Five Types of Listening

In a deleted scene from Tarantino’s cult classic, Pulp Fiction, Uma Thurman’s character asks John Travolta a searching question, “In conversation, do you listen, or wait to talk?” Travolta pauses, then replies, “I have to admit that I wait to talk, but I’m trying harder to listen.”

Pulp Fiction

Travolta’s character in the movie isn’t the sharpest tack in the box, but here he speaks wisely, and here he speaks for many of us. We struggle to listen. We don’t hear the end of other people’s sentences. We are very often eager to take the floor. Our thoughts and responses to other people’s thoughts and reflections, whether voiced or not, crowd out our capacity to really hear what the other person is saying.

The reality of this came home to me as a pastor, tasked with teaching people how to pray for other people. If you think about it, praying for someone, aloud, in their presence, isn’t the most natural of tasks. What do you say? How much do you say? How do you know when you’re done? And how are we supposed to speak to God for another person? But beneath these difficulties lies the problem of listening, and by problem I mean that we aren’t by nature very good listeners. We are good at judgment, and jumping to conclusions, and above all at choosing our responses based on words that make us feel better.

Let me give some examples. Perhaps we hear someone speak about a problem they are having at work or home, and our first impulse may be to address the problem, to fix the issue. But beneath a desire to fix things is very often an unsettling anxiety. If I’m honest, your story makes me anxious, and my proposed solution is less about your problem than it is about my personal anxiety. I am speaking to make myself feel better. Alternatively, we hear someone speaking about an issue they are dealing with—bad financial planning, or poor relational choices. What creeps into our minds in those moments is very often a narrative of judgment. “That was stupid,” we think. “If you’d done things another way you wouldn’t be in this situation, you know.” “You always get into these kinds of problems. Don’t you think you could learn your lesson by now?” These judgments similarly cloud our capacity to hear what is really going on the person’s life. They fill up the backlog of things we are waiting to say. And while we’re waiting, we’re not listening very well anymore.

Woman with her fingers in her ears

If we’re going to be better listeners, we’ve got to practice listening. Toward that end, today, I want to attempt to briefly outline five different types of listening. We’ll use questions to frame each of the types of listening, partially because asking questions is a great way to show that we’re listening. These five questions are designed to get us past our judgments, and to help us master our anxieties. Also, while the first three types apply to everyone, the final two are specific to Christians.

#1. What’s going on in you? This is the first area of listening. When someone comes to you and shares a concern, or tells a story about their life, saturating their narrative is a state of being, an often confused and intermingled set of feelings, emotions, and responses. A first task in listening well is listening to the person’s heart, to the story they, perhaps, aren’t articulating in their words. The person may know exactly how he or she feels, or the person may not know at all. But we can work to be attentive to the emotional subtext of their story. This should give us some idea of what’s going on inside the person speaking.

Black Lives Matter_Girl

#2. Where are you coming from? This is the second area of listening. Each person who tells you a story comes from somewhere. The story is rooted in a larger situation, with other actors and characters impacting the narrative, influencing the speaker’s responses and perception of events. A significant part of listening is listening to this where aspect of the person. Good listening involves an attempt to place the person’s story in a helpful and accurate context.

Pride parade portrait

#3. What is it you want? This is the third area of listening. Each person who discloses a narrative to you also wants things. The desire may be as simple as to offload the story, or to commiserate with a friendly ear. The person may want an honest resolution to the situation, or he or she may want a dishonest resolution! Independent of the merit of the particular desire, the person who speaks holds in his or her heart a goal, a purpose, masked or bald, which influences who they are and what’s going on in their lives at this time. We’ve got to attend to this desire.

Trump Supporter

#4. What is the Lord saying to this person right now? Here—and obviously this presumes a Christian conversation—we can prompt the person to speak about how God is speaking to them in their situation. We should always assume, in any conversation, that God is at work as a third party, nudging, whispering, shouting, drawing, blocking—doing the conversational things that God does through all of us, have we the ears to hear.

