Why deep listening matters for congregations and disciples

The Rev. Laura Edgar said she’s long had the intention of holding conversations with her church’s neighbors at nearby Auburn University. But only recently has she learned the language and skills to do that, said Edgar, the associate pastor for youth, college and young adults at Auburn First Baptist Church.

The key, she said, is “to learn what the needs truly are, and not what we think the needs are.”

Edgar’s congregation is one of 16 to take part in The Vinery: Awakening Faith and Flourishing at the Intersection of Church and University. The program invites congregations close to college campuses that are ready and willing to build or expand relationships with their campus communities into a two-year process of congregational reflection, listening and discernment.

There are about 20 million college students across the United States, and about 5,000 churches located within 2 miles of a campus. We believe that in bringing these two communities together, the torn fabric of American life can begin to be rewoven by forming healthy human beings serving the common good in the likeness of Christ.

In 2021, the college ministry Mere Christianity Forum launched The Vinery to build connections between churches and universities with a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.’s Thriving Congregations Initiative.

The Vinery does not focus primarily on college ministry programming or increasing attendance numbers of young people in Sunday worship. We do hope that these are manifestations of the inner work of the congregations. But before that work can begin, we invite congregations to practice deep listening.

Why deep listening? Deep listening, in simple terms, is intentionally hearing the needs and interests of others and taking them seriously. It involves listening to what is said and what is not said.

At our 2023 annual Vinery gathering, the Rev. Judy Peterson offered some guidelines. Deep listening is more than being present, having good body language and hearing what others are saying, she said. It entails exhibiting a generosity that invites speakers to talk to us from their hearts — and does not send them signals that we only have time for a summary.

We begin by asking participants to explore how they are listening to God, themselves, their congregations and their campuses. Then we ask how listening more intentionally might help them become better neighbors to the young adults, staff, administrators, faculty and alumni near them. Through their listening process, congregations can learn of needs they hadn’t anticipated or sense a call to people they hadn’t noticed.

As our first group of congregations finishes its first year, this emphasis on deep listening has made a remarkable difference.

The Rev. Bromleigh McCleneghan of United Church of Gainesville in Gainesville, Florida, said that people have started showing up in her office to talk over concerns about issues on campus and their sense of inadequacy in the face of overwhelming student need.

“Slowly, through deep listening, a nascent vision of what ministry alongside our university neighbors could be is beginning to emerge,” McCleneghan said.

Deep listening entails building relationships and allowing our learnings to guide strategic and ministry plans, rather than showing up with agendas preset by boards and councils.

Granted, it’s easier to plan a pizza party at the church than to commit to regularly eating in the student dining hall. It takes less effort to build a ministry program from a list of suggestions than to take time to learn what people really want.

But when congregations really listen to their collegiate neighbors, they can serve them better. One Vinery congregation heard from students that buying textbooks was a financial burden; the church created a fund to help them. In another congregation, young adults are finding companionship with a small group of octogenarians who drink tea and knit on Friday afternoons.

Deep listening doesn’t stop at listening, though; it merely starts there. The next step after hearing people’s needs is making an effort to meet those needs.

McCleneghan in Gainesville said the conversations she’s had have inspired her to take that next step.

“It’s not what I anticipated, but it certainly feels important. Deep listening is allowing me and the other lead team members to hear God calling us to some new thing,” she said.

McCleneghan said she has scheduled a meeting to talk with the folks showing up in her office and sending her texts — an event that will be “just the next stage of this unfolding conversation.”

Peterson, in her address to the annual Vinery gathering, said that a deep listening practice isn’t just for specific occasions or meetings; how we listen — or fail to listen — in the everyday, mundane moments of our lives creates our listening habits.

The Rev. Elexis Wilson, the pastor at Wayman African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bloomington, Illinois, said at the gathering that we have to discipline ourselves not to mentally multitask by thinking about what’s next or how we might fix the problem at hand: “Many times, the task is to just listen.”

For Wilson, whose father was a pastor, this practice has particular meaning.

“I do not think I am ever listened to without [listeners] looking for the end game,” she said. “As a preacher’s kid, I felt like there was no genuine want to know my thoughts unless they wanted something from my father or were being paid. Nobody naturally would sit and hear me.”

Deep listening is vital to The Vinery’s process. It requires that we be intentional about prioritizing listening, even when it’s inconvenient.

Can we teach ourselves not to answer the phone when we’re distracted? Can we avoid thinking about laundry or clicking on Facebook during Zoom meetings? Can we learn to say, “I’d like to hear what you’re saying, but now is not a good time — could we schedule a conversation later, when we both can focus?”

How do we listen, not only to our congregations, campuses and constituencies, but also to our co-laborers? How might our deep listening make us better disciples, colleagues, leaders and friends?

Yes, it feels terribly inefficient. Yet I know that for my life as a disciple — as well as for congregations — it’s crucial. May we help people know that they are cared for and listened to — by us and by God.

Deep listening doesn’t stop at listening, though; it merely starts there. The next step after hearing people’s needs is making an effort to meet those needs.


