Listening can be hard. Instead of being present in the moment, whether that’s with a friend, a neighbor or with God, our minds tend to wander, often racing ahead to what we will say next or even with distractions of what’s happening around us.Today, we talk with the Rev. Luke Edwards about how to develop listening as a spiritual discipline, a practice that when rooted in curiosity and love can transform our communities, our churches and our faith.
Guest: Rev. Luke Edwards
- Discover more about listening in Edwards' book, "Becoming Church: A Trail Guide for Starting Fresh Expressions."
- TheListeningChurch.com offers resources for creating an impactful ministry.
- Edwards is the associate director of church development for the Western North Carolina Conference of The UMC.
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This episode posted on February 3, 2023.
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Listening can be hard. Instead of being present in the moment, whether that’s with a friend, a neighbor or with God, our minds tend to wander, often racing ahead to what we will say next or even with distractions of what’s happening around us.. Today, we talk with the Rev. Luke Edwards about how to develop listening as a spiritual discipline, a practice that when rooted in curiosity and love can transform our communities, our churches and our faith.
Crystal Caviness, host: Luke, welcome to get your spirit in shape.
Luke Edwards: Thanks. Good to be here.
Crystal: Before we jump into our conversation today, can you tell our audience a little bit about you and what you do for the United Methodist Church?
Luke: Sure. I am the Associate Director for church development in the Western North Carolina Conference, and my primary role is focused on cultivating Fresh Expressions. And then I also have been asked to lead innovation within the conference. So that leads me to all kinds of interesting new ministries that are emerging, new and creative ways of, , reaching out to our neighbors, um, as, , United Methodist congregations in Western North Carolina. Previously, before this, three years ago, I was leading King Street Church, which was a network of fresh expressions anchored at Boone United Methodist Church. , we had a gathering at the Boone Saloon, one at the county jail, one at the Oklahoma Shelter, and another one at a coffee shop. Um, and these were gatherings that were focused on building community with folks who weren't already connected to church and seeking to be church with them in, in new and creative ways. And I've also been a part of fresh expressions at a national level, helping with fresh expressions us and also with a new initiative, Fresh Expressions U.N., which is emerging out of Path One.
Crystal: For our listeners who aren't exactly sure what Fresh Expressions are, can you just give us the elevator pitch for that?
Luke: Sure. Yeah. A Fresh Expression is a new form of church for those that aren't already connected to church. It emerged out of the UK and the Anglican and Methodist Church there, where they were seeing these churches emerge in cafes and parks and among mom groups and around crafts and all these different ways of being church. And so out of that, the movement has emerged and it's gained traction in The United Methodist Church, really kind of starting with the Florida Conference around 2012. And it is, yeah, growing rapidly. There's all kinds of new forms of church that are anchored into existing churches, connecting with people that wouldn't have come into our church on Sunday mornings and building new spiritual communities in new ways.
Crystal: It's exciting to see where those communities and those Fresh Expressions are popping up. So thank you for sharing about that. Today we're going to talk about something new within something old, perhaps. We’re going to talk about spiritual listening. And I'll tell you, I think it's a bit ironic that I'm so eager to talk so much about why I should be listening more <laugh>, so I definitely see the irony there. Just so that we're on the same page, can you give us a definition of spiritual listening?
Luke: Yeah. So for me, spiritual listening is listening to God and listening to our neighbors. And so it's this idea of rooting ministry, rooting our lives in a posture of listening, a posture of curiosity, a posture of receptivity.
Crystal: I love that word, curiosity that invites questioning. And then the reciprocal of that, of course, is to listen to those answers. So you mentioned there's two parts to the spiritual listening. It's the listening to God and the listening to one another. So can we go a little deeper into each of those so that, that first part, listening to God. What is that going to look like? What does, what kind of practices should we employ to listen better to God?
Luke: Yeah, so I kind of look towards the mystics, those kind of voices of those who sought, you know, direct interaction with God. So I think listening to God, there's a lot of helpful practices out there, Christian forms of meditation. So just trying to find moments of silence with God that I think are really helpful. There's one practice that I like, it’s from the Psalm: Bbe still and know that I'm God. And, and using that as a quiet meditation. And you drop a word off from each of that, from that phrase.
