“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be
quick to listen,
slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger
does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
That’s right; you have to be quick! In the animal kingdom and in God’s kingdom, you’re always pursuing something or being pursued. Your enemy is constantly close on your heels “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Your good works and the abundant fruit of God’s work through you are continually at risk to a thieving predator waiting for any opportunity to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). We’re not saying this to scare you. As a Christian leader, you already know it’s important to be on your toes against the wiles of Satan and to be swift to pounce on the spiritual opportunities the Holy Spirit sends your way. You know that, spiritually speaking, slowpokes don’t usually prosper. So why this book?
There are lots of books on the market today about being quick to adjust to the rapidly changing cultural landscape in which we find ourselves. The brilliant scholars and innovative leaders who write these books advocate becoming proactive trend-watchers and courageously reshaping our churches and ministries to meet tomorrow’s challenges. They promote bold, new organizational models and up-to-the-minute mission strategies. They propose radical ideas for changing the way the church does business. Do we really need another one of these books?
In some ways Quick-to-Listen Leaders is one of those books, and in some ways it’s not. The radical leadership ideas we will promote are not new; they come from leaders who died more than 1,900 years ago. Nevertheless, even in the midst of the sweeping cultural and religious changes we face today, they are genuinely powerful and literally life-changing.
We will present not a new congregational or organizational model but something more personal and, in our experience, much more potent in empowering growth and bringing healthy change to your church. We’re not going to talk about being quick to reorganize or quick to adopt some groundbreaking new program. No, our message is much more basic than that. Our goal in Quick-to-Listen Leaders is to help you and your followers learn to live out twelve simple words of advice from one of the New Testament’s most forthright and forceful leaders:
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Our friend Bill Lowrey currently serves as the Director of Peacemaking and Reconciliation for World Vision International. Before joining World Vision, Bill witnessed the power of these twelve words when, as a missionary, he was given his first assignment in peacemaking: to travel to the African nation of Sudan and try to help two tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer, make peace after more than eight ruinous years of war. Several teams of international mediators had already tried and failed, so as he entered this volatile situation, Bill realized that to bring peace, he’d have to do something out of the ordinary. He decided that his first job was to be quick to listen and slow to speak.
As Bill sat down with tribal leaders and members from both sides, he realized that the American and European habit of doing things by the clock was counterproductive. The constantly changing pressures of day-to-day tribal life just weren’t compatible with Western-style negotiation approaches in which meetings started at 9 a.m., broke for lunch at noon, and ended at 5 p.m. This just wasn’t how these folks operated. For them, no communication of great consequence could take place at the kinds of meetings the previous negotiators had tried. Big decisions customarily required big events, and the primary means of transmission for important ideas was elaborate storytelling.
After much listening and consulting with tribal leaders on both sides, Bill helped them set up a suitable event that culminated with the chiefs of the Dinka and the Nuer tribes sitting and hearing each other’s stories. Seated across from each other, they began to tell their tales, one at a time. The one speaking could talk for as long as he wished without being interrupted. The other chief agreed to listen, without interrupting or arguing, knowing he was going to get the same opportunity.
The chiefs spent three whole days telling story after story of their pain, their suffering, and the sacrifices they’d made because of the war. Although there were many tense and painful moments, by the end of the three days, both were able to acknowledge the suffering each tribe had experienced from the atrocities committed by the other. Finally, after each had listened and spoken, and listened and spoken again, they were willing to talk about forgiveness and to work together for peace.
After the peace pact was signed, one smiling chief approached Bill and thanked him, saying he’d attended numerous fruitless peace talks arranged by the United Nations but this was the first time he had been allowed to tell his story and really felt heard. Many might seek peace and even pursue it, but Bill agrees with the book of James that being quick to listen is the best foundation.
The radically humble and stunningly simple words of James 1:19 have changed our lives and the lives of the tens of thousands of leaders and ordinary Christians our ministry has equipped around the world. 1 These words are an essential part of a larger collection of practical leadership advice that James delivered to the rapidly expanding network of churches that were spreading the brand-new message of Jesus “among the nations.” Like every fledgling movement, the early church was struggling to figure out the norms of behavior that would allow its members to thrive and overcome external and internal threats to its survival. Sound familiar? Read on.
There were plenty of high-powered personalities among the early church leaders—people who thought it was their job to talk and their followers’ job to listen and obey. Perhaps that’s why James started the passage by saying, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen.” If James were speaking to us today, he’d probably say something like, “OK, ladies and gentlemen, pay close attention. Everybody, and I mean everybody, leaders and followers alike, absolutely must learn to shut up and really listen before you start shooting off your mouths (or ‘be quiet and really listen before you speak,’ in Anne’s more genteel version). For us, listening is job number one!”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11b-13).