There’s more to the story about religion in America than what polls and surveys indicate — especially among young people.

Consider two recent statements made by one of America’s most prolific religious demographers, Daniel Cox. On the one hand, in a report examining Gen Z’s religious attendance and affiliation trends, he wrote: “In terms of identity, Generation Z is the least religious generation yet.”

On the other hand, in a co-written report about faith after the pandemic, this: “Increasingly, religious affiliation may tell us less about the full range of religious and spiritual experiences Americans have and the extent of their theological commitments.”

Our research findings confirm this tension: Gen Z expresses religiosity and spirituality, but in ways that defy traditional polling measures.

In this new reality, faith leaders can accept existing data as evidence of declining demand for religion among young people and just keep trying to get them back in the church building.

But we firmly believe that the decline narrative is not the full story. We think the better option for faith leaders is to transform their approach to young people in a way that recognizes how they actually are engaging with faith and spiritual practices.

At Springtide Research Institute, we are discovering that in reality, a majority of America’s “least religious generation” identifies as religious (68%) or spiritual (77%) — a fact that changed little even as their already low religious attendance dropped off further during the pandemic.

Gen Z expresses religiosity and spirituality, but in ways that defy traditional polling measures.

Religious vs Spiritual graph

So what’s going on with young people?

For decades, sociologists and demographers have looked to two primary indicators of religiosity in individuals or society: affirmed beliefs (e.g., “Do you believe in God with no doubts?”) and frequency of attendance at religious services.

A recent article based on these indicators, for example, doubles down on the thesis that the U.S. is undergoing a process of secularization.

But it’s important to look more closely. This same article notes: “Of course, compared to most other wealthy countries, the U.S. is quite religious. Fifty-five percent of Americans, for example, say they pray daily, compared to an average of 22% of Europeans.”

This includes 47% of Gen Zers who pray at least weekly, according to Springtide’s 2022 annual State of Religion & Young People report.

With Gen Z, traditional indicators of affiliation and attendance no longer explain what’s happening. Cox and his co-authors call this the “decoupling of identity and experience.”

There are far too many voices pronouncing God “dead” (or at least dying) for Gen Z without the full range of evidence needed to back up such a claim.

Those indicators cannot tell you, for example, that numerous young people engage with crystals and herbs, anime, activism and politics, tarot, and nature as spiritual exercises.

Before dismissing these practices as New Age frivolities, consider that young Latter-day Saints and Muslims — groups that traditionally hold more conservative/orthodox religious beliefs — were among the most likely to engage with tarot or other forms of divination on a regular basis (38% and 35%, respectively).

Gen Zers engage in these practices even as they tag along with mainstream religious traditions. We also know that young people who engage in practices like these reap some of the benefits that accompany traditional religious behaviors and expressions.

For example, while 17% of all young people say they are flourishing in their faith, this number increases for young people who engage spiritually with crystals and herbs weekly or daily.

Similarly, while 24% of all young people say they’re flourishing in their mental and emotional health, this number increases for young people who engage with crystals or herbs weekly.

We’re not arguing that Christian churches should replace liturgy with crystals. But a deeper understanding of young adults’ faith and practices can help churches connect with them.

Some faith communities have picked up on Gen Z’s unconventional spiritual quest, dumping traditional programs in favor of eclectic, peer-driven activities that promote what Gen Z says it lacks most: a sense of belonging.

One example is Table Bread, a ministry of The Table United Methodist Church in Sacramento, California. The church discovered that the baking and breaking of bread created community for young people that helped alleviate their isolation and loneliness. As they form authentic relationships around baking bread, the participants have rich and honest conversations centered on Wesleyan concepts and questions.

The project eventually evolved into a youth-led social enterprise that is forming an intergenerational community through farming and bread making. Yet a young person’s participation in these initiatives might not register under traditional survey measures of religious identity and attendance.

And take a look at what happened in February 2023 at Asbury University, where a garden-variety chapel service ignited a two-week, continuous revival, drawing nearly 50,000 students and visitors from around the country. It also sparked similar events on other campuses.

Daniel Darling, a bestselling Christian author and pastor, wrote in response to the Asbury revival:

“I’m bullish on Gen Z. God is doing something. I’ve seen it on our own campus. I’ve seen it on campuses where I’ve preached. We need wisdom and discernment, but I don’t want to be the cranky old guy who obsesses over trend lines, nitpicks away and misses a movement of the Spirit.”

To be sure, the revival has its skeptics. However, whether one is a doubter or a believer in the Asbury revival, the event at least suggests that maybe the experts don’t have the full story on where young Americans are headed with religion. In fact, one could argue that we simply cannot know for sure right now.

Returning to the findings of researcher Daniel Cox: “What most distinguishes Generation Z from previous generations is not that Gen Zers are more likely to leave their childhood religion, but rather that many of them lacked a religious upbringing.”

Cox notes that 15% of Gen Zers report being raised in nonreligious households, more than twice the rate of Gen Xers (6%) and five times the rate of baby boomers (3%).

