Proverbs has lots to say about the value of listening; in 1v5 we are exhorted to let the wise listen and add to their learning, throughout the early chapters Solomon calls on his son to listen, 12v15 the wise listens to advice, 18v13 ‘To answer before listening – that is folly and shame.’ And so on it goes. Listening matters.
I wonder often if we need to take that lesson to heart rather than just assuming we have listened to the community around us. It’s worth stopping and asking ourselves; What voices do we listen to? What sections of our communities voices do we hear most? Which ones drown out others? What voices in our community do we not hear? What voices in our community are quiet and need to be intentionally sought out?
As churches, church leaders and pastors we need to be listening people. And not just to our church members but to our communities. The church scene is full of news and noise, some of it is helpful and some of it less so with some of it being distinctly unhelpful. The biggest danger is that we listen to the noisiest rather than discerning and listening to the voices that actually are wisest. In the noise of the latest strategy or ministry reform suggestion it can be hard to hear the voices of our community.
When we planted we worked hard to read everything we could get our hands on about planting, and there was lots of helpful stuff. Mistakes others made we wanted to avoid (though we also made plenty of our own), dangers to beware and potential opportunities not to miss. We also worked hard on the overall statistics, data shine is a helpful tool to use to get a handle on this. But we also worked equally hard at listening to the voices in our community. We spoke to local school teachers and headteachers, what were the issues they perceived as community opportunities and problems. We spent time just walking the streets of our area with an ear tuned into opportunities for conversation. We spent time at the school gate with parents, getting to know them asking them about the community and listening and learning from them.
Having pulled all that information together you then have to sift it and contextualize it. What is helpful but needs tweaking locally? What is different about our context? How does the area differ from postcode to postcode? And there you begin your real learning as you find your suppositions and preconceived ideas challenged and debunked. From that learning you move towards launching as you think about how the priority of the gospel shapes ministry in this community. But your learning isn’t finished, ever! Even as you come up with your launch plan you need to keep relearning. To keep asking, listening, and reshaping so that you take the gospel to the community without putting unnecessary barriers in the way.