Listening to your Community as Social Agency

By Scott Hagley

listening-is-missional-300x300.gifLast fall the Pittsburgh “Latte Art Throwdown” was held in my neighborhood. Baristas from coffee shops all around the city gathered to compete with one another in creating elaborate latte designs on demand. The organizer called baristas forward, rolled a die with different latte-art designs, and then invited the barista to make the design with a single shot of espresso and steamed milk. I’ll admit I went because the sign said “free lattes,” but I stayed because the social scientist in me wouldn’t let me go. An entire city sub-culture emerged within this small, crowded coffee shop.

It wasn’t just the disproportionate number of mustaches and beards, tattoos, piercings, and skinny jeans; it was the fact that so many in the room seemed to know one another. It was like I had stumbled into a chapter of the Pittsburgh Barista Association and then given a free latte and dessert.

I watched and listened to the conversation around me buzzing with hopes and dreams. I began asking questions. I learned that the man on the sidewalk selling tacos under a tent recently moved from another city and hopes to build a client base and open a restaurant. His vision is sustained by a secret family recipe and a carefully-plotted strategy. Later on, I listened to the owner of the coffee shop counsel a young entrepreneur who plans to open a café in the next couple months. She offered not only advice, but resources like plates and cups to aid with the start up. At one point in the evening, I asked someone about the origins of the “throwdown,” and I received an impassioned plea for community and the important role that the neighborhood coffee shop plays in building such community. It was an education. And great fun.

It was only after I got home, however, that I realized how little I talked throughout the evening. I was, of course, a stranger at the margins of the gathering. However, I found many people more than willing to tell me about themselves, about their event, about their entrepreneurial plans. As I listened, I not only learned a lot about one part of my community, I also discovered a place at an event where I clearly did not belong (insert obligatory Sesame Street song here). Listening, especially when we are operating at the margins, provides a place or a standpoint within a community. Listening connects us.

We often don’t think of listening as a form of social action or agency. It is not a medium for us to offer our ideas or to change people’s minds. It is not a way for us to be memorable or to change our world. But changing people’s minds and shaping our world might not be the immediate thing God has for us. Perhaps it is to learn to listen.

Several years ago, Nancy Ammerman wrote a book called Congregation & Community, where she studies congregations in changing neighborhoods. After studying more than 20 congregations, she concludes that congregational health is linked to its ability to connect with the spiritual energies of a neighborhood. Ammerman’s book was published as the “missional church” literature began to take off, and seems to agree with the many models available to help churches become ‘outwardly focused’ and activistic regarding justice or evangelism. Most of the time, we equate ‘missional’ with studying a neighborhood so we know how to engage it. However, I wonder if much of our missional activism misunderstands the basic requirement of cultivating relationships, of what James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence.”

I would amend Ammerman’s argument to say that congregations need to learn how to join their neighborhood as a people of shalom. This is true especially if our neighborhood starts to look and feel different from what it used to be, and we feel like we are at the margins of someone else’s party. The first thing we need to do is find the free lattes and turn up our hearing aid. Learning to listen is a profoundly missional activity. Ask questions, and listen . . . we just might get in on the party.

Dr. Scott Hagley is assistant professor of missiology and also works with the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative and teaches in the MDiv Church Planting Emphasis program as well as the new Church Planting and Revitalization certificate program. He previously served as director of education at Forge Canada in Surrey, British Columbia, where he worked to develop curriculum for the formation of missional leaders in hubs across Canada.

“Listening to your Community as Social Agency” first appeared on the Seminary’s blog March 16, 2017. The Seminary offers multiple programs for those interesting in church planting including the Graduate Certificate in Church Planting and Revitalization, Master of Divinity with Church Planting Emphasis, and the Church Planting Initiative. Learn more about these programs online.

Listening and Learning with a Blackboard

As we further explore engaging our communities, I want to introduce you to an out-of-the-box idea that First Baptist Church in Victoria has been experimenting with.

FBC Victoria is located right on the corner of Quadra and North Park on the edge of downtown.  They are overshadowed by a much larger and dominant building housing Glad Tidings Church, so much so, that people are often surprised that FBC is a church too!

To help the neighbourhood realize that FBC is there among them, Pastor Jeff Sears and congregation decided they needed to do something so “people realize that we are a church and we are active.”

They have installed a chalk board, complete with chalk, inviting those in their neighborhood to write to one another and the folk at FBC.  Pastor Jeff explained to a passerby who inquired about why the board was up that “our church needs to hear from our neighbours so that we can learn from them.”  Not to preach to them or to write pithy inspirational messages, but to hear and learn how the people in the neighbourhood around them view their world and the beautiful and not-so-beautiful aspects of life and purpose.

blackboard2Each week Jeff poses a question on the board, such as “What was your most life defining moment?”  One of the poignant responses was, “The birth of my child; the death of my child,”  a reminder that there are those all around us whose lives are defined by both beauty and anguish. Perhaps comments such as these will heighten our awareness that every stranger we pass has a story that they need to share and we need to hear.

The decision to put the board up came with risk: in Jeff’s words a “dangerous venture.” What if it was damaged or stolen (the board was caringly made by a congregant), or people write vulgarities and statements against the church, Christianity and God? It was a risk the folks were willing to take to engage their neighbourhood. The good news wasn’t shared by hunkering down in veiled places, but by exposure and risk. They decided that they wouldn’t erase anything negative people wrote about the church as long as it had something to do with the question posed, and though some people did indeed write vulgarities, they were often erased by other passersby. The neighbourhood began to own the board, one person writing, “I love this blackboard.”

The first week they hoped for a couple of comments to the posted question and were blown away with how fast the board filled up.  Jeff says that this told him that people want to be heard, to tell their story, to find meaning from one another in sharing story.  blackboard1

FBC Victoria’s Mission Statement articulates the thought around the chalkboard:  “We are a diverse community united under Christ in spirit and in action, transforming the heart of our neighbourhood.”

The approach to fulfil their mission is not to go tell people what to think, but to hear what others think and to find the intersection between their stories and the God story–how to bring their stories into God’s redemptive, restorative story.  All the questions posted on the board relate to the message Jeff shares the following Sunday, praying that some board contributors/readers will be curious to hear and share more on the questions.

Nora Walker, Board of Deacons Moderator at First Baptist, shared that one man wrote that FBC could make a difference in the community by giving him someone to talk to.  An attempt to follow up fell through, but a few weeks ago at an FBC-hosted BBQ, the same man showed up and connections were made. Nora makes a point of visiting local coffee shops and eateries near the church and has engaged with many people in conversation who now know FBC as the “church with the chalkboard.”  Often they then talk with her and tell their stories.

But there is also an inward reason for the board. Jeff says that he and his congregation want to become more aware of the thoughts and feelings of their neighbours, to not look upon them as strangers but to see that they have deep and important things to share.

It would seem to me that this concept, too, is part of all our discipleship. We don’t have all the answers, and we need to understand the questions and hear the answers from one another both within and without our gathering spaces. That we learn and are enriched by our diversity as humans; that we share in mercy and compassion both in painful and joyful events; that in the midst of both, we can find Jesus ever-present amongst humanity laughing with us, mourning with us and bringing the comfort of God in deep, meaningful ways.

What ways are you engaging the community around you, or in what ways are you imagining engagement taking place? We want to learn from one another how to be Christ’s presence in our everyday spaces and places. Write and let us know what you are up to so we can share your innovative and risky ideas here.

Pastor Shannon Youell
CBWC Church Planting Director
syouell@cbwc.ca