Listening for Mission - Part 2

20 Jun 2021 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News
Listening for Mission – Part 2

From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures

Last week in this article space we began to look at the importance of listening when it comes to getting started on engaging with our local communities in mission. One part of that listening is listening to ourselves. We listen to take notice of our passions, skills and interests.  We notice what we have, for example church buildings and facilities, members’ homes, and availability. This listening helps us know who we are and what we have to offer in relationship with our local community.

Listening to ourselves can be quite a process, and take some time. We might get to the end of that process and have itchy feet to get started in mission with what we have discerned we have to offer. But that would put us in the position of deciding what will help us connect with our local community, without having listened to our local community to find out if that is indeed a needed or wanted point of connection.

Last week I introduced a tool for listening to the culture of our local community. When we first begin this listening, it is important that we simply observe. Allowing ourselves this freedom to just observe means that we suspend our inclination to judge or evaluate our local community. We want to be looking with beginner eyes to take in our local community as if we are seeing it for the very first time.

Another tool to help us listen to our local community is about Reading the Built Environment. Rev Dr Karina Kreminski from Neighbourhood Matters explains this listening in terms of doing an analysis of the buildings, the roadways, parks, railway lines, etc., in order to determine the culture of those who live in your neighbourhood.

For this kind of listening, Karina draws on how Michael Mata, Professor of Transformational Urban Leadership at Azusa Pacific University in California, says neighbourhoods/towns can be analysed. Karina describes Mata’s suggestions in the following way. They involve looking at these five things:
  • Structures. This requires you to get out (maybe even walk around) and explore the built environment of your neighbourhood. You need to examine the buildings and ask the following questions: What structures exist here and who were they built for? What is their purpose? When were they built and who funded them? Are they old, new, well kept, run down, rentals, owned, businesses, third spaces, etc.? Are their fences, barriers or walls?
  • Signs. Walk around town and look at the physical signage in the area. Look at billboards, graffiti, town slogans, political signs, etc. Are there themes to the signs? Who are they catering to and for what purpose? Was it costly (advertising) or free (graffiti)? What are the dominant languages used, values communicated, affiliations represented etc?
  • Space. Which spaces draw people together - walkways, parks, rivers, etc.? Your town might have a nice park, but if it’s always empty it’s not the kind of “space” Mata is looking for. Nodes like marketplaces, bus stations, metro stops, shopping malls, schools are worth noting too. Do the spaces communicate density, hospitality, privacy, self-protection, etc? Are there wide spaces? Do they reflect the values of the neighbourhood? Is it walkable or bike friendly? Is public transportation central and accessible? Are streets wide or narrow? Alleys, empty lots, yards? Is your own sense of connectedness dependent on the spatial dynamics of your place?
  • Social interaction. Try to find out how and where people interact with each other. Are there pedestrians? If so, do they walk for leisure, pets, transport, etc. Do walkers greet each other? Do people just drive through? Is everyone local or are there outta towners? If the latter, why are they there? Where do people hang out? What is the demographic of your neighbourhood? Is it a hostile or friendly environment?
  • Spiritual life. Mata says it’s important to explore all the religious spaces and communities in town if you’re going to understand your neighbours. You’re trying to find out which religious views are represented there. What churches or other places of worship are there? Are they well attended? Do the attenders commute in or live locally? What other spiritual groups gather? What kind of spiritual signs do you see on noticeboards, cafes, telephone poles? Does anyone host debates, discussions, storytelling? Is there conflict over religion? What are the places of solitude, silence, meditation?
Karina adds a sixth ‘S’ – Story. Here, you “research the history of your neighbourhood or town. Who founded your town? Why was it founded? What is its history? How it got its name? What stories are told by long-timers? How does its history affect the present and future? What are the stories of the locals?”

This discipline of listening is not something that is just done for a season to help you get started on engaging with your local community in mission. Rather, you keep cycling back into listening even as you are going along. Down the track that listening may help you discern it is time to refine your approach for engaging, change it completely to a new direction, or simply that it is time to stop. Remember that the listening also includes:
  • Listening to God directly in prayer;
  • Listening to those supporting you in prayer;
  • Listening to those with relevant experience. Their wisdom may be invaluable.