by Jessica Tate
There are times and situations in which we must learn what no one can teach us. We cannot turn to others who have gone ahead because no one has been in front of us on the journey. We cannot point outside ourselves. We learn—teach ourselves—as a “community of practice.” [i]
— Gil Rendle
Over the last few months, NEXT Church has been quietly undertaking a listening campaign about experiences of transformational mission. We are on track to have fifty listening sessions with five hundred Presbyterians by the end of January.
Our desire in setting out on this listening campaign was to give leaders in the denomination a relational tool for discerning God’s direction for our future. Rather than surveying for ideas or asking for opinions, this listening campaign invites Presbyterians into conversation with one another around their actual experiences of mission to mine what we can learn from those experiences on the ground. Bonhoeffer said we must listen long and patiently to others. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others and finally not even notice it…the death of the spiritual life starts here. Gathering together to share stories strengthens the fabric of faith and our connection to one another.
Through the campaign, we are hearing important experiences from congregations engaged in missional activities. This is often inspirational, but more than that, as we listen to these experiences we start to draw conclusions (or at least common themes) that can inform our collective work – be that in cooperative work locally, in our presbyteries, or perhaps even the future directions for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and our national church structures. Through the sharing of stories, we bring to the level of consciousness the insights and wisdom from experience of mission on the ground. We become a “community of practice” and teach ourselves by bringing to conscious awareness what we have learned from our own experiences.
Out of this listening campaign we hope to identify leaders at the local level who we can resource and connect together for common action that can inform the future leadership and direction of the Church. We have the power to change the way things are when we engage energized leaders who are connected to one another.
Each of our meetings followed a similar process. A leader was trained in this listening process – a tool we have experienced powerfully in the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation. They then pull together a group of 10-15 leaders for conversation. Opening with a prayer and sharing the purpose of the listening session, the bulk of the session is spent with each participant sharing a response to this question:
Can you share a story from the past five years where your congregation engaged in mission with those outside your doors that was transformational in some way?
After everyone has shared, conversation ensues as the facilitator probes more deeply into the stories and begins to unearth some possible points of commonality or difference. At the close of the hour, next steps are shared – namely, that the facilitator will summarize the conversation and report that back to NEXT Church leadership for synthesis and insight and that all participants are invited to the NEXT Church national gathering in February when we will share what we’ve heard across the country.
In the coming days, we’ll be sharing some experiences of these listening sessions here on our blog. You can participate in an online conversation as part of our January Church Leaders’ Roundtable. If you would like to host a listening session, it’s not too late to do that. Please be in touch with me for more information. We look forward to sharing these learnings and in so doing, helping to strengthen the future of the church.
[i] Rendle, Gilbert R (2010-10-01). Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Kindle Locations 293-295). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
Update: read Andrew Foster Connors’ latest blog to learn more about what a listening session at his church was like.