Immigrant Protestor

#5. What is the Lord saying to me in all this? This final aspect of listening is crucial. It runs parallel to all of the other kinds of listening we do, because inasmuch as He is speaking and nudging the person we are listening to, He is also speaking and nudging us as we attend to the goings on of the person’s, the nature of this individual’s situation, and the expressed or unexpressed desires implicit in the narrative. Here the listening ear turns from the words the person speaks to a spiritual subtext, so that when we attend to the voice of the Lord, and when we learn the sound of His voice, He becomes the one who guides our attention to what matters, and when we trust Him we release to His care the anxieties that make us bad listeners in the first place.

Vietnam War

I want to make a few observations about listening in this way. The first is that none of these forms of listening require any judgment on your part, whatsoever. When you are listening to a person’s heart, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to the history of their story, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening to their desires, you aren’t judging them. When you’re listening alongside them for the voice of the Lord, you aren’t judging them. To listen well almost never means agreeing with the person to whom you listen—it is more a journey of mutual discovery. You get to find out what they think and feel, and, very often, they also get to discover what it is that they think and feel. It is in this sense that listening is a validating activity. Validation is not to be confused with agreement. If I validate you, and I am affirming that you have communicated to me what you wanted, that I understand your emotions, your story, your desires. To listen in this way requires me to lay aside my control of the conversation, or, at least, my anxious control. I don’t have to win. I don’t have to get in the last word. I don’t have to change your mind. The best we might achieve is that you get to clearly state your mind.

You may note that I’ve chosen somewhat provocative examples for the images of each of these types of listening. I’ve chosen them, specifically, because I feel that they represent places where we’ve become especially bad listeners, places where our judgments and anxieties very often crowd out the real person who is trying to communicate something personal to us. It’s worth reflecting on those situations and mentally applying these principles of listening to them, to see what happens.

None of this means that we don’t speak. It also doesn’t mean that, sometimes, will won’t be required to offer judgments. There will be moments when a person needs to hear the words, “That was a stupid choice.” But this will never be before we’ve performed the difficult task of listening well. And altogether this means that listening, quite simply, is both a taxing and rewarding activity. It is hard work. It takes a great deal of energy, emotionally and physically. But when we succeed, we bless both the speaker and ourselves. If we become skilled, we are likely to grow in empathy. If we are obedient, then we might begin to hear more from God Himself.

I Used to Know What was Wrong with Willow Creek

I used to know what was wrong with Willow Creek. After my parents separated in 1991, my mom and I attended there. It was massive, and well-produced, and on the whole not a bad place for a recently divorced single mom and her eleven-year-old son. I joined her there for about seven years. We would go both to weekend services and mid-week services. The regular teaching staff included Bill Hybels, Lee Strobel, and John Ortberg. We used to eat in the food court. I played in the orchestra. We made friends. I was baptized in the pond out front.

Willow Creek Sanctuary

Naturally, I began to develop opinions about the place—many of which developed further after I’d left and began to take on some more formal theological education. The language of being “seeker-sensitive” was in the air—we all knew what was going on. Willow was attempting a model of attraction by simplification and production. Simplification meant reducing to the absolute minimum those churchy things that might turn away seekers—hymns, theologically heavy sermons, even the representation of a cross. Production meant controlling the weekly service outcomes—professional musicians and singers, perfect timing, lighting and camera work. Willow both authored and mastered these techniques with immense, almost unimaginable success. By the time we were there some twenty thousand people were attending on a given weekend.

NIV Application Commentary

The image at the bottom is of Willow’s Barrington, Illinois sanctuary. Is the message, “use our commentary and you’ll preach to groups THIS size!”?

Over time, I came to form judgments about the place. Willow was, indeed, successful—and yet it was also shallow. Even as a young man I missed biblical teaching. Even as a young man I could tell that I was being fed diet, Jenny Craig Christianity. There was meat to be had, but I was being offered salad without dressing. Clearly, Willow was also business-like. How else would it be possible to manage 20K people on a weekend without a strong management system? Things moved like clockwork, and it showed. But that same business efficiency masked the ultimately superficial nature of the enterprise. Things functioned, and people were busy, and everybody had a job, and friendships were made—but did it result in greater Christlikeness? Could shallow and superficial teaching generate deep and thoughtful Christians? No, it couldn’t, and my convictions were confirmed a few years back when Willow issued a public apology for being too soft on teaching the Bible. It was an astonishing reversal.

