The ministry of listening

Smart phones, discipleship and the lost art of listening

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It was a most uncomfortable few moments in an otherwise glorious time together as a family. We were enjoying the beauty of California’s Avila Beach, one of our favorite family vacation destinations. This time, thanks to the generosity of my in-laws, we were enjoying a summer week of life together under one roof, a beautiful large home close to the beach.

The beauty and serenity was disrupted at the lunch table one day. It seems that someone had forgotten the family rule—the rule that when repeatedly broken has resulted in our daughters’ boyfriends being voted off the Wall island. No phones at the table!

Apparently, a certain family member thought that simply because the food had been consumed, the rule was no longer applicable. A cross generational “clarification” ensued, and everyone went to their corners for an hour or so. Family love and harmony was restored shortly thereafter.

You’ve seen it at restaurants, haven’t you? A table of people neither looking at nor speaking to one another because they’re each staring at their smart phones. Dumb phones!

When we think about how disciples are formed, we often think of a curriculum of instruction or a study directed by a more seasoned follower of Jesus. These methods certainly have their place. However, in today’s world it seems there is a lost art, that if recovered, could lead to more disciples of Jesus growing in maturity. It is the lost art of listening.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his classic little book Life Together, writes, “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians because these Christians are talking when they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and condescension arrayed in pious words.”

I recognize how quick I am to speak, to offer an opinion or solution to a problem. The call of Jesus is an invitation to pay attention, to hear another’s story and perspective, to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). In our screen absorbed society, the call of Jesus is an invitation to put our phones down and look another in the eye. Listening is harder than speaking.  We must learn to filter out the urge to insert ourselves and our next response while the person is still speaking.  You know when someone is really listening, don’t you? I know I do.

Bonhoeffer continues, “Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by God who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”

Could it be that the growing disconnect in our culture between church and society is because we Jesus followers are too busy “speaking truth” and not busy enough listening? Let’s put down our phones, look someone in the eye, engage with their story and find ourselves invited into holy moments where disciples are made.

Gary Wall
Gary Wall has been the Pacific District Conference minister since 2002. In addition to his ministry among 110 Mennonite Brethren churches in the western United States, he has been encouraged and challenged by his international MB experiences in India, Thailand and Colombia. He and Tami have been married for 31 years and are Papa and Nana to Addilyn and Harper.

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