A One-Way Conversation? How well do we Listen?

I was sitting in an English-speaking worship service in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam when it struck me - we're way better at talking than we are at listening. I watched my fellow worshippers as we sang praise to our God and they were animated and active, alive in their declaration of God's goodness. They sang with passion, loudly proclaiming their love for God and their thanksgiving for God's goodness. And then, something strange happened - the singing portion of the service ended and many of my fellow worshippers sat down and shut down. People all around me almost visibly flipped a switch, as if their part of the service was over and now it was time for someone else (ostensibly the preacher) to do the rest. It was alarming to see, and in that moment it was kind of like God whispered to me - 'Do you see this? You humans are really good at talking, but not very good at listening." Is this true? Are we better at the talking part of prayer and worship? Are we that friend (everyone has one) who always does all the talking and never actually listens?

'Worship' has become, in contemporary parlance, the portion of a service where congregational music is sung. If you listen closely, you'll hear people say things like 'Wow, worship was really great at our church today!', by which they mean 'Wow, the music was really great today!' This isn't just me, as a preacher, trying to defend 'my time' in the service. No, the nature of my concern is that worship should be a dialogue - an actual conversation between God and God's people. God speaks to us through an invocation/call to worship and we respond in singing. God continues to speak to us in the reading of God's word and we respond with more singing. God speaks to us through God's word and we respond with our time of prayer. God speaks to us through the sermon and we respond by meeting God at His table for fellowship and nourishment. God speaks to us in the benediction and we respond by joining Him in His mission to love and serve the world. And ALL of this, every action, word, song and prayer, its ALL worship. God speaks, we listen and respond. If music, our singing songs of praise, were the only act in worship, it wouldn't be much of a dialogue - that would be more of a monologue (and a very sad and selfish one).

I'm very thankful for the sermon we heard from Dr. Cheri Kommel this last Sunday. She spoke to us about listening to God and being willing to allow God to 'interrupt' our lives. She told us about some of the ways that God had been interrupting her life and she pressed us about our willingness to listen and obey. As she spoke, I began to think back to that service in Vietnam and my realization that we aren't very good at listening. Questions began to flood my mind in light of this reality:

Is prayer more about talking than listening?

Is reading the Bible more about task and accomplishment than listening?

Is worship more about singing and ‘praising’ than it is about listening?

When do we listen?

HOW do we listen?

Where do we listen?

To WHOM do we listen?

What do we do when we actually HEAR?

These questions have remained at the front of my mind throughout this week. As I considered these things, I remembered one of my favorite images from Jesus' Sermon on the Plain from Luke's 6th chapter: 'Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”' Jesus says that those who listen to him and obey him are building on a solid foundation. He also says that those who hear but refuse to act are building on sand. What does that say for those who don't hear at all - to those who aren't even bothering to listen?

I leave you with a simple question and a scriptural promise (which Dr. Kommel shared with us on Sunday).

Are you making room in your life to listen to God speak? If so, then hear this good news: 'Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and obey.' (Luke 11:28)

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Photos by Michelle Gould Photography,

Heather K. Barclay & Justin Leonard