The Listening Church
By Rev. Patricia Peña & Rev. Luke Edwards
Are you looking for a way to connect with your neighborhood?
With communities rapidly changing, sometimes it can be difficult to remain connected. One of the challenges I often hear is knowing where or how to begin connecting with the surrounding neighborhood. But what if there were a way to create a more connected, spiritually grounded community?
Rev. Luke Edwards brings a thoughtful approach to “spiritual listening,” a method of community assessment that helps churches connect meaningfully with neighbors. Spiritual listening goes beyond statistics and demographics to foster authentic, deep connections. This leads to revitalization and congregations building up their communities in transformative ways. Let the following article open a space for a new approach to community engagement and inspire you to become an intentional listening church:
“We lost touch with our neighbors and don’t know how to fix it.” In my work with United Methodist congregations in Western North Carolina, I am often approached by leaders of churches with this common problem. Between population growth and demographic shifts, the people in the pews often don’t know the people living in the immediate area of the church. These church leaders are eager to connect with their neighbors but don’t know where to start.
After fifteen years of church-based community engagement, I have discovered the first step to vibrant, localized ministry is asking Jesus to give us attentiveness toward the people in our neighborhoods, towns, and cities—to learn the passions, dreams, gifts, and longings of our neighbors.
Spiritual practices have developed over the centuries to help people increase their attentiveness to God. One example is Lectio Divina, a four-step process of prayerfully reading scripture first used in the sixth century. Another example is centering prayer, a method of contemplative prayer that gained recognition through the work of Fr. Thomas Keating. It seeks to open one’s awareness to God’s presence by silently repeating a sacred word or phrase. Both practices have gained popularity in recent years because they are simple, practical, and deeply spiritual. However, when it comes to listening to our neighbors, there is a significant lack of spiritual resources.
Without spiritual listening resources similar to Lectio Divina and centering prayer to help us listen to our neighbors, we have defaulted to demographic statistics and practices from the social sciences. In my work in church development in the United Methodist denomination, I have seen an overreliance on statistical reports for understanding neighborhoods. Statistics and technology are helpful tools for understanding our communities, but they pale compared to a holistic listening process rooted in conversation with God and our neighbors. As a trained social worker, I have also noticed that we borrow community assessment resources such as needs assessments and asset mapping from the social sciences. Still, we need to adapt these tools to spiritual content.
Too often, listening activities are done without asking God to open our attentiveness. What we ask influences what we hear, and what we hear influences how we respond. When we conduct a needs assessment, we identify needs and seek to address them. Churches are uniquely called to develop a spiritual community. Why are our community assessment strategies void of spirituality? What might a spiritual approach to community assessment look like?
Too often, listening activities are done without asking God to open our attentiveness. What we ask influences what we hear, and what we hear influences how we respond.
For the past four months, I’ve been working on a community assessment process rooted in contemplative practices that will help churches understand their communities better and enable those churches to become spiritual homes for their immediate neighbors. And the process is ready— well, the beta version is ready! The Spiritual Listening Plan (SLP) is an interactive PDF that outlines a comprehensive spiritual community assessment process for churches. It draws from spiritual listening practices and will increase a church’s understanding of its neighbors and help discern where God invites the church to expand the kingdom. This tool could lead to meaningful ministry innovations. And it’s free! Its twelve activities are broken into three categories: “Listening to God,” “Listening to Your Congregation,” and “Listening to Your Neighbors.” Every activity has a link that will take you to a PDF guide or editable document/form.
The Spiritual Listening Plan is a fresh and innovative approach to community assessment for churches. It helps foster deep connections and spurs innovative ministries that meet the needs of the community. The Spiritual Listening Plan leads toward vital congregations with a strong sense of purpose and mission. Join the conversation and become a listening church!