I was troubled, as time passed, at how other churches were eager to ape the Willow Creek model. It appeared that under the influence of Willow’s success they, hungry for their own success, began to implement degrees of simplification and production. The secret to church growth would be programs, lighting, timing, and an ethic of theological laxity. In one of the worst cases, I remember reading about a pastor who attended a Willow Creek leadership summit, and, returning to his home church, announced that he knew just what they needed to revitalize their ministry: theater seats. They would remove their pews and put in theater seats. That would get the butts in the door.

I don’t regret attending Willow for those seven years of my life, and yet I never loved the place. Having moved on, I continued to believe that it served a kind of purpose. A lot of people who wouldn’t otherwise go to church attended Willow. In a church of 20K certainly some—if not quite a few—of its members must be good Christian people.

Hybels bookI could make my peace with Willow Creek because I used to know what was wrong with it. Not anymore. Just a few months ago news began to break about some serious allegations regarding Bill Hybels, Willow’s founding and senior pastor, leadership guru and megachurch patriarch. First in the Chicago Tribune, then other rumors and stories, and lately in the New York Times, we have read how (allegedly, but is seems pretty certain), Hybels has sexually harassed quite a number of his female associates over the years. These were events that took place during my time at Willow. They were happening behind closed doors, and with some frequency, and apparently not a few people knew that Hybels may not be the most safe person to be around. This, the same Bill Hybels who authored the book, Who You Are When No One’s Looking: Choosing Consistency, Resisting Compromise. The irony would be laughable if it didn’t induce vomiting.

Suddenly, there’s much more wrong with Willow Creek than I had anticipated, and my previous critiques, which I could consider somewhat benign, are now more insidious. It’s a rule of thumb that (Protestant) churches carry the DNA of their founding pastors. Was he a gregarious, outgoing preacher? In time that comes to shape the congregation. Was he a reflective, thoughtful counsellor? In time, so also the congregation. Was he short tempered, divisive, and double-faced? So too the congregation. The DNA of Bill Hybels saturates and overshadows the Willow infrastructure. And that’s a frightening thing to realize. There’s now something poisonous running through everything with associations to Willow Creek. The best comparison is to imagine that you found out that MacDonalds, for years, has been grinding up puppies and mixing them into its french fries. Upon discovery of this you might become sick at your stomach. You’d probably never be able to eat them again. Willow has mixed something just as wicked into its brand.


Here’s Brené Brown, speaking (prophetically?) at a previous leadership summit.

Willow Creek’s model promulgated a fundamental expediency about ministry, but with these revelations it appears more than ever that their expediency was influenced by a hunger for power. Willow was eager to be the best, it was quick to believe its own success. To this hunger for power was added protectionism—defending, and even masking Hybels’s concerns because in many ways he was the brand. And, fundamentally, these both reflect a corrupting utilitarianism—if a thing works, we go with it. Hybels worked, and therefore we’ve got to keep going with him. This is the poison that now infects the Willow Creek brand.

In the year 2000, in a move that now screams of incredible irony, Hybels invited then president Bill Clinton to join the global leadership summit, during the Monica Lewinski investigation. The Bills sat across from one another, the pastor offering solace (and… what? acceptance?) to the president. And yet behind the scenes the two were far more alike than we had imagined. Both were using their positions of power to mask corrupt character and decrepit behavior.

US President Bill Clinton (R) answers Willow Creek

One of the things we have to be careful about in these matters is assuming that correlation is causation—just because two events can be linked does not mean that one was necessarily the cause of the other. Did Willow’s weak theology lead to pastoral misconduct? Probably not—especially since churches with solid theology also commit pastoral misconduct. And yet what becomes prominent in this present Willow nightmare is the presence of utilitarianism and the love of power. Is it not the case that a culture of expediency unmoored from reflective orthodoxy creates the conditions for other sins of power? But hang on—is it not also the case that sins of power become self-perpetuating, encouraging greater laxity and utilitarianism? Which came first? Moral failure, or bad theological praxis? It’s impossible to say, but one thing is true—utilitarianism gets masked and hidden in the church, masked in particular by the promise of power and success. It is that power and success that Willow has sold to the churches of the world. It is the poison at the heart of the Willow model.