What’s full of more raw energy than a tornado, more powerful than an earthquake, and more formidable than a forest fire? Anyone who has read the story of Elijah knows the answer is “a gentle whisper from the mouth of God.”
For those of us who are pursing God’s call on our lives and who—like poor, old Elijah—are being pursued by an army of worries and demands that threaten to do us in, listening seems like the least of our concerns. Like Elijah, we’ve experienced those days when everything just clicked—times God showed up and it all flowed miraculously into place. We’ve also seen times nothing seemed to work at all, and we’ve gone from ecstasy to despondency overnight.
We’ve also probably all had our moments of crying out, “I have had enough, Lord!” While others simply relax and go about their business, we’ve felt weighed down with heavy burdens of responsibility. We’ve been constantly conscious of how what we do or don’t do will impact many lives besides our own. And in these challenging moments, of course, there have been plenty of well-meaning advisers ready to tell us to have faith or “don’t worry, be happy!” or that we should delegate more of our responsibility to others. Unfortunately, these are often the very same people who’ve demanded our heads when things went wrong or when someone to whom we’ve delegated responsibility dropped the ball.
Even if we’ve never cried out like Elijah and begged God to take our lives, there have probably been many days and nights when we’ve desperately needed a gentle whisper from on high. But the whispered word from God cannot help us unless we hear it—unless we are quick to listen. It’s our first job as Christian leaders. Like it or not, we don’t know where we are going unless God tells us, and we can’t truly know how to encourage, inspire, or guide others unless we really learn to use our ears. Perhaps instead of looking for demographic portents and signs of the times in the whirlwinds, earthquakes, and fires of our culture, it’s time to quiet our own inner voices and listen for a change.
You’d think we’d get this obvious message. God created each of us with two ears, two eyes, two nostrils, and thousands of sensitive nerve cells covering every centimeter of our skin. Then he cunningly formed our brains so we could interpret the incoming data from all of these sources. God gave us the gift of language and the ability to decipher what others are saying to us. He painstakingly designed us so we can focus outwardly, to pay attention to him and to the world and the people around us. Considering the amount of trouble to which God went to give us these capacities, they must be really important. So why do human beings seem to be so much better at not listening and not paying attention than anything else?
As we teach leaders about the power of listening, we use a simple, four-minute exercise to demonstrate this fact. We call it “Listen, Don’t Listen.” We ask participants to pair up with one other person and take turns telling each other something exciting or frustrating that’s happening in their lives. For the first minute, we ask the people who are listening to do everything they can think of to show the ones who are speaking that they genuinely care and are interested in what the speakers are saying. After a minute, we have them trade roles and repeat the process.
Even after twenty years of teaching, we’re still surprised by how well most of our students are able to listen when they put their minds to it. They consciously adjust their seating, posture, and body language. They try to use good eye contact, lean forward to show interest, and nonverbally encourage their partners to relax and tell their stories. Soft tones of considerate conversation fill the room. Afterward, the speakers almost universally respond by saying they enjoy the feeling that comes with being so conscientiously understood and cared for by their listeners.
In the second part of the exercise, we ask our students to repeat the process—only this time while the speakers tells their stories, we ask the listeners to do everything they can think of to show they aren’t really interested. The tone of the conversation starts out the same but quickly escalates into nervous humor, restless frustration, and often real anger. It’s not unusual to see some of the speakers actually walk away from their non-listening partners in disgust. After less than a minute of having everything they say discounted, even though they know it’s just an exercise, the speakers begin tapping into personal reservoirs of unpleasant memories they’ve cataloged under the word disrespect. When we ask the speakers how they feel, it’s very common for them to say it feels “normal” to not be listened to. (This response is especially common from the married couples we ask.)
When we invite the people who were not listening to tell us how doing this felt, some say they feel mean intentionally ignoring people. Others say it feels more natural and far easier to blow people off than to listen to them. Many even admit to relishing the experience of expressing what our friend Dr. Paul Meier calls “the hidden jerk within.”
The entire exercise would be pretty funny if it weren’t so tragic. But the fact is that even when we do understand right and healthy and loving ways to act toward others, we routinely choose to do just the opposite. This is especially true when it comes to listening. It’s very hard to find a leader who will come out against compassionate listening. We all know it’s a good thing—like prayer or motherhood or tithing—but in our daily lives, many of us approach it with all the enthusiasm a hyperactive two-year-old has for bedtime. We know listening to our followers and our families is good for us and good for them. It’s even good for our health, but so are liver and lima beans or broccoli and brussels sprouts. The truth is that listening is a very good thing that many of us would much rather avoid.