360 degree listening (Richard Sudworth)

Monday, 2 February, 2009

Richard Sudworth explores 360 degree listening.

Richard SudworthIn one of my all-time favourite TV shows, an American police sergeant used to send his officers out onto their beat with a: 'Now, make sure you do it to them before they do it to you!' I have lived and worked amongst Muslims in Britain for over five years now and there's a lot of talk about mission and church planting that sounds worryingly like that clarion call to arms. I wonder, though, whether you've ever considered mission as, primarily, a task of listening?

It takes incredible security and self-confidence to listen well. Good listeners don't feel the need to interrupt and make their point. Isn't it obvious when someone is not listening but just waiting for a pause to say what they want to say? Too much of our mission is like that!

In the church where I am based we have a slogan: 'Let the draught go both ways'. We used to have a draughty corridor connecting Sunday worship (the main church building) with nursery services, stay-and-play, youth and after school clubs (church hall). We figured this was a good metaphor for what God's vision was for us as a church community. The 'draught' of our prayer, worship, Scripture reading (in traditional terms, the 'Sunday' stuff), needed to impact the community Monday to Saturday. But that was not all. The life of the community needed to impact us; Monday to Saturday would change us.

The thing is, real listening changes us. Conversations become different; relationships deepen. And genuine listening isn't passive; you need to check you've been understood, reflect back, and sometimes to challenge. In one sense, my own mission context of other faiths, and in particular, Islam, raises the stakes. Dare I say that we as a church community have learned from our Muslim neighbours? Can we say that part of our mission is to be able to receive something from our community too?

I can say that we have, and when I look at our example of Jesus, that we ought. It's not to deny the times when we have had to challenge, present Jesus explicitly, more boldly explain the hope that underscores all that we do. But active listening as an approach to mission is less about knowing in advance what you will do. Rather, it's being prepared to be vulnerable; it's mission as relationship rather than strategy.

About the author: 

Richard is a Pioneer Ordinand at the Queen's Foundation and is based in an Anglican parish church in inner city Birmingham. He is the author of Distinctly Welcoming: Christian presence in a multifaith society.


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