So it starts with “be still and know that I'm God” and, and you give some moments of silence. And then “be still and know that I am” and a few more moments of silence. “Be still and know” a few more moments of silence. “Be still,” and then keep going. And then “be.” And then that kind of roots you in some silent time with God to listen. Yeah, I think there's all kinds of other practices around that. I think Lectio Divina is a way of approaching scripture that incorporates listening to God. But yeah, I think just this idea of approaching prayer, not as going to God to ask for things, but going to God to just be still be present. We see that in the Martha and Mary story and in other places in scripture of that still silence being a place where we can encounter God in deeper ways.
Crystal: And you know, we do see there are places in the Bible that talk about listening. Can you share a few of those with us?
Luke: Yeah. So yeah, I mentioned Martha and Mary and that story. I think that's a relevant one for the church today where I think we're in a point of transition from being heavily programmatic and busy to needing to be a place of stillness and of Sabbath. So I think the Martha and Mary story is one of significance. One that I like that I'm exploring, and it's a little bit of a non-traditional one, is Mark 7, where Jesus heals the man who is experiencing deafness. And he has a speech impediment. And Jesus takes him aside. And it's kind of one of those wild healings where there's some funny stuff happening. He touches the man's ears and then he spits on his fingers and touches the man's tongue. And so, and in that, he then says, be opened, and opens the man's ears, and through opening his ears, the man's speech is restored.
And, so I've found some significance in that piece of scripture and have been digging into that one, just because I think it is a phrase that we need to hear from Jesus, right now as a church, as church leaders, as Christians to be opened. I think that too often we rush into fixing things. Too often we rush into trying to be a solution and we need to take more time to be opened that. Sometimes our rushing, leads us to doing things that aren't the right things. So that's another one. Maybe one more that I go to is the scripture of Jesus feeding the 5,000, scriptures where he says, how much do we have? And, and go count the loaves that we already have. And so this idea of kind of making a count of what is already existing and kind of building off of that, I think that's a part of that approach of listening is just understanding what our community already has.
Crystal: And Proverbs 18:13 is just much more direct. It says, “To answer before listening, that is folly and shame.” Yep. <laugh>. So as we move to this second part, listening to one another, I was going to ask you what that looks like, but maybe the better question is, what does that sound like when we're listening to one another, when we're listening to our neighbors, listening to our community?
Luke: Yeah. I think it goes back to that word “curiosity” that I mentioned earlier. So I think listening to our neighbors, it should be rooted in curiosity and in love. This is not some tool to kind of trick people into coming to our churches. Like if I just listen to, I'll get that right thing that I can hook people in. But instead, it's a mindset of looking at our neighbors as made in the image of God as creative, interesting, brilliant, gifted people that have something to teach us, that have something that can make us a better follower of Jesus. And so when we kind of look at our neighbors with that curiosity, then we're open to hearing about who they are, hearing about what they know about life, what they know about God, what they know about our community and can have this openness to what they know and can learn from them, can start to compile what we hear and that can influence our ministry as a local church in that place.
Crystal: How did Jesus model listening in that way?
Luke: I think he models it just constantly. But one of the ways that he does that is he asks clear, open-ended questions. What can I do for you? Questions like that where even if it might feel obvious. You know, a blind man comes to Jesus. There's a pretty good guess what he wants Jesus to do, and Jesus has been healing other people, right? But still Jesus says, what can I do for you? And, and so that just being open to new possibilities, I think is, is one way that Jesus models that another way. And this was something that emerged out of a conversation at King Street Church one evening. It was Holy Week or perhaps the week before, and we were looking at Jesus in the garden. And what he wanted from his friends was for them to keep watch as he was entering into this period of turmoil.
He was, you know, I think afraid. He was anxious about the week that was coming, the things that were coming to him. And he doesn't ask for his friends to fix what's happening, but he asked for them to keep watch, to just be there, to be aware, to be present. And for those that know the story, they don't do that. They fall asleep, right? But just to see what Jesus is looking for, I think, is something that teaches us what being a good neighbor, being a good friend looks like. It's that keeping watch with our friends in times of need.
Crystal: Luke, I mean, when you just said that, I just kind of gasped because I'm a fixer by nature. I hear a problem, I want to go fix it. But I am becoming and learning that that isn't always my job. And I really do need to listen first and maybe only listen. How can I cultivate this spiritual listening as a discipline, as a spiritual discipline? How can I become a better listener as part of my faith journey?
