Listen Up!

A plot of farmland is its own little universe. Driving past one corn field after another on some vast stretch of Midwestern highway, you may not recognize this fact. But each field boasts an identity as complex as it is unique. Its location, its contours, its soil quality, its surrounding environment, its climate, its ability to retain moisture, its usage, its owners—they all come together to tell a distinctive story shaped over the centuries and the seasons.

At 65 miles per hour, you neither know nor care about the stories buried beneath the rows of corn blurring past you. But you can bet that someone does. And that someone is the person who farms it. To be successful at his craft, the farmer must study the ground he is working. His field is anything but anonymous. As a caretaker of the earth, his vocation depends on intimate familiarity with the land he has been entrusted with.

This theme is one of the central ones explored by the great farmer-poet-environmentalist Wendell Berry in his essay, “An Argument for Diversity.” Taking up a discussion about the environmental challenges facing American farmland, Berry winsomely argues that solutions must be generated locally by those who know the land better than anyone:

The answers, if they are to come and if they are to work, must be developed in the presence of the user and the land; they must be developed to some degree by the user on the land. The present practice of handing down from on high policies and technologies developed without consideration of the nature and the needs of the land and the people has not worked, and it cannot work. Good agriculture and forestry cannot be “invented” by self-styled smart people in the offices and laboratories of a centralized economy and then sold at the highest possible profit to the supposedly dumb country people. That is not the way good land use comes about. (What Are People For?, pp. 114-115)

Berry believes that those who know the land best (i.e. those who farm it) will be most equipped to overcome its unique challenges. He believes the land should be “seen and known with an attentiveness that is schooled and skilled,” ultimately calling for “local knowledge and local love in individual people—people able to see, know, think, feel, and act coherently and well without the modern instinct of deference to the ‘outside expert’” (p. 117).

It’s a fantastic essay for many reasons—not the least of which is its quality of composition. But my interest in Berry’s essay isn’t agricultural as much as it is theological. Truth be told, I know next to nothing about farming, so I’d be foolish to weigh in one way or another. But “An Argument for Diversity” strikes me as being remarkably relevant to something I hope to be a bit more informed about: the mission of the church. What Berry has to say about local knowledge and local solutions needs to be heeded by God’s people.

It’s common these days to hear local church leaders talking about “reaching” or “blessing” or “serving” the community. This reflects a genuine desire among God’s people to be less insular and more involved in their surroundings—a noble thing for sure.

But when it comes to engaging the local community, it’s easy for our church-led efforts to be clumsy and ineffective. Hampered by an unacknowledged posture of naive detachment, well-meaning church members tend to parachute into a neighborhood (often a neighborhood in which few of us live) and roll out a line of ready-made programs and initiatives to bless its residents. We enter as an outside force, assured of our own solutions and confident of our ability to produce meaningful transformation. If we’re being honest, we see ourselves as the ecclesiastical incarnation of the Mighty Mouse theme song: “Here we come to save the day!”

The problem, however, is that our zeal frequently remains disconnected from a robust local knowledge of the community we desire to reach. Its intricate rhythms, its complex history, its respected leaders, its collective fears, its embedded assets—what do we know of these things? We may be hyped about our own ideas, hatched in the isolation of a church committee meeting. But in the end we aren’t all that different from Wendell Berry’s loathed “outside expert” who seeks to tell a seasoned farmer what to do with his own land.

For the mission-oriented church, the solution to this problem isn’t to draw back and leave our neighborhoods alone. Rather, the solution is to recalibrate our posture within the neighborhood. Where we might be tempted to impose our agenda and our strategy upon our neighbors, we must adopt an attitude of humility, letting their insight, experience, and passion inform our response. Before we diagnose, before we plan, before we launch, we must listen.

Robert Lupton draws our attention to this need for deference when he writes, “The best way to assure effectiveness is to spend enough time as a learner, ask enough questions, and seek wisdom from indigenous leaders to gain an accurate picture of both existing realities and future aspirations of the community” (Toxic Charity, p. 175). Lupton is speaking specifically about charitable work in under-served communities, but it applies to any missional endeavor a church would seek to undertake. To jump straight to our own contributions is both arrogant and ineffective. If we want to make a difference, it will start with listening.

Of course, there’s a way to listen that amounts to little more than a patronizing charade designed to generate feedback we already wanted to hear. We might call that listening down to our neighbors—treating them as our inferiors. But what we’re talking about here isn’t that at all. We’re talking about listening up to our neighbors. We’re talking about letting them occupy a position of authority. We’re talking about honoring them as the local experts and authorities they truly are.

Wendell Berry said that solutions “must be developed in the presence of the user and the land; they must be developed to some degree by the user on the land.” And he couldn’t have hit the nail more squarely on the head. In our neighborhoods and communities, we simply can’t afford to overlook the assets surrounding us. To be a church in the community for the community, we must know when to be led by the community.

Any church leader will tell you that this is a frightening proposal. It comes with an almost certain loss of control (and recognition). But as David Leong points out, vulnerability is the only way to be fully present with others:

As the church embraces its identity as a placed people, and not simply a building or a set of programs, listening locally becomes a fundamental practice of a parish whose posture is oriented toward the people in the neighborhood. Authentic listening requires the honesty before God and one another, and intentionally prioritizes patience and personal connection over judgment, defensiveness, and “problem solving.” The more local a parish becomes, the more listening becomes a natural byproduct of friendship and mutuality. Christians listen not for a particular result or outcome, but because in being fully present to one another by the Spirit, we see each other in the image of community for which we were created. (Race and Place, p. 119)

Yes, it can be scary to take a seat in the back and give someone else the microphone. But in letting our neighbors lead us, we create space for the Spirit to lead us. And when the Spirit leads us, we can be confident that we’re on the road toward renewal, flourishing, and the transformation of the communities we’re called to serve.

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