By Eddie Pipkin

This, my friends, is the Nissan GT-R Nismo – more accurately, the Nissan GT-R35 Nismo Lego kit.  And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, welcome to the subject of this week’s blog, not so much the nerdy details of high-performance Japanese sports cars and their plastic-brick-assemble-yourself doppelgangers (although those details will be coming forthwith), but rather the knowledge that such intricately passionate fandom exists.  How do I know?  I took an interest and asked the 15-year-old who was visiting with me last week.  Why does it matter?  Because there’s a whole universe of passions out there among the young folks, and it would serve us well to pay attention.

Opening myself up to learning from my great-nephew, Joe, the focus on his favorite high-performance Nissan was a pathway to discussing not just cars and the many ways to customize them, but quirky import rules and the history of the 1988 Motor Vehicle Safety Compliance Act, video games like Need for Speed, movies like the Fast and Furious franchise, Lego hobbyists and the intricacies of assembling a 298 piece project, and the future car acquisition and modification dreams of teenage boys.  All of those topics were considered, and by listening with attentiveness to his nerdy passions, I got to know him a lot better.

Such connections are vital if we are to understand what’s important to people (teenage boys or any other demographic group) – what makes them tick – what fires them up and gets them excited – brings them joy.  If we have something we think we want to communicate to them, the first step, always, is to listen . . . but not listen in a perfunctory manner . . . really listen.  The stories of the people we encounter are endless and fascinating, if we take time to listen.  As ministry leaders, we have a bad habit of getting the listening out of the way as quickly as possible so we can take the microphone and say what we’ve been wanting to say, impart the wisdom we are sure our audience is desperate to hear.  If we’re really good – if we are talented speakers or energetic group leaders or have a sufficient razzle-dazzle up our sleeve – our supposed wisdom will hold their attention for a while.  But unless we truly listen, unless we get to know the core of who they are – unless we can demonstrate that we are paying attention – they will inevitably drift away.

Their motivations.  Their desires.  Their enthusiasms.  Their heartbreaks.  Their triumphs.  Their fears.  Their goals.  Their regrets.  Their needs.  Their gifts.  These are the things we need to know.

Relationships are about listening and sharing.  And the process is largely the same whether we are talking about five-year-olds or ninety-five-year-olds.  People want a voice.  People want to tell their stories.  People want to feel like their stories matter.  Good leaders know that their stories do matter. [Reference: See Jesus in multiple Gospel interactions.]

If we listen and engage, here’s what happens:

  • People are more interested in what we have to say. Whatever our agenda may be (beyond the purest of agendas, just listening and responding), people are more receptive if we have demonstrated an interest in them first.  This is how relationships are built.  And such listening is not just for the initial phase of a relationship (until we have people “on the hook”).  Such listening is an essential part of an ongoing healthy relationship.  If any relationship has become stale or filled with tension, one of the first steps we should take is to set aside time for a listening session.
  • People are more trusting of our leadership. Folks who are more interested in what we have to say (because we have been listening to them even as we say it) are more willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and invest in our vision.  One of the chief reasons people are resistant to being led is that they feel like they have concerns that no one is acknowledging, especially when big, uncomfortable changes are at hand.  Listening and responding to such concerns with empathy means people are willing to walk with us an extra mile.
  • We make connections that will never be made otherwise. When we bulldoze over others with our incessant talking, we miss the nuances of their story, and it is in those nuances that serendipitous connections make their appearance.  By moving beyond the basic bullet points of a conversation, by following deeper threads and even allowing space for a ramble here and there, wonderful, unexpected details can link us to connections and ideas that would have been missed.  The genesis of many surprising ministry ideas comes from such conversations.  This is a great case for making space for connecting people with other people in such conversations – for instance, weekend retreats, dinner groups, and service projects where we all ride together in the same van.

