“I just want to be heard.” It’s the battle-cry of my generation.
Or at least that is what I argued in a recent post, where I attempted to work through what it means to listen well in an age where all we really care about is listening. Some take listening to be necessarily affirmative, but that’s a narrow view of what it means to hold an honest conversation. There are times when we should be listening to those we disagree with, as an act of love. There is something personal about listening to someone tell their story: we feel affirmed in our humanity, regardless of the person’s conclusion about the merit of our lifestyles.
While I spent most of my time reminding readers that there’s a difference between listening and affirming everything you hear, we often need to be reminded that listening is itself an act of love. The Church ought to be listening to those around us, in the context of meals, friendship, or travel. There are some individual churches that are attempting to do this well, and of course some people are better at this than others, but it is rare that we spend time going above and beyond the call to listen: giving voice to those who need it most.
If there is any genre of music focused on story-telling quite like hip-hop, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps country, or certain brands of folk music, but you’d be hard pressed to find a rapper who hadn’t shared his life story on at least one song, usually early on in their career (and, at least in a few instances, multiple times throughout, as their stories shift).
One artist in particular took it upon himself to tell the stories of those he’d spoken to throughout his career. In the song Dear Mr. Christian, Derek Minor, with assistance from Dee-1 and Lecrae, writes from the perspective of his audience, targeted at himself. For those of you who aren’t usually interested in hip-hop, the video for this song actually includes the lyrics. Hopefully that will help.
The chorus expresses a sort of exasperation with attempting to tell stories to Christians:
Dear Mr. Christian, I know you’re on a mission
I know you say the answer to my problem is religion
I know I’m supposed to change the way I live and stop sinning
But I’d appreciate it if you take some time to listen
There’s a lot packed into those four lines, and the critique of Christian action is scathing. The speaker of the chorus has already heard the answers: this isn’t a problem with evangelism, in that sense. This isn’t an individual who has never heard the gospel. They understand that the gospel offers change, and even that Christianity calls us to stop sinning. But their frustration is, unfortunately, rather justified: many Christians don’t know how to listen without qualification.
We’ve bought into the cultural stance that listening is the same as affirming everything we hear. Rather than attempting to nuance what we believe to include the ability to listen without absolute affirmation, we often decide to just run away from listening.
Of course, there are two sides to the issue. Some Christians run the other way, opting instead to listen and affirm everything they hear. Stories become intrinsically helpful and holy, regardless of their content. We’re really interested in ‘messy’ stories, these days. Gone are the days of clear good and evil in films, and the music industry is starting to follow suit. We’ve seen Christians advocate for “real” stories above all else in the last few years.
In spite of some hesitations that I think are well grounded (the strongest concern is the unintentional glorification of sin), we would be do well to encourage this sort of interaction. Listening to non-Christians is important, if only because the current cultural norm is to focus on the importance of voices. But more-so: our communities are able to be even more picky than before, thanks to social media. If you aren’t even willing to listen to a story, that person will go elsewhere, and you’ll never have a chance to share the gospel.
So listen to your neighbors. Hear their struggles, have meals with them, spend time understanding who they are and what makes them tick. Maybe they’ll listen to you, as well. But the best way to make disciples in today’s day and age is to start by listening.