The Ministry of Listening

A few years ago, I made a routine after-work phone call to my mom.

“Hey,” she greeted me.

“Hey, you,” I said cheerfully as I dumped my bag on the floor.  I’d just gotten back from teaching a particularly wild composition class; I was eager to share the stories from the day.  “You will not believe my students.”

“What happened?” my mom asked.

I shared bits and pieces from the class; she laughed.  I complained about the students who didn’t pay attention to the requirements of the assignment I’d just given, and then told her about the traffic on my commute.  And finally, as I flopped onto the couch with my phone held to my ear, I asked, “Anyway, how’re you?”

“Well,” she answered calmly, “not so good.  I got in a car accident today and had to go to the hospital.”

I sat bolt upright on the couch in alarm.  Fortunately, she was fine – just badly bruised. But I was stunned that it had taken twenty minutes of conversation for her to offer the revelation – and then ashamed that it had taken twenty minutes for her to find the space to offer the revelation.  I’d steamrolled the conversation without realizing it, filling up the air with my life and my stories without really giving consideration to the needs of the person on the other end.

As Christians, we are all taught to talk.  Evangelism is one of the first skills we learn, even as young children: say this, say that, memorize the Romans Road, learn to share.  But we learn listening less or not at all, and the more time passes the more I become convinced that listening is just as vital a part of ministry and loving others.  We don’t listen to people so that they’ll listen to us; we listen to people for the sake of listening, because it’s a way of showing care.

So what does Christlike listening look like?

Listening means availability, for starters; Jesus seemed to be up for a conversation with almost anyone who passed by or was willing to exchange words.  Officials and commoners and Pharisees were all able to approach him.  We must not be selective with our time nor with those to whom we give it, and we must set our agendas and ideas aside when the time comes to hear someone.

Listening also demands that we engage.  Jesus never just “heard” people – He wasn’t a holy sounding board.  He asked questions of them. He responded. He asked His disciples who they thought He was (Mark 8:31).  He interrogated the rich young ruler about his assumptions (Mark 10:18).  He fell into a conversation with a Samaritan woman over cultural differences and her personal history (John 4).  His responses were never wrote nor scripted, nor entirely predictable.  He listened to his questioners, discerned the heart of what they were asking, and then answered it.

As Christians, I think that sometimes – perhaps out of desire to avoid mistakes – we memorize and use a series of stock “God responses”: truisms and platitudes and verses that apply to a wide number of any situations, and that we can blurt out on command.  But that sort of listening is dangerous.  It isn’t a real response.  It’s play-acting.  Real listening means genuinely paying attention, and then mulling over your own response to what someone else has said.  It means thinking on your feet and focusing on someone else!

Engaging with people requires that we also maintain sharp focus.  This is something I, and most of us, are bad at.  We want to multi-task while we listen.  We think we can focus on other things while we talk to people. To be fair, some of us can; it’s possible to multi-task and give someone your full attention.  But if you’re easily distracted, or if the person on the other end of the phone is constantly being interrupted by bleeps and blips and crashes and the sound of you making a five-course meal for four, maybe we need to rethink what we do while we’re trying to listen!

Because chances to listen never come when we expect.  Christian listening is spontaneous.  Our opportunities to hear others are not going to come at specific, allotted times.  That phone call, that text, or that random encounter at the grocery store will not be scripted, and we need to be ready to hear when God asks us to do so: to stop what we’re doing in the moment, to open our ears to whoever is talking, and to take their words to hear and consider them before we reply.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, listening is an act of selfless love.  When you’re listening, it’s not about you.  It’s not about you saying the thing that you want to say or making the point you want to make.  It’s sacrificing your time and energy to give someone else the floor, to surrender your presence to them and make yourself their captive for a little while.  The act of doing that – of giving people a space to communicate in which they have the attention of a caring audience – is huge.

If you struggle with listening, or want to be conscious of ways that you can “listen better,” try the following things:

  • With friends and family and even acquaintances, let “how are you?” or “how are things?” be one of the first things you say.  And listen to the answer.  Go from there.
  • Ask questions.  If someone’s going through a health or life crisis, ask about it.  If they asked prayer for something, ask about it.  If they had an event or a triumph or a blessing, ask about it.  Give them a chance to speak about what is on their hearts.
  • Don’t focus on the next thing you are going to say as they’re talking to you.  Devote your time solely to listening.
  • When talking to unbelievers, let the conversation flow naturally.  Don’t feel like you have to force a Bible verse or evangelism phrase out.  Your faith is part of you; it will come up eventually.  God will give you opportunities.
  • Determine if your multi-tasking during listening times is dividing your attention.
  • Don’t consider surprise interactions to be interruptions, but rather golden opportunities to practice listening in a godly way.
  • Finally, pray for discernment when you are listening, so that God will give you the chance to hear what is unspoken and respond accordingly.

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