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”
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.
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