Listen First

I am still unsure of how I got the invitation, but I did. It was a small gathering of local Boston pastors and seminary professors – and me.

We were all together to share a breakfast and hear Dr. John M. Perkins share an exhortation. (For those unfamiliar with Dr. Perkins, he is a long-time pastor, a writer, an evangelical leader for racial reconciliation and the co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association.) Despite the fact that he was in his early 80s at the time, he encouraged all of us in the room with passion and zeal for the mission of God.

Before assuming that you know how to proceed in a given context, listen first to God and to those in your context.

When Dr. Perkins completed his talk, he opened up for questions. I raised my hand immediately and was the first to be called on. I was on my way to church planting in the inner city of Providence, and Dr. Perkins was an expert in inner city ministry, which meant there was only one question to ask.

I stood up and stammered out, “Dr. Perkins, what is the best strategy to plant a church in the inner city? What process would you follow?”

I was hoping for a three-step plan or at least a list of five principles to apply as a guide. Instead, Dr. Perkins smiled and calmly said, “Son, I would listen first.” That was it. He didn’t say anything else. The entire room let out one of those sounds that can only be associated with awe at the depth of his response. Dr. Perkins then continued to explain more of what he meant, which can be summed up in this way: before assuming that you know how to proceed in a given context, listen first to God and to those in your context. It is in doing so that one discovers the mission of God and where and how He is already at work.

The Difficulty of Listening First

This concept of listening first is a difficult one for any Christian on mission for a number of reasons, but mainly because it reminds us that we are not in control. Too often we view ourselves as trained professionals who need business plans, measurable outcomes and status ladders to climb. This perspective makes our mission just that: our mission. As a result, failure is not an option and chance (the occasional view associated with faith) is not allowable.

Therefore, the pressure is on the Christian to produce and perform, and listening first is sometimes seen as slowing things down, adding ambiguity and altogether getting in the way of what we desire. However, God never wanted us to be central to or in control of His Kingdom expansion.

The Benefits of Listening First

Instead, there is tremendous benefit in listening first in a missional context. As one listens to God, His divine will is uncovered, yielding both apportioned fruit and confidence. God and His work are made beautiful, causing us to fall in love with the work. As one listens to the ministry leaders already in the community, best practices, existing resources and co-laboring ministries are made plain. Networking and collaboration take place, and in times of trial, one discovers other ministry leaders to be sources of support and not competitors. Finally, as one listens to community members, the language, rules, values and living systems are revealed. Rather than guessing, this provides a head start to truly understanding one’s context.

In embracing listening first, a Christian communicates to God, and to the entire community, an attitude of respect and humility. As former New England pastor Shaun Pillay once said of this approach, “It is coming in through the front door and not sneaking in the back window.”

May we all seek to enter our contexts in this way – with respect and with ears to hear. May our plans be put to the side and the mission of God and His Kingdom become our focus.

John M. Ames is the church planting pastor of what is now Faith Community Church in Providence, RI.