Luke: Yeah. So yeah, I think it's something you have to intentionally set out on. It is antithetical and countercultural <laugh>. There's a great book called “The Listening Life” by Adam McHugh. That's one that's been helpful in my journey. And you know, in that book, he talks about how it is antithetical to our culture to focus on listening. That the rewards for our culture come from saying the right thing, come from being the one that wins the argument, all these things. And so it really takes an in intentional effort to be a good listener. And yet you see that there's such a thirst for listening in our society. He mentions in that book, you know, we pay people to listen because there's such a lack of it happening naturally in life, <laugh> with therapy and all that kind of stuff.
So I think for me, it’s a practice that I have to keep working on that I have stumbled with, that I've had to just recognize that I'm not always going to be perfect at it and yet try to get better. You know, I think marriage is a place where I've had to practice it <laugh> the most. And then in friendship, and then also in my work, that there's just constant opportunities to practice listening. And so I think some of the things to get better at it is to, to try to keep your focus on the other person when you're having a conversation, particularly in a conversation that you feel like listening is your role. In that, ask open-ended questions, questions that foster a, a wider response. So not a yes or no kind of question, but a maybe a question that starts with the word “what.”
So what are you passionate about? What are your interests? What are your dreams for your life? Questions like that, that open up a conversation that help you be a good podcast host <laugh> as well, or a journalist <laugh>. So that, yeah, those kind of questions. And then for me to then, once I ask one of those questions to try to dig deeper to not turn the conversation towards myself, which is another natural inclination when someone shares a story that you can resonate with. You say, oh, yeah, that happened exactly to me. Let me tell you about when it happened to me. You know, like, all these things that take practice and can really help when you have someone that can point out ways you can ask your friends, Hey, was I a good listener there? Or what would you have appreciated to hear from me? Things like that.
Crystal: Yeah. You know, as you're saying that, I'm thinking when I'm in those conversations, especially with groups, I'm always teeing up my next story, you know? I'm just like, oh, I have something here. I can tell about the time that this happened, which is not listening.
Luke: Yeah. No, yeah. I'm guilty of that as well, that you're kind of waiting for your opportunity to jump in as opposed to really ingesting what the other's saying. Yeah.
Crystal: Before we continue our conversation, let’s talk about higher education.
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To learn more and apply today, visit www.umhef.org/scholarships. Applications close March 1. Now, let’s get back to our conversation with Luke Edwards.
Crystal: Luke, you have a site called TheListeningChurch.com. We'll link to that on our episode page where you give resources for church leaders, but also church members about listening and as a way to infuse that listening model into our churches. And one of the books that you recommend there is called, ,” You’re Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters” by Kate Murphy, who's a New York Times reporter. I read through the book, but the forward, the dedication of the book says it's for anyone who has misunderstood or felt misunderstood. And that line, which I think includes all of us, really made me realize that there are few feelings for me that feel worse than feeling misunderstood. And this happens, you know, at work and friendships and relationships, you know, in and at church. So how is listening an antidote to the feeling of being misunderstood?
Luke: Yeah. There Is the famous quote that says, “To be listened to is the closest feeling to being loved.” Yeah. So I think to be understood is for someone to, to listen to you and to dig for the right information that can then see what the person is saying. Not only the words that they're saying, but the feeling and the meaning beneath the words that are being said. So I think, listening, good listening is, like I said earlier, not listening to kind of try to fix something or listening to be able to trick someone into doing what you want them to. But it's listening to understand. And so it's ingesting what the other person is saying and being impacted by what they're saying. So, yeah, I guess listening can be the antidote to misunderstanding and that it takes its time and it digs for that deeper meaning.
Crystal: You know, also I feel like listening needs to happen face to face, or at least voice to voice because of all the other pieces of that that aren't just the words. Right. You know, the body language and the inflection. And we are in a culture that we have a lot of ways to communicate that do not involve face-to-face or even spoken words to spoken words. I mean, I very seldom pick up the phone to actually make a phone call. I pick up the phone to send a text or an email. So again, it's this, it's very countercultural to this whole idea of listening better.
