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Listening Well

Young people feel ignored by the church.

I am a pastor and a parent of four. My children have always been “church kids,” meaning they have happily attended church functions, volunteered at Vacation Bible School and played in the church band. They are well-known and well-loved in the congregation. So imagine my surprise when my eldest daughter, who is now 19, said she feels like “youth in the church are just props. The adults want us in view so they can feel good about themselves.” Her friend from another congregation chimed in, “I feel like a trophy sometimes and for the most part, I feel like we don’t matter at all.” Ouch.

In June I attended The Presbyterian Church in Canada’s General Assembly (the denomination’s annual highest court), and one of the last things on the agenda every year is to hear from the Young Adult Representatives. The YARs (as they are called) are between 16 and 25 years old and sent from congregations across the country to observe the work of the church.

To give their report, all 16 YARs lined up across the front of the room, facing some 400 elders and ministers. A leader asked them questions and if they agreed, they stepped forward.

It started with easy questions like, “Who is honoured to be here?” and “Who didn’t get enough sleep last night?” and everyone laughed as they stepped ahead together. But then they got serious. They were asked who felt that the Assembly was a safe space for them to be involved. Half of them came forward, but half stood still.

“Have your opinions been heard or respected by the church?” they were asked next. Half said yes. Half said no.

Fifty percent of the church kids – because if you are attending a national church meeting you are definitely a hard-core church kid – said they weren’t heard or even respected. In their own church.

Unfortunately, listening well is not a common practice. As the pace of life accelerates, we usually try to listen while doing something else. We hear about our partner’s day at work while cooking dinner and keeping an eye on a child doing homework. We talk on the phone while scrolling through Facebook. We talk to each other while simultaneously driving, listening to the radio and eating french fries.  

Modern life has fewer opportunities to slow down and focus on what someone else is saying. My children’s friends are always a little surprised when they are invited to sit at the dining room table for a meal because it’s not something they do at home. And I don’t know anyone who sits on the couch without a show on the T.V., Candy Crush on their iPad, and/or a texting conversation happening on their iPhone. Opportunities for genuine conversation are rare.    

The church, which is filled with the same people who are too rushed to enjoy leisurely meals, also struggles to listen well. In 20 years, I have yet to meet a church leader who isn’t hoping for shorter meetings. Most hope the meeting will be efficient and without unnecessary discussion. We tend to avoid processes that require time for open-ended questions, extended periods of discussion, storytelling or testimony.  

A colleague and I lamented the church’s trouble with listening recently. “The church is horrible at listening,” he said. “But the thing about listening is that if we can’t listen to each other how can we expect to listen to God? The basic stance of discipleship is heeding the voice of another.”

And it’s true. “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!” says Jesus repeatedly in the gospels. To follow Jesus is to stop long enough to focus, listen and understand. It is a starting point and an essential act of faith. To listen is to take up a posture that is humble, quiet and ready to learn.

This is something that each of us can practise on our own. But perhaps it is something to consider on a larger scale, too. If we make listening to God and each other a higher priority, our meetings might look and sound different. Yes, they might become less efficient, but they also might reveal God’s wisdom and direction in new ways. They might include quiet voices, and even the voices of our young people.

A line of young people wearing matching grey t-shirts stood at the front of a huge church meeting and courageously expressed how they felt: cast aside, disrespected, unheard. As discouraging as that was, my hope lies in what happened next: mouths dropped open and a deafening silence descended on the room. At last church leaders were listening.  


  • Kristine O’Brien

    Kristine is executive director at Crieff Hills Retreat Centre in Puslinch, Ont. Visit them at crieffhills.com. Crieff acknowledges the traditional territory inhabited by the Chonnonton people, and other First Nations neighbours including the Haudenosaunee, the Anishnaabe and The Métis nation.

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