How to Listen to Your Neighbor’s Spiritual Stories

The longing for acceptance without the pressure to conform or convert


The churches that thrive today are the churches that know how to listen to God, listen to the stories and experiences of their own people, and listen to their neighbors with compassion and love. In the bustling heart of Midtown Atlanta, All Saints Episcopal Church has embarked on a journey of such intentional listening. Seeking to bridge the gap between the spiritual narratives within the congregation and the diverse stories echoing throughout the surrounding community. Ross Nicholas and Allen King, long-time members of the church’s lay leadership, share their insights into this exploration with Dwight Zscheile and Dee Stokes in episode 5.54 of the Pivot podcast.

Unveiling Spiritual Narratives Within All Saints Episcopal Church

Midtown Atlanta, like many other urban areas throughout the country, has undergone a number of shifts in the last twenty years. The need to understand God’s purpose amid local and larger societal changes, as well as the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, were themes that came up time and again in these listening sessions.

Another prevalent theme that emerged during these internal conversations was the intertwining of God and community. Congregants expressed profound connections through small groups, core ministries, and personal formation practices. They often remembered feeling their most spiritually alive in these contexts. What Allen and Ross found through listening was a common thread that God often seemed most tangibly experienced within the embrace of a supportive community.

Journeying Beyond the Pews

Some congregants were initially a little hesitant to delve into discussions about their spiritual experiences. However, as conversations unfolded, stories emerged about chance encounters at the grocery store or unexpected emails revealing God’s hand in everyday life. Once they heard their fellow congregants get used to talking about God, and saw that God’s work was not at all confined to the church even for them, it made it slightly easier to talk to others outside the church about their spiritual journeys. Ross noted that the initial discomfort wasn’t only on the side of the speaker, and found it was “more of a challenge” when he brought his “own anxieties to it,” but was able to counteract that when he “truly listened, and accepted where (the conversation) was going.”

Venturing into the neighborhood, the lay leaders heard an overwhelming yearning for community, and a lot of talk about people’s daily struggles and aspirations. After being involved with parishioner and non-parishioner conversations, they found that both groups shared deeply felt experiences of disconnection and a desire for community. This gives the church reason to rethink its role in fostering meaningful connections beyond Sunday services. What could they try that might meet that shared need?

Nurturing Nimbleness: Embracing Imperfection and Taking Action

Rather than striving for perfection, Allen wondered if it would be more helpful for churches to develop a posture of nimbleness. Drawing on an example of a timely liturgy, he talked about the need for the church to respond somewhat more rapidly to societal changes than they maybe would have in the past. This nimbleness can enable a church to better address the evolving needs of members and non-members.

The conversations with non-members revealed a longing for acceptance without the pressure to conform or convert. Something the team at All Saints always made sure was clear at the outset of these conversations was that “that no one was there to proselytize, nobody was there to convert, and nobody was there to judge.” Knowing these things were off-the-table gave the speakers space to be themselves and to share stories they might otherwise not have. Realizing how helpful this starting point was prompted a reevaluation of church practices, with an emphasis on creating avenues for community engagement that transcend traditional membership structures.

Empathy and the Future of Church Engagement

The power of genuine listening is apparent when Allen recounts a moving story of a woman grappling with religious dualities (she grew up in an interfaith household) and exclusion (because she was seen as neither fully Muslim nor fully Christian, she often felt ill-at-ease in both contexts). To the All Saints team, this story helped emphasize the importance of creating spaces where individuals feel accepted and understood beyond the labels that might or might not be applicable to them.

Ross helpfully reflected on the need to acknowledge God’s continuous activity, transcending the confines of Sunday services. He advocates for a shift in perspective, where the church becomes a means to connect with the ongoing work of God, both within the congregation and the broader community.

The transformational journey of intentional listening undertaken by All Saints Episcopal Church offers important insights for church leaders. Embracing imperfection, fostering nimbleness, and building welcoming spaces are crucial steps toward connecting with the spiritual yearnings of congregants and neighbors alike. As churches strive to adapt to a changing world, these lessons serve as a compass, guiding leaders toward a more empathetic and responsive engagement with their communities.

Do you want help attempting this work in your own context?
Check out Faith+Lead’s Spiritual Life Listening Tool.

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