Luke: Yeah. I would add too, that it takes time. So that's another thing that we don't have much of to give. And so, yeah. To understand someone probably isn't going to happen in a 40 word text message, it’s going to happen in an hour over coffee, or two hours over dinner or, yeah, I agree.
Crystal: What's in it for us? What's the payoff if we become good listeners?
Luke: You know, I think part of where I've found some real value for listening in the church is that we are at a point where we have to change. We have to innovate. We are seeing rapid decline. And so listening, being a church that listens will help us to know how to make the right kind of changes. And so I think, you know, in my work, I talk to a lot of churches, a lot of church leaders who at one point were well connected to their immediate neighbors who were a part of the, the community in deep ways, had deep connections and now find themselves in a, the same building, but a different community. The community has changed around them, or that the congregation has changed. And the community has changed in different ways. So you have people commuting in for worship and then there's no connections between me and neighbors. So there's just, there's a real need for saying, okay, we need to start from the beginning and listen to our immediate neighborhood. We need to reconnect, we need to understand who our neighbors are. Because there's a lot of misunderstanding about our communities, about what our neighbors are looking for and wanting. And some of our churches are really at a point when they need to listen or, or they're going to kind of lose connection, perhaps for good.
Crystal: Do you have some stories of churches that have listened well?
Luke: Yeah, definitely. So one that comes to my mind is a church in Gastonia, North Carolina, and they came to one of our trainings for Dinner Church. And so they wanted to start a dinner church. And dinner church is just a worship service with a meal kind of put together. And they started a dinner church and didn't have a whole lot of people coming. And so they decided to do a community prayer walk, kind of a listening prayer walk. And as they did that, they were doing it during business hours, or I think they did it maybe after hours. And they discovered that their most immediate neighbors were businesses that they didn't have a lot of neighborhoods right near their community. And so they began to think, well, if these are businesses that are open nine to five, and we're having our dinner church at six, then maybe we're doing it at the wrong time.
And so they started doing it during lunch and immediately had a different group of people show up, folks that were working close by popping in for that dinner church. So that's one example.
You visited a church that started a Fresh Expression that started with listening. Pastor Juan Julio in Charlotte, North Carolina, was asked to start a community ministry with the Hispanic community close to the church. So he knocked on, I think it was 80 doors over the course of several weeks, and just talked to the folks that opened the door and asked them about their lives, asked them what a ministry might look like, what they would want to be a part of, and discovered that there's a need for a soccer ministry. And so out of those initial conversations, soccer ministry and Fresh Expression of church was born out of that.
In my own ministry, I have had to kind of reshape how I listened. As far as listening as a church goes, my first stab at it was a needs assessment, which was helpful in identifying needs, but there was so much more in our community that our church could offer. So my second stab of listening as a church leader was more a kind of conversation of what if you were to start a faith community here, what would that look like? And that listening process was very different than the first one discovered, we discovered very different things. And that's how King Street Church was born, out of that second one.
Crystal: What a great question. It's just so exciting to hear that the churches that are asking, listening, there's a vibrancy that's coming out of that, and it's really making an impact in the communities where they're located. You know, I saw the soccer ministry in action and it was just full of life and so exciting and it was a really special ministry for sure.
Well, one of the questions, Luke, that we ask all of our guests who are on “Get Your Spirit in Shape” is how do you keep your own spirit in shape?
Luke: For me, close friendships, spiritual friendships are probably one of the biggest ways that I keep my spirit in shape. So I have two best friends that I talk to often, and, and we ask each other, you know, “how is it with your soul” on a regular basis? And that practice of asking that and being asked that I think is probably the top of my list. Of course, time in scripture, time in prayer, time in listening to God and listening to others. Yeah. There are a few ways.
Crystal: Luke, thank you so much for being a guest here and for all the work that you're doing in the Western North Carolina Conference and on behalf of the entire United Methodist Church. It's just been a real honor to have you here with us today.
Luke: Thanks so much for having me.
That was the Rev. Luke Edwards discussing how listening can be a powerful spiritual discipline. To learn more about Luke and his work in the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode, where you will find helpful links and a transcript of our conversation. If you have questions or comments, feel free to email me at a special email address just for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” listeners, [email protected].
If you enjoyed today’s episode, we invite you to leave a review on the podcast platform where you listen. I’m Crystal Caviness and I look forward to the next time that we are together.