“Listening” leads to fresh conversations

Of the seven factors that nurture health in a congregation, perhaps the hardest to embrace is “Listening Church.”

The concept is simple: listen to the questions that people are asking, and the questions that the world is asking, and orient your preaching, teaching, and program to responding to them (see also the Church Wellness column in the September 29 Outlook issue for a related article in listening as a part of the church planning process.) If you don’t address the deep questions that people bring to God, they will tune out.

The challenge is this: Fresh listening leads to fresh conversations.

Like families, congregations tend to keep repeating the same conversations, either because the familiar themes and roles are comforting, or because people hope the conversations will come differently this time. Either way, congregations often get stuck, freezing out new ideas, new participants and growth.

When leaders listen to actual yearnings and needs, the old conversations tend to lose relevance. During the current financial crisis, for example, as people face loss of certainties, jobs and assets, a stubborn continuation of an old argument about paint colors or ordination practices tends to sound tinny. 

Once you listen in a way that is open to whatever people need to say, you will be amazed at how much you hear. Moreover, you will start to hear recurring themes. By naming the themes publicly, you help people feel less alone in their quandaries, and by addressing them you help people see the pertinence of the Gospel.

The “Listening Church” section of the Church Wellness Project explains more about how to listen. One primary tool is a simple one: on a Sunday, pause in worship, hand out 3 x 5 cards, and ask people to write down the one question they would ask of God. Don’t alert them in advance, lest they “overthink” the exercise. Then analyze the questions handed in, categorize them, share them with the congregation, and begin to answer them.

If you do this exercise and are comfortable with sharing the questions, I would be fascinated to read your compilation. I keep a database of questions people ask. No need for identifying details, of course.


Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus,” and the founder of the Church Wellness Project.