It is a profound thing to be heard – really heard – to tell your story to someone who listens deeply, without judgment. Deep listening is transformative. It causes a shift for people, from one state of being to another. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a way of getting people to talk and listen in a way that encourages deep listening, and, by default, transformation. Preaching is often a one-way street, with one party speaking, the others listening. Are we missing an opportunity for transformation by not maximizing the hour during the week when we have the most people in the church? Could it be that we are not seeing transformation in our churches because our preaching is not optimizing the potential for transformation?
What if we are not seeing transformation in our churches because we are omitting an important piece, deep listening, from our gathering time? What if we viewed Sunday morning worship as a time to deeply listen to people in the seats, and to help them listen deeply to each other? If we believe in an incarnational theology, then this might fit nicely with “being Christ for one another.”
Church gurus are telling us that we need to change up the delivery mode of the Word. “The sermon, as we know it, fails to deliver,” says Thom Shultz in a 2014 Holy Soup article. The lecture style of delivering content is an outdated mode of communication according to the church leadership consultant. Shultz acknowledges,
People still crave–and need–spiritual nourishment, wisdom from the scriptures, and help applying God’s truths to their everyday lives. But how that’s being delivered on Sunday no longer works like it may have in the past.Thom Shultz
Shultz claims that postmodern people are looking for ownership, buy in, to be part of the conversation. They “desire safe communities where conversation happens.” Ownership. Buy in. Those sound like community building terms to me. Terms used in an organization-wide change effort. “They go to experience God.” We can enhance people’s experience of God by getting them to engage with the sermon.
Preaching as Appreciative Inquiry
Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a model for creating high quality conversation wherein peak experiences are spoken and heard. AI, by design attends to the stories of people. It asks people to talk about their peak moments and experiences to each other. The listener is not allowed to interrupt the speaker. AI results in increased energy, momentum, and quality of conversation in the room. Every time. Because the design is topic specific, participants’ discussions remain focused on their peak experience but within the topic of the day. The preacher is still in control of the content because she or he has carefully constructed very specific questions to engage the congregation.
Carpe Dominicis! Seize Sunday! You have a captive group! What if a pastor could create the conditions for transformation to occur through preaching? What would it look like to build deep listening into the sermon time? If we know how to create optimal conditions for transformation to occur, perhaps we could actually have a shot at nudging our church culture toward transformation too.
The Case for Deep Listening
Listening deeply results in transformation characterized by “making new choices, a shift to a more generative, life giving state, and enhanced trust in the (listener),” says Organization Development practitioner Marco Cassone. Cassone studied the types of listening enacted by coaches and consultants, the outcomes of which were powerful, and I believe, have implications for how we do church.
Cassone noted five types of listening in use by coaches and consultants, three primary types (active, empathetic, expansive) and two secondary types (critical, reductive). It’s the type of listening we learned in our pastoral counseling classes, with the addition of listening that ‘hones in and challenges’ to let the other know they’ve really been heard. When used together in a repeating process of inquiry with an individual or organization, Cassone concluded these outcomes: Listening that is intentionally active, empathetic, and expansive (“tell me more”) transforms perspective. Critical and reductive listening (“so what do you want to do about it”) produces transformed behavior. With one type of listening you get insight, which is great. But if true transformation is to occur, insight must be personal and executed in action.
So, if pastors can take what they do every week (preach), work some deep listening activity into the sermon (Appreciative Inquiry), give a challenge at the close of preaching (the invitation to translate the insight gleaned from the preaching experience into daily life), then pastors have created conditions for transformation to take place. In simpler terms, deep listening, coupled with careful, topic-focused inquiry, leads to transformation of perspective and behavior. Sign me up for that train, baby! Set the topic, formulate powerful positive questions, and set people free to listen to each other. Right smack in the middle of the sermon.
If we want people to attend our churches, perhaps we need to begin to demonstrate that we value what they bring to the church, not just in spiritual gifts class, or when we put them to service, but on Sunday mornings too. Let them know we value their stories. Put action to “meeting people where they are.” What could happen if people were given the opportunity to tell their stories about their own journeys in a safe space? What if next we further demonstrate our value of them by helping them fit their stories into the larger narrative of God’s desire to journey with them? “If we desire that people own and exercise their faith, they need to participate,” says Shultz.