We are facing a listening crisis that is due, in part, to the cultural liturgies that form us. We watch new stories filled with sound bites. We hear political debates in which opponents talk past each other. We use social media platforms geared toward what is terse and flashy. We are attached to screens that divide our attention. The cumulative effect of these practices is a growing inability to listen to others in a careful, sustained way. Yet the crisis of listening is also due to our fallen nature. We are born into this world “turned in” on ourselves, inclined toward self-regard. Listening, at its core, is an act of generosity. It is a move outward in regard for the other.
The listening crisis is felt in the church. In worship, we fear boredom and, thus, sacrifice silence. In outreach, we assume we know what the community needs instead of asking. In theology, we lack the discipline to read texts closely or consider arguments carefully. In conflict, we avoid face-to-face conversations that facilitate understanding. In counsel, we are eager to impart easy answers and quick fixes. Our life together, in many ways, is marked more by noise than listening.
In 1938, Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed the crisis of listening that occurs in Christian community in his book Life Together. Bonhoeffer’s book was written as a guide for the seminary fellowship of the Confessing Church, a church that stood apart from the state church of Nazi Germany. Strikingly, Bonhoeffer says that the “first service” Christians ought to offer one another in community is listening. Yet he laments that this service is lacking in the church. “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.”
Those who do not listen to God struggle to listen to others.
Bonhoeffer goes on to describe how pastors, in particular, feel the constant need to speak and thus neglect listening. More, he observes that the listening that does happen in community is often times surface-level. It is an “impatient, inattentive listening” in which one is not fully open to what another person is saying. We can all attest to this. Although we convey outwardly that we are listening, we can be internally distracted or so focused on our response that we are not truly receptive to the word of another. Bonhoeffer also sees the lack of listening in Christian community as a symptom of a deeper disease—namely, a failure to listen to God. He observes that “our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.” Therefore, those who do not listen to God struggle to listen to others.
For Bonhoeffer, “listening to God” refers to a specific discipline—that of silence. Bonhoeffer defines silence as “the simple stillness of the individual under the Word of God.” Drawing on the contemplative tradition in Christianity, Bonhoeffer sees the discipline of silence as Scripture-centered. It is a quiet, patient meditation on the words and phrases of Scripture, in which one’s goal is to hear the Word of God personally. Silence before God, in contrast to talking to God, is the proper disposition for hearing the Word of God. The breakdown of listening in community, then, is the result of the inability to be silent before God.
In positive terms, the discipline of silence forms us into people who love one another through listening. In Christian community, one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other is listening. We have all been in the presence of someone who truly listens. Their undivided attention and selfless regard make us feel known and loved. It is a gift to be in the presence of such a person.
In Christian community, one of the greatest gifts we can offer each other is listening.
We can only offer each other the gift of listening presence, however, if we create spaces—in both our personal and common lives—where we can be silent before God. No doubt, silence will not come easy in a culture of frantic activity and loud messaging. But silence is vital for deepening our life in God and with each other. Additionally, a community that can be silent before God and, by consequence, truly listen to one another is vital for our Christian witness. Our listening can become a testament to the Holy Spirit’s ability to transform us into people who are turned outward toward one another in love.