threaten to pull us here and there. As King David said it is the word of God that is a lamp unto our feet.  

When we neglect the word of God we will be influenced by the shifting sands of culture and what we stand for will be inevitably be compromised. I see this happening in our churches today as we try to navigate being Christians in a 21st century world. Often scripture can take a back seat as we can pay more deference to being relevant when we should first seek to be faithful followers of Jesus, even if that means we don’t agree with the popular opinions of society. 

 

I don’t think that this is something we do in a purposefully sinful way. Often the rationale can be from the positive place of wanting engage with those outside of the church family, to be relevant and inclusive. However moving the goal posts, or watering down biblical precepts is not the way to go about reaching those in our communities. As Stott says “we must not be enticed to sacrifice ‘truth on the altar of modernity.’ We often speak most authentically to the world not when we compromise, but when we refuse to do so. We are not called to be indistinguishable to the world but to be salt and light, or as Paul describes, “to shine like stars” (Phil 2:15).

 

As you would expect Jesus modelled how it should be done perfectly. He spent his time with tax men, sinners and prostitutes, but he never once compromised his message. For example, just read His interaction with the woman caught in adultery John 8:1-11. There was such grace as Jesus refused to condemn her, (even though he was the one person that could have) but he did say to the woman ‘sin no more’.

 

Hopefully part one of the blog has highlighted the importance “listening up”. When we take the time to ask God, read His word and listen intently we put ourselves in the position to be used by Him. However the listening should not end here. We then to understand how we best serve the people in our care practically and in way that resonate with them authentically. Next week we will explore the benefits of effectively listening to culture.