I titled this blog, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” and the rabbit hole analogy has a unique history and connotation.  In case you don’t remember, it’s a reference to the first chapter in Lewis Carroll’s, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  As such, it connotes a deep dive into something either exceedingly wonderful or something troubling or time-consuming and all-encompassing, and as such, it’s a great metaphor for deep listening conversations – they can be delightful, they can take unexpected swerves into unanticipated territory – they can even be tedious, but rarely are they boring if we ask good questions and express genuine interest in the topic at hand.  Trust takes time to unfold; connections take time to find; sometimes the best, most revealing detail comes in the last five minutes of a two-hour conversation.

When we take time for those extended conversations, we find that there are also some practical aspects of listening that are very useful to leaders (if we are humble and eager to hear what people are really thinking):

  • We know what’s trending. It’s a great way to see what’s happening with people out there in the big world beyond our narrowly defined routine of church-related stuff.  So many of our day-to-day interactions are with like-thinkers, church nerds, and people who use churchy language.  That is a minute part of most people’s days.  What are they thinking about?  What is popular right now in their world?  What’s the hot topic with their friends?  If we are in touch with these things, we have the opportunity to be relevant in the topics we are addressing in sermons and studies.  Our social media can be engaging.  We are walking with people where they are walking in their daily lives, not just trying to force them to walk with us to our preferred destination.
  • We know what’s broken. If we allow people space to talk freely – if they feel like their words and perspectives are valued – we’ll gain direct insight into what is broken in their lives, and we’ll gain direct insight into what is not working so well in our own ministry.  People will inevitably share the hard truths, because that’s what people do . . . unless they have been conditioned to feel that the listener is not interested in what they have to say.  It is valuable for leaders to get below the surface to understand the struggles of the people they are leading and to see the truth of the effectiveness of their own ministries.
  • We know what’s motivating people. If we allow space to listen, we can get a deeper understanding of what is truly motivating people as they interact with our ministry.  We make assumptions about what is motivating people – one, because we think we are gifted as such analyses, and two, because we hope they are being motivated by pure impulses – but motivations can be complicated.  Good listening unpacks some of those complications, and this can help guide people to more beneficial participation in our ministry.  It can even help us prevent damage caused by people being involved in areas where perhaps they really shouldn’t be.

And if we are listening deeply on a regular basis, we can glean ideas for expanding ministry.  This is the reason it’s so important to listen to young people.  I single them out because they are the group we are least likely to understand and most likely to reduce to clichés and stereotypes.  Really, however, for any demographic group in our orbit, deep listening reveals unexplored opportunities:

  • Give people a forum for story sharing. Our faith is anchored in stories.  We know their power.  And yet we provide so few opportunities for people to share their own unique stories.  We need more forums where those stories are celebrated.  They provide amazing opportunities for people to connect.  They extend empathy.  They inspire.  They give people a sense of comfort as they discover “I’m not the only one dealing with that.”
  • Focus on people’s passions and give them a way to share them (Part 1). I started this blog with a focus on fast cars and Legos.  Kudos to the local churches that have figured out ways to tie into those passions and give people a way to express themselves and connect with others through car shows, mechanic courses, video game ministry, and ways to put that Lego creativity to work.  Did you know there’s a whole illustrated Bible with classic biblical scenes constructed in Legos: the Brick Testament!
  • Focus on people’s passions and give them a way to share them (Part 2). We could provide a stronger sense of community and the diversity of our communities if we gave people more opportunities to share their individual passions.  Imagine, for instance, a different kind of “ministry fair.”  You’ve all seen ministry fairs where the different outreach and missions teams from your church set up display booths, but what if we had a day of celebration where people made tri-folds that celebrated their own connections with missions and outreach passions: how they serve, what they give to, what fires their heart up as they serve their neighbors?  What if we had a day where we came up with creative ways for people to share the scripture verses that have most comforted and empowered them: we let them tell their stories as vibrantly as possible about how scripture has impacted their lives?

This week we focused on the benefits of deep listening.  Next week, we’ll explore some tips on how to listen more effectively even in shorter conversations: how to get the most “bang for our listening buck” in even brief interactions.

How is your ministry doing at genuinely listening to and engaging with people?  How are you doing personally in this area?  What impact has extra-attentive listening had on your ministry?  How has it called you to shift direction or address an issue or even celebrate a victory you did not realize you had won?  Share your insights and stories in the comments section.  We’re listening!