Every person has a need to be heard. This need is significantly increased if a person has been deeply hurt. At any given encounter with an individual, he or she has a unique life story to tell that has forged his or her thought and belief. It is important to listen before speaking, especially when interacting with someone hurt through negative experiences by the Church and her members.
A recent study conducted by the Barna Group notes that people want to be listened to without judgement, but at the same time, find that only 34% of the Christians they know are able to do so. People want others to show interest in their own life stories, but find that only 17% of the Christians they know are able to do so. As members of a Church that seeks to bring others to Christ by first recognizing the dignity of each individual, these statistics are appalling. As society becomes profoundly more secular, either totally unfamiliar with basic message of the Gospel or after having rejected it completely, it becomes more fruitful to start by listening when evangelizing.
The author of Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry Weddell, and her associate at the Catherine of Siena Institute, Katherine Coolidge, not only identify the need to listen to others, but provide a concrete manner to do so. To listen to another person does not mean one agrees with what the person says, but it creates trust. What is needed is a respectful conversation that invites the other to discuss his or her life experiences with God, positive and negative, and invites him or her to take a step closer to Jesus. I heard Katherine Coolidge speak a few years ago, and she gave examples of conversations with nominal Catholics who were asked to describe their relationship with God. Some shared difficulties or past sins that they believed kept them away from God. The simple inviting conversation opened them up to new possibilities. When nobody asks, and nobody listens, it appears as if the Church does not care. If the Church does not care, then why will people bother to approach it? Listening attentively may break down barriers, and allow the other to see his or her life in a new light.
Sherry and Katherine believe that asking “if you could ask God one question that you knew he would answer right away, what would it be?” A person who has been hurt, is angry, or for some reason is distant from God, by answering this question, will likely reveal where the greatest healing is needed. The answer will identify what they are seeking and express the deepest desires of their hearts. All the apologetics, catechesis or Bible thumping will be unfruitful if the individual is not heard first. I recently read the study “Going, Going, Gone” published by Saint Marys Press in 2017 where a substantial number of young adults who were raised Catholic but no longer identify as such were interviewed. Many of them expressed gratitude that the Church cared enough to ask them why they left – until that point they felt nobody even cared they had left. The study was an exercise of listening.
Listening is necessary not because the Church needs to change or mold her teachings based on the answers given, but because the Church needs to listen in order to share her greatest treasure, Jesus Christ, in a manner that is relevant and compelling to the contemporary world. The Church is called to make disciples of all throughout the world, we begin by listening.