In our local church we are in the process of a ‘Listening’ exercise. It is linked to coming out of lockdown – Ireland had the longest amount of time in lockdown I think in Europe. As a church we have not been able to meet physically since March 2020, mainly because we do not have our own building.
The Presbyterian Church in Ireland, of which we are a part, provided resources to churches to help them hear what their people are thinking and feeling as we emerge from lockdown.
We adapted these into a questionnaire, answered via a google form, around 5 questions. The first asked about personal faith and sense of connection to the church community.
The next four followed this traffic light system suggested by PCI. Here’s a clip of the form. This was all public domain so no problem sharing here:
We gave three avenues for feedback to be collected. Via written individual submissions, by group discussion and notes taken at Bible study groups, and a community ‘Townhall’ event on Zoom.
The idea here was to give people different ways to communicate, and also the option to hear from others in the process.
A couple of things stand out to me so far.
One is how welcomed the process has been. Most people participated in one way or another. We are a small community, but the amount of feedback is significant. An overwhelming sense, made in verbal and written comments, is of appreciation of the process. Appreciation of the chance, given by the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic, as a church to pause, review and reflect what we are about as a community.
It is this openness to ask the questions (and hopefully to listen well to the answers, especially when what is said is difficult to hear) that people have appreciated. It will take some time for us as leaders to process and act on.
Another is how rarely these sorts of questions tend to get asked in churches (at least in my experience, maybe yours is different).
Asking questions is risky. We may not expect the answers we get. We may not like the answers we get. But without giving space for people honestly to express their views we will never really know what is going on.
But here’s my theory – it is actually the answers we find most troubling, or disagree with the most, that we need to be listening to the hardest because they are likely challenging our own perceptions and assumptions of what is going on. That’s why we find them threatening or unreasonable.
But rather than finding them a threat or dismissing them, we should be welcoming them as answers which can help us see things differently. It’s the temptation to close down critical voices that should be resisted because to do so is a form of not listening.
This all reminded me of an article written a good while ago by Dr John Wilks in the journal Evangel which made quite an impression on me when I first read it and which I have kept to hand. I had the pleasure of corresponding now and then with John when he was book review editor of Evangelical Quarterly.
The title of the article is ‘A Spiritual Evangelical Church?’ (EVANGEL, 26.3, AUTUMN 2008)
The question mark is significant. He’s exploring the question of whether there is an innate conflict between growing spiritually as a Christian and being in an evangelical church community.
In other words, does church stifle spiritual growth?
His answer is, a lot of the time, ‘YES’
Now that should be a troubling and perhaps puzzling answer for most of us in church leadership of one sort of another. It’s an answer that we may not want to hear, or a question that we have never really thought about. After all, doesn’t active participation in church life – worship, Bible studies, mission, service, teaching, various ministries – show in itself that someone is doing Ok spiritually?
Wilks says actually things are a lot more complicated than that. And that for many Christians, despite appearances of active church involvement, church is a place of frustration, alienation and boredom.
And here’s the key thing – such Christians are NOT young believers or half-hearted disciples. They tend to be committed, long-serving and mature Christians who are not ‘losing their faith’ or ‘falling away’. But they are walking away from church.
So what is going on? Come back for part 2 to find out !