The Love Avenue includes listening to the voices of your church neighborhood.
By Sam Butler, Pastor, Ravenna, MI
Have you ever been in a conversation with another person, where they are talking but you are already working on your response? This is more common than we would like to think. We often listen from the perspective of our own agenda rather than listening to what the other person is actually saying. (Link to article on autobiographical listening) The art of listening can often be a lost skill.
This has particular application when it comes to the mission of the church. Compelled by the love of Jesus Christ we desire to participate with him in what he is already doing in our communities. We want to be “out there” doing effective ministry. This desire is healthy, but what is important here is to not get ahead of ourselves, or more importantly, not get ahead of the Spirit. What do I mean?
In our modern age where most things we need in life are at our fingertips, it is easy to get caught up in a “now” mentality. We rarely need to wait anymore. It is the age of instant gratification. This can affect our approach to ministry. We can tend to want quick results. We have something great to offer, we are doing some great work, so why is our church not growing? Ministry can be frustrating from this perspective.
What is the answer to having successful neighborhood-based ministry? The answer is multi-faceted, so let’s start with the first step. This involves listening to the voices in the neighborhood.
The most important voice is the Holy Spirit. In Galatians, Paul is talking about life by the Spirit, and he states, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). To keep in step with the Spirit we need to be listening to him. It is important to note that listening to the Spirit and listening to all the other voices of the neighborhood should not be separated. This is because the Spirit can speak to us through those voices. Listening to the Spirit then means listening to these voices, and this listening is not passive, it is vibrant and active. Let’s look at ways in which we can actively listen.
Prayer is the place to start. It might sound funny to start listening by talking, but it is here we seek the Spirit’s leading. We ask for discernment, for wisdom, for all the help that will enable us to hear the voices in our neighborhood in order to engage our neighbors where the Spirit is leading us. The process of prayer also takes us out of our homes and churches and into the neighborhood where Jesus is inviting us to join in his ministry. This means we actively pray in the neighborhood as we walk around to see and to listen. This is known as “prayer walking.” We listen by observing. We pray as we walk the streets asking the Spirit to help us be aware of our surroundings, to allow them to inform us.
God has blessed us with five major senses, and we use these senses when we prayer walk. We take in the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes and the contacts, and we talk with God about them. Who are the people groups? What are the places of activity, the structures? What are the signs of change, of hope, of need? As we listen, we begin to be informed and begin to understand our church neighborhood. And we pray for God to lead us to people of peace.
These “people of peace” are important voices that need to be listened to. These are people who are already active in the neighborhood and who have influence. They know the neighborhood and the surrounding community and are willing to share with others because they welcome additional involvement and networking. They are easy to find and would welcome the opportunity to sit down over coffee. They would also be willing to put you in touch with other neighborhood and community stakeholders.
Another voice that must be listened to are the residents, the people who live around your church location. These are the very people you want to get to know. They might be the ones God is sending you to build relationship with. They certainly know others who need your love and support. It is essential to engage them, to ask them specific questions about the needs in the neighborhood, the problems facing the residents, the schools, the activities, etc.
The key to listening is listening. We do not assume to have all the answers and solutions. Neighborhood-based ministry is a partnership, a collaboration with every aspect of community life. Everyone is valued and needed. We must see the neighborhood as a whole, as Jesus sees it. It is a love relationship with Jesus leading the way. We listen to him through the Spirit and we listen to all the voices that are extensions of his voice. Listening is love in action.