I have to work really hard to listen; It isn’t something that comes to me naturally and I’m often exhausted after listening intently. Listening is a skill I’ve had to learn over the years of ministry as a youth minister and as a senior pastor.
Most of us tend to speak in order to prove that we are right. I don’t know about you, but I like being right and if I’m being honest, I often believe it proves my value and validates my self-worth deep down. Yet, in reality, having to be right proves my insecurity and validates my selfishness. I often speak too quickly to be understood instead of being quick to listen so that I can understand.
In Adam Grant’s book Think Again, he writes about “rethinking”— why it’s important and how it can help to learn more about ourselves and others. Grant blames our unwillingness to rethink our beliefs on our “inner dictator.” When we feel that our character or intelligence is challenged, our “totalitarian ego steps in like a bodyguard for our minds, protecting our self-image by feeding us comforting lies.” As is often found in politics today, our opinions can be shielded when we only seek information that supports our convictions. Then our beliefs are sealed in echo chambers, where we hear only from people who intensify and validate them. Finally, that cycle is experienced over and over until we are spinning in our convictions rather than holding our opinions loosely and being willing to change our minds when we discover new information.
In our churches, listening well to young people may mean we need to do some rethinking first. Many churchgoing adults have fallen into the trap of believing what the media and our culture have espoused about Millennials and Gen Z. Every time I’ve asked a group of adults to describe the younger generations, they’ve used words like “lazy,” “entitled,” “self-centered,” “impatient,” and “stuck on their phones.” Very few mention how they are creative, courageous, and resourceful.
Trying empathy instead
If we’re going to bridge the divide between the generations in the church, adults need to start building empathy. Empathy is feeling with young people. In Growing Young, we describe empathy as “sitting on a curb of a young person’s life, celebrating their dreams and grieving over their despair.” This journey toward empathy is often filled with ups and downs because the issues that today’s young people have to navigate are intense, but it is necessary if we want to build better relationships. At FYI, our research has shown that churches engaging and retaining young people make empathy a priority.
So what does it take to begin building empathy? Listening is a good place to start.
We listen for what makes the hearts of our young people sing.
We listen for the pain and suffering they experience.
We listen without judgment. We listen with care.
1. Listening well starts with showing more interest in the young person’s interest.
For most adults, listening to young people might seem like learning a new language. In some sense, it is. Some of the words teenagers use, topics they talk about, music they refer to and interests they have can seem like a whole new world. However, if our desire is to develop a deep relationship with young people, we must set aside our own interest and pursue the things that interest them.
Saint Thomas Aquinas famously proposed, “To love is to will the good of the other.” If we are going to show love to young people in our lives, we show them that we desire the very best for them by taking a keen interest in them as a person.
2. Listening well requires asking curious questions.
In the Quaker tradition, anyone can request a “clearness committee.” A clearness committee is a group of people appointed to help a member find clarity around a leading. The committee’s job is to help the focus person discover whether there is clarity to move forward with a matter, to wait, or to take a different action. They gather together to worship, listen deeply to the questions and concerns brought by the individual, question the individual in a careful, gentle, and open-ended manner, and reflect back what has been heard.
The practice of listening requires us to ask curious questions. Questions should be careful, gentle, and open-ended. They should communicate a true desire to learn more about the young person and their hopes for the future. We should ask questions with the posture of humility and love.
3. Listening well requires withholding judgment.
Young people are not projects. Our goal isn’t to fix them. Our goal isn’t to save them. It isn’t to even advise them or set them straight. It isn’t to lecture. Our goal is to simply show them how much we care for them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Christians are meant to be known by how deeply we love, not how deeply we judge. Christians can certainly stand for Jesus’ truth. Yet, the truth must be fused with grace. This balance of truth and grace is a difficult tightrope to walk, but Jesus’ standard is clear. We must work to display grace and truth—and if I have to err on one side or the other, I choose to err on the side of grace.
Judgment rarely leads to life change, but love changes our lives daily.
We can listen with love.
Listening well builds trust and starts a dialogue. It expresses respect and care. I think we all need that, especially our young people. So let’s rethink how we interact with the young people entrusted to our care and how we can listen well to their joys and their pains. As we do, we know Jesus will be in our midst.
Tweet this: Judgment rarely leads to life change, but love changes our lives daily. Find out how your church can start growing young by learning to listen well.
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 Adam M. Grant, “Think Again: the Power of Knowing What You Don't Know,” in Think Again: the Power of Knowing What You Don't Know (New York, New York: Viking, 2021), p.59.
 Kara Eckmann Powell, Brad Griffin and Jake Mulder, Growing Young: Six Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, A Division Of Baker Publishing Group, 2016), p. 91-92.
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