Anglican Perspectives

The Art of Double Listening

“[Jesus] taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said ‘Listen!’”
– Mark 4:2
“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry…”  – James 1:19

Dear friends in Christ,

In The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World (1992: IVP), the great Anglican statesman and theologian John Stott stressed: “We are called to the difficult and even painful task of ‘double listening’. That is, we are to listen carefully (although of course with differing degrees of respect) both to the ancient Word and to the modern world, in order to relate the one to the other with a combination of fidelity and sensitivity.” (p. 13) This was brought home to me on a recent flight, during which I had a wonderful and promising conversation with the man next to me.  My neighbor was a confident, articulate, self-identifying “agnostic-leaning-atheist” who engaged me on a variety of issues including politics, abortion, racism and social justice.  Early in the conversation, I made a conscious choice to genuinely listen and seek to understand not only what he believed but why.  I resisted the impulse to treat him simply as an object of evangelism.  Jesus reminded me, instead, of the way He related to the woman at the well (John 4:1-26), whose dignity he affirmed by being truly present with her, asking questions and listening with respect.  Jesus “drew her out” before inviting her to draw upon the living water he offered.

In the course of my conversation with my new traveling companion, I soon discovered we shared common ground as attorneys, and that common ground led to deeper discussions about vocation and calling, personal sharing regarding our families, how we balance family life with work, how faith impacts the way we approach the world and its problems.  We also had some very candid conversations about Jesus.  With one ear, I listened carefully to him and with the other, to Christ.  By the end of the flight, he admitted there was some level of faith in him and that, after all, he was actually more of an “atheist-leaning-agnostic.”  Praise God for that movement!  Even to this day, we continue to exchange occasional texts, and I believe there will be more opportunities to share with him in the future.

John Stott defined “double listening” as the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time: “[listening to] the voice of God through Scripture and the voices of men and women around us. These voices will often contradict one another, but our purpose in listening to them both is to discover how they relate to each other. Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and to Christian mission.”

We live in a world where the clamor of voices drown each other out, and where we have lost the virtue of civil discourse in the public square. How can we reach the people around us with the transforming love of Jesus Christ if we can’t even hear each other?

Double listening is indispensable to Christian discipleship and Christian mission.  It helps create the space for the Holy Spirit to bring alive God’s Word to the people we talk with, and to bring truth to confused minds and conviction to darkened hearts.  And double listening does something for you and me as followers of Jesus Christ:  it helps us to be truly present and more compassionate towards the very neighbors we wish to reach.  Engaging this skill reminds us to honor the dignity of every human being and listen to the cry of every human heart.

The American Anglican Council heard the cry of believers lost in the midst of false teaching and of those who don’t yet know the Lord but need a spiritually healthy refuge in which to come out of the world. You may notice that we have a new addition to our logo: Semper Reformanda.  The phrase is attributed to both St. Augustine and, later, Karl Barth:  Ecclesia semper reformanda est… The church must always be reformed.  As we listened to those in spiritual need and to the Lord’s mandate, we engaged in the reformation of Anglicanism back in 1996 when it became impossible to reform the Episcopal Church from within. Semper Reformanda is the reason we are still involved in everything from the development of a new “Covenanted Communion” for biblically-faithful Anglicans worldwide, regular Bishops Leadership Summits for training and encouragement, good church governance for North American Anglicanism, parish revitalization and renewal, and clergy wellness. We are always reforming the Church, which must always be reformed! We are always seeking to engage with the cry of those inside and outside the Church and to hear the Lord’s response to that cry.

Imagine what could happen in 2020 if we resolved to practice such “double listening.”  Could such listening to others and to God’s Word rescue public discourse from toxicity and return civility to our disagreements?  Could such listening enable us to find common ground with the people whom Jesus loves and who do not yet know him as Lord and Savior—common ground that could lead to eternal turning points?  Could such listening enable us to face the beam in our own eyes, in our own leadership and in our own churches before we address the speck in others? That’s the resolve of the American Anglican Council in 2020—how about you?  May God give us, one and all, the grace to have ears to hear the cries of our neighbors, with ears equally attuned to his saving and guiding Word, so that we may speak and apply His Truth with love, as Jesus always did.

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