The fallout is disastrous. Willow leadership models have influenced countless numbers of Christians globally. Willow ecclesiological models have encouraged utilitarian approaches to ministry. And now all of it is impacted by this. “Disaster” might be too weak a word.

Paul, writing to his disciple Timothy, commanded the following, “Keep yourself and your doctrine, remain in them; for doing this you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tm 4:16). Keep yourself, Timothy. Guard your life, your holiness, your purity, your sense of identity. Keep also your doctrine, preserve it with the same fervor as you do your bodily life. And by so doing you will save both yourself and those who hear you. Your life and your doctrine save your hearers, Timothy. It’s both. Willow Creek has failed to keep its life, and it has failed to keep its doctrine. The fallout from this is just beginning. May God have mercy on His Church.

Boaz, Ruth, and Why There is No Such Thing as 20 Minutes of Action

Brock-turner-mugshot-large-teaseThe internet has been aflame these past weeks with outrage over the trial and sentencing of Brock Turner, convicted of raping an unconscious woman behind a Stanford dumpster. Adding fuel to the indignation, Turner has received a startlingly lenient sentence (six months, only three of which he is likely to serve). The episode has ripped wide the cultural wounds around rape, rape culture, privilege, and sexual freedom, and nothing in this story is pretty, or clear, or particularly satisfying. Of particular outrage has been the release of several character statements, one of which was provided by Turner’s father, in which he petitioned for a lenient sentence for his son on the grounds that his current sense of experiencing despair is “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.”

There is something extraordinarily troubling about the father’s logic. It is not, contrary to the waves of internet fury, that the father does not sufficiently condemn his son’s actions. The purpose of the court-requested statement is to provide character witnesses in establishing sentencing. In this, the father is simply performing his duty to the court, and who but the most hard-hearted of fathers would fail to put their child in a positive light? And although the phrase “20 minutes of action” rings as insensitive, I don’t believe the father means “action” as a euphemism for sex, but rather “activity.” The father is arguing that the boy’s actions for 20 minutes ought not to determine the course of the rest of his life. But in some ways this is even worse. Is this how we evaluate actions? Does brevity of time automatically mitigate the extent to which we lay blame? Is it quantifiably better if it is only, say, 20 minutes of murder, or 20 minutes of pillaging, or 20 minutes of child abuse, or 20 minutes of torture? What do 20 minutes actually mean to a murdered body, a raped woman, or an abused child? Time, in these circumstances, is a flimsy point of negotiation. And the deep locus of the troubling logic here is in the fact that there simply is no such thing as “20 minutes of action.”

Brock Turner and Family

(Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

Let’s briefly review the circumstances as we know them. The assailant did not know the victim. Both had been drinking heavily, and sometime after the woman left the party she passed out behind a dumpster. There, Turner found her later and took advantage of her. He was caught in the act by two passing Swedes who sensed that something was amiss, chased him down, and restrained him until the police arrived. We must ask, at this point, To which 20 minutes is the father appealing in this story? The twenty minutes when his boy looked in the mirror before the party that night? The twenty minutes spent throwing back shots of alcohol? The twenty minutes of walking around looking for action? Or the twenty minutes in which he physically assaulted an unconscious woman? Are we to believe that the choice to take advantage of a prone woman is a happenstance occurrence, like finding a $20 bill on the ground and picking it up? Or do we believe that there is a deeper element of character which is formed much before the action takes place? It seems clear that, in reality, the choices which led to this scenario began well before the party, the drinking, and the rape. In this way, situations do not create character so much as reveal it.

