In a world full of solutions, opinions, and advice, listening is one of the most important gifts we can offer one another. It is an act of healing and vision. For people of faith and their communities, the gift of listening both to one another and God offers a path to spiritual renewal and grants congregations a vision of their identity. In a time when congregations are experiencing a steep decline in membership and facing significant uncertainty, learning to listen deeply to one another and seeking through listening to discern God’s path for a faith community’s future just might be one of the most important acts a church can engage in.
Rev. Chad Abbott and I minister in a denomination (UCC) that believes “God is still speaking.” The phrase expresses the reality that God is much more mysterious and far-reaching than we can understand. While the Bible continues to serve as the primary source of revelation for Christians, God is still being revealed to us in this world, in a culture the ancient world could not have imagined.
Sadly, it is evident to us as leaders in the Mainline American church that many Christians do not know how to listen for God, despite their deep longing to connect with a God who still speaks. Just as individual Christians struggle to listen for God, faith communities labor to listen for God together. Many are not able to slow down and approach church life in a reflective, contemplative manner.
Chad and I have written “Incline Your Ear: Cultivating Spiritual Awakening in Congregations” (Fortress Press, 2021) to encourage spiritual growth and vitality in faith communities in this listening pursuit. Throughout our book we share spiritual practices designed to help your congregation “incline its ear” toward God. Notice we used the singular “ear.” We believe congregations need to understand themselves as unified — one body, rather than a collection of individuals. As we are both spiritual directors, we explain the principles and practices of contemporary spiritual direction so that congregations can understand and use them. We even outline a “Congregational Spiritual Road Map” at the end of each chapter with step-by-step instructions for leading spiritual practices in awareness of God, reflection on the congregation’s life together, discernment, and creating an action plan to move forward on what is discerned.
We believe this work is so important. The world outside church doors will not wait around for clergy to figure out how to connect contemplative life at home with congregational life at church, so naturally the spiritually curious turn to yoga studios, meditation mats, healing stones, and spirituality apps — and who can blame them? Yet, the church has a deep and abiding tradition of spiritual practices that can help spiritual pilgrims in our time get to the heart of their yearning. In particular, the work of spiritual direction has the potential to not only enhance spiritual vitality in the church, but to push us toward congregational vitality that helps churches more fully live out their mission in the world in a time when a vibrant church is desperately needed.
With each important decision we make, with every relationship we build, with every church mission statement or ministry we design, and in matters of vocation and prophetic witness, the skills of discernment and listening in the spiritual life will make for vital congregations. While we face declining membership and generational shifts in loyalty to the church, it is clear to us that it is both a challenging, and exciting time to be the church. We have the opportunity to imagine a new future as we listen for God’s leading. All the spiritual resources we need to become that newly-imagined and future church is already within and around us if we will but incline our ear to the work of the Spirit.
Rev. Teresa Blythe is the director of the Phoenix Center for Spiritual Direction at First UCC Phoenix. Rev. Chad Abbott is Conference Minister for the Indiana-Kentucky Conference of the UCC. To purchase Incline Your Ear: Cultivating Spiritual Awakening in Congregations visit our Augsburg Fortress Press page or Amazon.