Congregations are called to be in relationship with their neighbors. It’s how God works and it’s how the body of Christ reflects the image of God in which we are created.
This is the second part of a six-part series helping congregations begin relationships by listening. The first part was introductory, and laid some theological groundwork for listening. Now we begin the first of five ways we can listen, necessary before we deepen significant relationships. We start by taking a walk.
Not all listening is done with your ears. You can get some pretty good information about the needs, wants, desires, and priorities of your congregation’s neighborhood just by looking at it. Take a walk through your neighborhood together. You’ll probably have to do this on several evenings, breaking up the neighborhood into manageable regions. That’s fine; you’re not necessarily in a hurry. Another option would be to break up into separate teams of three or four people each. You can cover more territory, but you need to listen carefully to the other teams when you debrief. This is a good time to recruit a few others from your congregation to walk with you. Get their input and observations. And you also get better communication about your process and a broader buy-in to what you’re doing.
Although you don’t need to cover every square foot of the neighborhood, you really do need to spend time in different areas to get a feel for it. If some members of your team live in the neighborhood, they have to be quiet, or perhaps not even present, when you walk their vicinity. You want to get fresh and objective views, and someone on your team might bias the whole listening process through vocalizing their long-held perspectives.
As you walk, what do you notice about the buildings and properties that make up the homes, schools, businesses, pastures, open areas? Are they well-kept or shoddy? Old or new? Colorful or drab? What might that indicate? If there are taller buildings, be sure to look up at the architecture above. What is depicted or symbolized there? Are buildings built to honor or remember specific people? What is the mood that seems to be prevalent? Be sure to look at the sidewalks and streets. Are they broken and rough, or well taken care of? Are there fences? How tall are they? How well-kept are they? Can neighbors see each other through them or are they built for privacy? Make mental notes as you go, pointing things out to each other.
If you meet people on your walk, casually observe them, too. What age(s) are they? What color or nationality are they? Do they greet you or ignore you? Do you feel threatened or safe (be careful that you aren’t projecting your own pre-conceived notions here)? Pay attention to who you don’t see. Are there any children? Any teenagers? Any single people? Any gay couples? Any elderly? Any particular ethnic groups not in evidence? What and who you don’t see may be as helpful as what and who you do.
Gather back together and share your observations. Make sure someone writes this stuff down; it’ll be helpful later on. Talk together about themes that emerge. Is the whole neighborhood pretty homogenous or are there different areas with different atmospheres? What was surprising? What did you notice that everyone else noticed? What did you notice that was unique to you? Be careful you don’t rush to any conclusions here; keep to actual observations. You’re just starting to listen—let the process unfold on its own!