Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Missional Transformation, Part 6


There is no more powerful action with regard to transformation. Listening.

Churches listen poorly. They talk a lot, but they seldom do a good job of listening. Most churches do not have active processes of listening. Few churches have the capacity, either with regard to skill, process or motivation, to have a congregational conversation. Communication takes place in the form of conclusions. Leaders tell others of their conclusions, and the others tell leaders what they think of their conclusions. In neither case, is there understanding. And often, there is conflict.

Missional transformation is fundamentally a listening process, or we might say a discerning process. There are two reasons for this. First, we are listening for the Spirit who leads and empowers us with regard to God's mission. We are discerning God's mission, not solving congregational problems. Second, we believe that the Spirit of God is among the people of God. The wisdom of the Spirit of God is not the province of a few leaders, but of the entire congregation. At the congregation I served in Oregon, we had an expression, leaders don't decide the will of God, they discern it. One implication of this saying is that they couldn't determine what God was up to without listening to his people.

This bears some stress. Some people when they hear me talk about communal discernment worry about group think that overrides the voice of dissent. The heroic individual is the only cure for the communal discernment blues. I would simply respond that because we are seeking the voice of God, and not the will of the majority, the voice of dissent is particularly important to processes of discernment. Apart from a productive role for dissent, there is no Christian community.

Second, I would say that because we are humans discerning the will of God in something as messy as space and time, all of our judgments are provisional. We must decide and act, otherwise we cannot prove what is the will of God, what is good, acceptable and perfect. But this deciding and acting is always subject to further review. I like Luke Johnson's line here: We need modesty before the mystery. A congregation can never see itself as having discovered the final word.

So, I want to suggest four habits of listening toward missional transformation. First, Dwelling in the Word. I learned Dwelling in the Word from the folks at Church Innovations (CI), the organization Pat Keifert leads (http://www.churchinnovations.org). Basically, this is group lectio divina, a way of reading Scripture meditatively with others. The process is simple. Select a text to dwell in together over time. We always begin with congregations dwelling in Luke 10 for a year. Someone reads the text aloud. Silence is observed. The group shares in pairs, and then with the group as a whole. The sharing to the big group, however, has one stipulation. Participants are to share, not what they said, but what their partner noticed.

Dwelling in the Word emphasizes that Scripture gets first word in discerning the voice of the Spirit. It involves every member listening--the Spirit of God is among the people of God. And it models an engagement with Scripture different than what we typically do. We tend to use Scripture as a tool, as a way to solve a problem. We want to master the text. Dwelling is a more submissive practice, inviting Scripture to master us through a prolonged sojourn.

Second, I think leaders need to be constantly about the task of appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry is a particular kind of listening that builds upon the actual stories of appreciation that already exist in a congregation's life. An appreciative inquiry question, always begins with the words, "Can you tell me about a time when..." Transformation is a narrative enterprise, and people have powerful stories to tell. And, the very act of asking a good question is already an act of change.

Third, a congregation should be in the practice of interviewing members on a periodic basis. Not everyone needs to be interviewed. The interviews do not need to represent the demographics of the congregation to be informative. They should, however, involve persons with different levels of involvement with the congregation (what CI calls family, inside strangers, and outside strangers). The questions should be in a direction decided by the leadership, but the questions themselves should not be determined by the leadership of the congregation. If discovery processes are sensed in any way to be tied to a predetermined outcome, you will not get honest communication.

Fourth, congregations should have regular conversations or forums. The goal should be something between a business meeting with a lot of reporting and an open mic gripe session. Neither accomplish much listening. I know of a congregation that gave a series of Sunday evenings (one a quarter) to listening around certain issues. One night they heard stories of families with special needs children, another the stories (anonymously reported) of what it was like to suffer from depression as a Christian. Sharing took place around tables. People got to share things that otherwise would never be known. They were powerful meetings.

The more practice a congregation gets having conversations like these, the safer people feel and the more likely authentic communication can take place in times of anxiety and conflict. And anxiety and conflict are just a part of any meaningful transformation.

This is the point. Listening as a way of life takes practice, the development of habits. These habits pay off big in times of transition and create the space necessary for discerning the Spirit of God.


Anonymous said...

in the form of this blog series, you've got a great book in the works. can't believe this stuff is free and not yet published...

loved the last Dylan story btw--very fun.

Mark Love said...

Thanks, Tyler. I would simply point you to Pat Keifert's book, We are Here Now. Pat is my teacher and I've learned a lot from him, some of which you will find in that book. You also see here my indebtedness to Brueggemann, Luke Johnson, Paul Ricoeur, and others. But there's also a lot from my own experience in ministry reflected here.

In this post, I mentioned appreciative inquiry. Mark Lau Branson has a great book on that applied to congregations.



Cheryl Russell said...

Dwelling and Listening are the two aspects of the PMC process that I am most challenged by, and where I am learning the most. Our MET team was just discussing how Dwelling in the Word has changed us. We don't even feel comfortable answering questions in the workbook till we have dwelled in II Cor 4.

I love this, "We tend to use Scripture as a tool, as a way to solve a problem. We want to master the text. Dwelling is a more submissive practice, inviting Scripture to master us through a prolonged sojourn."

Good stuff Mark. Thanks.