In Matthew 15:10 we read: “[Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand.’” Personally, I often find myself challenged to listen. Not the kind of listening that regularly takes place in conversations between friends, but listening for understanding. The type of listening that actively seeks out and welcomes others’ input is hard work. Isn’t it?
”If the greatest of all spiritual gifts is love [1 Corinthians 13:13],” notes Craig Nessan in his book From Maintenance to Mission,
“then one of the purest expressions of love is to listen” (p. 18). So much so, that it helps to remember that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.
Evangelical listening honors people by taking them with utmost seriousness. “It means listening carefully, listening actively, making sure we have genuinely understood what they are saying,” writes Nessan (Beyond Maintenance to Mission, 118-119).
Listening for understanding, especially the kind of deep listening that seeks out and celebrates diversity and inclusion, is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of work. Think about it. How often do we really listen to one another? Listening with a heart that seeks to understand by creating space that not only invites but actually welcomes the sharing of ideas. It is the kind of engaged listening that refrains from jumping in too quickly with answers or advice. It allows others to speak freely without interruption or added commentary. Instead, active listening reflects upon what it is said and then looks for understanding and clarity.
Putting into practice active listening skills that gift others with our full attention without being distracted by thinking about what we are going to say next recognizes Christ in the other. It is the type of listening that works to listen for understanding without wishing that others would “just stop already” so we can chime in with our own thoughts and opinions; thereby dominating or moving the conversation in a direction that is familiar or comfortable for us. By monopolizing the conversation we minimize and discourage the contributions of other participants, especially those who respond by remaining silent.
The art of listening is hard work because it challenges us not only to be fully present and engaged but also to "see” and “hear” what is being said. It also challenges us to pay attention to what is left unspoken and to seek out feedback and input. Listening with the ear of our heart also requires honesty. It asks: “How might we expand the circle of our conversation? How might other voices enrich our deliberations and planning?”
Evangelical listening not only invites, but listens deeply to and celebrates the inclusion of the voices of our siblings in Christ who are far too often ignored or overlooked, especially the marginalized, forgotten, scorned, and oppressed. For scripture teaches that Jesus meets us in the “least of these.” Craig Nessan advises: “To establish a congregation as an association of the ‘like-minded’ runs the imminent danger of excluding Christ as the one who meets us in the form of the unlovely. We are summoned to be a church that is radically egalitarian in its composition, inviting exactly those scorned by the world” (Beyond Maintenance to Mission, p. 86).
Listening is also a key component of any organization’s visioning and planning. But even the best-laid plans fall apart without input and feedback; information that is not only listened to but valued and actively sought after. After all, listening carefully and deeply to God’s activity in our lives is an important part of what it means to be the church together.