The story of Boaz and Ruth contains some remarkable similarities to the Stanford case. Ruth is the widowed, Moabite daughter-in-law of Naomi, who has returned with her mother-in-law to Israel during a time of economic hardship. Politically and economically powerless, they discover a measure of protection and grace under the supervision of Boaz, an upright landowner and man of God. Realizing that Boaz is a relative close enough to redeem (restore) the family, Naomi petitions Ruth to get herself dressed up and meet Boaz under cover of darkness, after he has made an end of “eating and drinking.” The evening is the night of the harvest festival, a time typically of celebration and alcohol consumption, and we can presume in Boaz a state of some inebriation. Ruth approaches Boaz, sleeping alone at the threshing floor, and “uncovers his feet.” This sounds innocent enough in English, but in Hebrew this is a euphemism for uncovering much more than his feet—it is actually the full uncovering of one’s private parts; if you will, it is the action one takes before going to the bathroom. Boaz awakens, then, in the middle of the night, alone, naked, likely having drunk alcohol, and finding a beautiful young woman effectively offering herself to him. It is at this moment that Boaz’s character will be tested and proved, because at this moment Boaz has every earthly “right” to take Ruth. She has offered herself, no one will see, and Boaz as the landowner holds all the power in this scenario. After all, who will believe Ruth, the foreigner, if she tells a tale about Boaz’s evening indiscretion? But Boaz, upright in heart before the Lord, reveals his character and promises to redeem (and therefore marry) Ruth so long as one relative closer to him does not want to take the right. Boaz, tested with character, proves his character despite the presence of alcohol. Alcohol then is not an excuse, but reveals what is already within the soul. Boaz proves his righteousness even when drunk, and in the process becomes a paragon of virtue for all men.

(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Shipley Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

This event has even greater importance, however, and when we recall the origins of Moab, this evening between Boaz and Ruth is enriched with even greater significance. In Genesis 19, after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot flees with his two daughters. Believing themselves to be the only people left alive, the daughters hatch a plan—they will get their father drunk, have sex with him, and conceive children. They follow through with their plan, and one of those children is Ben-ammi, father of the Ammonites, while the other is Moab, father of the Moabites. Thus, with the full weight of Biblical irony, Ruth the Moabitess is redeemed in much the same manner by which the Moabites were born in the first place. Where sexual indiscretion creates lasting evil, sexual discretion has the power to redeem for great good. After all, Ruth is the grandmother of King David.

Character is a thing formed well before the 20 minutes of action that reveal character. This seems to me largely to be the point of James 1:13-15, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death.” True temptation does not come from outside a man, but from within. It is our own lust, our own deceitful hearts, which prompt us to sin. Circumstances merely press upon those places of weakness, like fault lines in our souls. The trial comes, and lasts 20 minutes, or 40 days, or 40 years, and character is revealed when we continue to choose the good in the midst of those trials and temptations.

When we fail these tests it is rarely because of the 20 minutes in front of us. Always, we fail because we failed long before the trial came. We fail when we exceed our capacities for alcohol, reducing our inhibitions and making the irrational seem reasonable. We fail when we embrace an ideology of hookup culture. We fail when we denigrate sexual congress and instruct our children more in license than responsibility. We fail when we eschew the training of character in young men and women alike, neglecting to instruct in boundaries and limitations as well as freedoms. We fail when we continue to permit pornography to shape our expectations about sex and availability—and mark my words, there is no doubt in my mind that consumption of porn played a significant role in the events which led to this situation, because the lie of porn is that it tells men that all women exist for sex, that all sex is pleasing to women, and that all women will consent given the proper incentives. It is porn which is directly responsible for the self-deceiving lie of, “But I thought she liked it.”


Brock Turner’s character was formed well before he was presented with the prone, drunken form of this girl—formed by privilege (expressed in the belief that he can take what he wants), formed by alcohol (lending weight to his false sense of permission), and I suspect by porn (shaping thoughts about women in general). There never were 20 minutes of action, only 20 minutes of revealed character.

The letter from Turner’s father was intended as a character witness, and deserves to be read fairly and in that light. We ought not to judge a father unfairly for simply defending his son. However, due to the circumstances, the father’s statement sits poorly in the belly, and reads only like so much oily excuse-mongering. For the sake of healing and wholeness, it would have blessed the soul to hear the father confess his failure in shaping his son’s character, the deficiency of which is the source and fountainhead of the events of that tragic night.