The Listening Phase

Developing a mission statement grows organically from having a clear sense of calling. In order to hear God’s call on our lives and churches, we need to (shudder!) listen.

Unfortunately, listening is one of our least favorite activities. At least, there are not many of us who are truly good at it. It requires some pretty rare qualities: patience, humility, perceptiveness, empathy, openness (to name a few).

Listening is an undervalued virtue—especially among church leaders. Leaders talk. Leaders persuade. Leaders teach. But, too rarely, do leaders listen. Yet listening is one of the key qualities of successful church leadership: listening to the times, listening to the church, listening (especially) to God.

The process of building a mission statement, of coming to firm convictions about where God wants a church to focus, requires leaders who are willing to listen and listen hard. In fact, the mission statement process begins with listening. Listening is not just a polite activity we endure before getting the church to adopt a mission we’ve already decided on. It is the first and most basic step in reaching a sense of mission we can confidently embrace as coming from God.

The diagram to the right outlines a process for listening to God and seeking his will for a church’s mission. The yellow ovals indicate how we listen to God directly—through prayer and a study of his word. As we seek God through prayer, the Holy Spirit is able to teach us what we need to know (Jn 14:26), enlighten us about God’s will (Ro 2; Col 1:9), and reveal God’s plans and purposes for our congregation. If we don’t believe that, through prayer, we can touch God and hear his voice and know his will, then why pray? As we seek God through the study of Scripture, we can learn the eternal purposes for which God built his church and see how he commissioned other people and churches in other times and places. (I suggest you reread the series of articles under “A Theology of Mission Statements.”)

The pink ovals indicate how we listen to God by paying careful attention to what he has been and is doing in a particular church.

  1. People. Who has God brought together to form this congregation of his people? What are their interests, skills, experiences, and passions? These people and their assorted attributes are not an accidental collection. “God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be” (1Co 12:18). In his divine arrangement of the body, God has already given you hints about the mission he has in mind for your church by the group of people he has drawn to your congregation.
  2. Gifts. What are the spiritual gifts of your people? Although God will give a variety of groups to every congregation, every church has its dominant and defining gift-set. Perhaps your church is most heavily gifted in the area of evangelism … or worship … or maturation … or generosity. Here again, God gives hints about your mission by the gifts he has given your church.
  3. Resources. A church represents a collection of resources that, to some degree, equip it for effective ministry. What kind of time do members of your church have to give a particular focus? (Important for determining the potential for involvement and participation.) What kind of money can be devoted to your mission? (You can’t plan on starting fifteen mission points if you can barely make the mortgage payment.) Where can your church and its members bring influence to bear? (If the Superintendant of Schools in your community attends your church, and if half your members teach in the school system, God might be whispering something about your mission.) Do you have any clusters of skills (teachers or technology gurus, for instance) that might serve as a resource for (and a hint about) church ministry?
  4. History. Where has your congregation done effective ministry in the past? Have they done foreign missions well? Benevolence? Children’s ministry? Seniors’ ministry? Building on a historical base of effective ministry is one way to hear God’s consistent call.

Finally, the blue ovals indicate how we listen to God by discerning what’s happening in the community around us. Has a significant immigrant population grown up around our building? What kinds of poverty does our surrounding community experience. [All populations experience poverty, by the way: financial poverty, marital poverty, time poverty, existential poverty. It always amazes me that churches tend to ignore the hurts of the community they live among and know best and, instead, try to minister to other communities they don’t understand and can’t identify with! Healing hurting marriages is as valid a ministry as filling empty stomachs.] Where are the attentions of the community around you focused? Gangs and crime? Economic concerns? Political corruption? (Sometimes a mission grows out of the obsessive concerns of the community among whom the church lives.)

The Listening Phase is about gathering data, collecting information, learning as much as possible about God’s call and the church you belong to. Interview long-term members. Ask new-comers what they think your church’s strengths and weaknesses are. Do a survey. Meet with elders, deacons, and ministry leaders to pick their brains. Set up focus groups. Read past bulletins. Do a brief paper on the history of your church. All of these means (and more!) allow you to listen to your church and hear God’s will about your mission.

[Read the first article in this series.]

[Read the next article in this series.]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.