A Gathering Voices post by Lynne Baab
Congregational consultant and seminary professor Craig Satterlee uses the term “holy listening” to describe the kind of listening we do when we seek to discern “the presence and activity of God in the joys, struggles, and hopes of the ordinary activities of congregational life, as well as the uncertainty and opportunity of change and transition.”
This kind of listening is holy because when we engage in it, we are hoping and expecting to encounter God. Leaders and members of a congregation can listen in a holy manner in a variety of places and activities, as Satterlee describes so vividly. He believes holy listening is indispensable, because it builds intimacy in congregations and helps people connect with each other in a way that goes beyond the superficial, resulting in powerful bonds between people.
Satterlee notes that our listening is imperfect, because we are flawed people with our own agendas, but we can try to listen attentively and carefully. He writes:
Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves. From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us.
I love the idea that holy listening takes the incarnation seriously. My understanding of God’s call to mission is rooted in a commitment to honor the incarnation of Jesus by responding to Jesus’ words that we are sent into the world as he was sent (John 17:18). As we do that, the Holy Spirit enables us to perceive the presence of Jesus in wildly diverse people and places, and our listening becomes holy. The word “holy” means set apart, consecrated to God or to a religious purpose. Good and careful listening has several purposes, all of which seem to me to be holy:
• understanding the viewpoints of others in order to serve them, respect them, pray for them, or respond appropriately to what they have said
• allowing people to talk through the events and concerns of their life, so they can articulate the way their faith has intersected with those events and concerns
• paying attention to God’s voice in order to draw near in love and obedience, for individuals and for groups
My husband, Dave, recently said that “holy listening implies keeping one ear cocked to what God might be saying. Maybe you could call it ‘augmented listening.’” Holy listening in his view, then, is a form of double listening, and Dave believes holy or “augmented” listening plays a role in many different kinds of conversations, including evangelism.
Celia, a Baptist pastor and spiritual director, is another person who advocates trying to listen to God while listening to others. This helps her stay open to what God might be saying to her while she listens: “I learn so much when I listen to others. It’s like doorways opening.” She reflected that in conversations, we need “a kind of appreciative inquiry,” which she describes as interest and acceptance instead of judgment, asking how people understand an issue, which enriches everyone.
Celia went on to discuss the way listening helps people get in touch with what they themselves believe, another form of holy listening that involves paying attention to multiple layers of meaning. She reflected:
"Listening often helps people become conscious of what they’re saying. It helps them make connections they haven’t seen before. People say, 'I’ve never said that before. I wonder if that’s right.' We can journal or talk to ourselves, and things come up. Why is it so different, so much richer, when we talk to others and they listen?"
When we engage in holy listening in conversations with people, we expect to meet God in new ways as well. What a gift!
 “Holy and Active Listening” by Craig Satterlee, Alban Weekly, No. 98 (June 5, 2006).
Want to learn more about listening? Here are some suggested resources for you to check out:
- The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Ministry and Mission (Lynne's new book!)
- Christ-Centered Listening (curriculum for youth)
- Listening to God (book)
- Listening for God's Call (adult downloadable study)