There’s an elderly woman (mid to upper 70s, I think) that usually sits on the far side of the same pew that I do. One Sunday, she just wanted to talk. I wondered if loneliness played a role in that – she’s always been by herself. I listened to what she had to say. It wasn’t long before the Sanctuary began to fill with other families who were all having other conversations – soon this woman’s voice was indistinguishable from the rest. No matter how much I tried, she was just speaking too quietly for me to understand the last words she was saying.
Sometimes I think Christianity loses so many voices because there’s an emphasis on not listening to people. We’re supposed to listen to music and the sermon but we get only a few minutes to carry on a conversation during the meet-and-greet which is constantly interrupted and then there’s prayer requests, but you can really talk to people before the service or after and there’s so many overlapping conversations that one quiet voice doesn’t stand a chance. Many people who have left the church often felt that they weren’t being listened to. Their concerns weren’t being heard. Their doubts weren’t being taken seriously.
I remember quite a few times where I knew that I wasn’t being listened to. The first time was when I was doing a study on Proverbs. I was the youngest in attendance, I had only just graduated high school. The oldest in attendance was a man in his upper eighties. Whenever there was a discussion time, he was allowed to monopolize the conversation – in his slow, mumbled, and occasionally incomprehensible manner he would deliver his time-worn wisdom with anecdotes that seemed to go on and on. By the time everyone else was allowed to make their comment, there was hardly any time left for me; and on occasion I wasn’t allowed to complete a thought because everybody had somewhere else to be and something else to do. I got tired of it and quit the study part way through. I guess it was silly of me to think that I could have wisdom at that young of an age – but I remember Paul telling Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he was young. I don’t think Paul meant to create a church that revered the elderly so much so that it frightened off the youth, but that’s what seems to have happened.
Later, at another church I was volunteered to lead the youth group and presented a book to study. The next week I gave her my honest assessment – this bible study is nothing but the autobiography of it’s author describing God with really weak ocean metaphors like “God is like a starfish, as long as it stays in the water it has an amazing ability to heal. As long as we stay in God we will be able to heal.” But I had just read that the starfish population has been weakened severely because a devastating disease has shut off their healing ability in the news and I knew that diseased starfish aren’t a great metaphor for God particularly when we live in land-locked state. It’s also not a good idea to be handing out starfish, shells, charms, as tokens of participation because it’s more like buying the participants off than actually teaching them things like salvation, sanctification, or justification. I asked to see the other book so that I might read it and compare the two. She said “No, it’s just too deep for them.” She wouldn’t listen to my concerns that teaching teenagers shallow theology wouldn’t inspire them to learn more.
She was a lot like Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping of Appearances, no matter what you tell her – she wouldn’t listen. If she had a vision, she knew exactly how she wanted you to make it happen. There was no telling her “no” and there was no way to make a suggestion that she didn’t already think of – in her world, if she didn’t think of it, then it wasn’t a good idea. I’m afraid that there a lot of people with a similar outlook – people who have a vacant spot in an existing ministry that’s perfect for you if you do the tasks you’re given exactly like they tell you to. But it’s hard to feel like there’s room to be listened to when the age-based ministries at your church look like this: “newborns to pre-kindergarten” “kindergarten to third grade” “fourth through sixth grades” seventh and eighth grades” “ninth through twelfth grades” “college and career (up to 25)” “adult (35-49)” “elders (50+)” When you’re in that missing 26-34 year old age range, it’s hard to imagine that anyone’s listening to you – you don’t have a representative to voice your concerns. You don’t have enough of you to form a class and the ones that are there are from all walks of life, some married, some not, some parents, and some not – it’s incredibly difficult to present materials that are useful to everyone without excluding someone.
That elderly woman probably felt the same way. I hope that being listened to brightened that day up for her; I hope that Christianity begins to find and value lost voices and perspectives such as hers. I hope we find a way to make people feel that they matter – because we certainly won’t go on if we keep on doing and keep on losing generations of people because we don’t listen to them.