The Art of Listening by Justin McRoberts

The Spirit of the Lord sent Phillip South, where Phillip crossed paths with an Ethiopian Eunuch, riding in a chariot (you know, like happens to everyone at some point). At that literal crossroad of culture, the Spirit further instructs Phillip to “go to that chariot and stay near it.”

“Go to . . . and . . . stay near.”

In other words: go and listen.

And it is because Phillip goes and listens long enough that he hears the Ethiopian reading from the prophet Isaiah – the text that would become their common ground for conversation and, ultimately, for the enlightening, conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian.

It is this practiced posture of listening that I believe artists are uniquely postured to offer their churches. Nothing is more essential to the practice of art than listening. Before anything is made, before materials are chosen, even before inspiration can take hold, listening must come first. As Mary Oliver is often quoted as saying, she must “pay attention” and then “be astonished” and finally “tell about it.” Attention is paid first. Inspiration follows. Finally comes the act of making. I have needed to practice my pastorate more like I’ve practiced my art-making.

Pope John Paul II, in his remarkable letter to artists suggests that the primary difference between God as Creator and an artist as craftsman is that God literally makes from nothing, whereas the artist makes from the materials she has at hand. The artist then, must be attentive to what materials (physical, emotional, and so on) she has at hand before she can make.

Far too much contemporary religious culture-making follows the basic (and basically flawed) utilitarian principle as the rest of contemporary culture; a process defined by expediency, efficiency and productivity. But creating anything without first listening is an almost sure way to find we are building on sand.

When my friend Sean and I planted Shelter Covenant Church in the late 1990s, we moved quickly to capture the moment of passionate, spiritual need we saw in young adults; young women and men who “struggled to find a place” in existing congregations. We built a culture to accommodate that perceived need, but we did not truly listen.

Not until we were asked to by pastors in neighboring towns or even on neighboring streets who were concerned about the number of young people leaving the church families of their parents and grandparents to worship in a setting more suited to their cultural tastes and preferences.

Dear pastor friend, I ask you, as a pastor myself, how many of our plans have been built on the shifting sand of expediency, productivity and congregational mathematics? Meanwhile, questions that require the practice of listening hover around us, in the dust of or movement:

  • What are my city’s particular needs?
  • What are my neighbor’s uncelebrated strengths?
  • What are other folks (churches or not) doing well?

Ultimately, the question is, “What is God already up to that I should join Him in?” This was the question Phillip had answered for him as he stood in a posture of listening. He discovered that God was already “at work” in the Ethiopian’s chariot. Phillip’s role was to help give clarity to the work already in process.

What I’ve found as I’ve allowed my artist’s sensibilities to trump my need to produce is what Franz Kafka encourages artists to discover in the practice of listening: that the world around me is ready to be seen, engaged and known – that all things are pregnant with meaning and value and that they long for the language to articulate that meaning and value.

“Remain sitting at your table and listen,” Kafka writes. “The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

I have needed to practice my pastorate more like I’ve practiced my art-making. The CMYK Project I wrote, assembled and released last year was part of that practice; a way for me to listen to my congregation and the world around us more like an artist. In the book that ties that project together, I write:

I want to assume God is present rather than wonder if He is or feel like I need to insert Him into a situation. As I practice a posture of listening, I am learning to see God in more and various places and then help friends who live in those places to see him there. I want to see like that instead of mostly see God in one, small place (on a Sunday morning around 10:00 am, for instance) and suggest that any who want Him should meet me (and God) there.

As a pastor, I sincerely believe that seeing and hearing the world this way will deepen my church culture.

​Image sourced from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.