Many of them say they don’t know how to connect to communities of faith. Almost 40% of young people in Springtide’s 2021 annual State of Religion & Young People report agreed with the statement, “I would not even think to go to a faith community because it is not something I’ve ever gone to before.”

More than half said, “I’m not sure how to get connected to a new faith community.”

The decline of institutional trust, the increase in demographic diversity and the rise of social media, among other factors, mean that young people are operating in a different social environment than the one that gave rise to the successful program-driven models of youth engagement over the past 50 years.

What can faith leaders do in place of programs? They can invest in building trust through authentic relationships with young people rather than relying on institutional authority to do the lifting. They can promote belonging to the same degree as believing. They can address the issues that young people care about, like racial and ethnic identity and mental health. They can bake and break bread.

At Springtide, we know that there are more examples of innovative approaches to engaging young people, because young people tell us about them all the time.

With a new grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., we are excited to spend the next three years identifying the who and the what behind those approaches and why they are so successful with young people, with the goal of developing frameworks that can be adapted and applied in faith communities everywhere.

We are excited to tell a new story — perhaps even the true story — about the spiritual potential of young Americans. Among the epitaphs written about young people and the church, we hope to announce new births — and to normalize a posture of hope and anticipation for the exciting places young people will take religion in the years to come.

The concussive pops rang through Uptown Baptist Church one evening in August 2013. The Rev. Michael Allen didn’t realize the noise as gunfire at first. Busy greeting the familiar faces and newcomers at the church’s Monday Meal program, the minister thought it was perhaps late summer fireworks.

Then he opened the church door. He saw five men bleeding at the bottom of the church steps. One man, shot in the head, later died; the other victims recovered from their injuries. Uptown has higher rates of violence than many other North Side Chicago neighborhoods, but this was beyond anything Allen had ever seen.

“We can’t allow this,” he thought. He had long been focused on urban ministry and justice, and this latest violence underscored his neighborhood’s critical need: What could be done to help the victims as well as keep the would-be perpetrators from getting to this point?

“How can we minister on both sides of the gun?” he asked himself.

prayer walk
Faith leaders march downtown during Hands Across Chicago, which mobilizes people to host “united prayer and positive community presence” in the city.Photo by Scott Parker

A year and a half later, Allen met David Dillon, a tech entrepreneur who had grown up the child of Baptist General Conference missionaries in Japan and later moved to Chicago. The two discovered they were focused on the same issue.

Staggering rates of gun violence in 2016 spurred Dillon to try to find an approach to the problem. He invited his friends, business peers and pastor contacts to pray and brainstorm.

In 2017, Together Chicago was born of faith, strategy and collaboration, with Dillon and Allen as co-founders. Its goal is to improve communities on Chicago’s near West Side and address what Together Chicago board member the Rev. Jon Dennis calls a “racial wound that hasn’t been healed yet.”

Collaboration and collective impact

Gun violence is just one outcome of the interconnected problems of economic disenfranchisement, systemic racism, high incarceration rates, violence, substandard educational resources and demoralization.

Together Chicago tackles it all. Inspired by a 2014 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Allen and Dillon designed the nonprofit as a “collective impact” organization. Collective impact is “an intentional way of working together and sharing information for the purpose of solving a complex problem,” according to the National Council of Nonprofits.

What partners do you invite into conversation when you face what seems like an intractable problem?

panel discussion
Faith organizers speak at at a training hosted by Building Blocks of Peace, a Together Chicago partner. Photo by Gabe Lerma

Gun violence overall in Chicago isn’t as rampant as some might think — Chicago isn’t even the most violent city in the Midwest. However, its gun violence is highly concentrated in certain neighborhoods: between 2017 and 2020, 15 of Chicago’s 77 designated community areas, concentrated in the city’s South and West sides, accounted for over 50% of all shootings.

The West Haven neighborhood, where Together Chicago focuses, includes the United Center (the house that Michael Jordan built). It’s close to the downtown Loop and is a mix of rapacious gentrification and generations-old public housing.

In order to address the web of interrelated factors that contribute to violence, the leaders set up the organization with five focus areas: violence reduction, education, economic development, gospel justice and faith community mobilization.

Together Chicago’s reach and impact is expanding as the organization grows.

In 2020-21, volunteers and staff worked with about 3,000 schoolchildren; offered legal aid in 19 churches; trained 28 volunteers and faith leaders to “interrupt” violence; helped local businesses become suppliers to major industries; and engaged more than 100 churches in prayer gatherings and other efforts.

Together Chicago works with local universities to track its impact. The work is slow and long term, but the group can point to successes.

Andrew Papachristos is a Northwestern University sociology professor who studies gun violence and has researched nonviolence outreach groups. He has worked with Together Chicago partner Communities Partnering for Peace.

Papachristos said the data collected so far indicates that efforts of outreach programs by Communities Partnering for Peace could be linked to 383 fewer homicides in 2021.

“That’s not 5,000, but that’s not zero, either,” he said.

Violence reduction

Dillon and Allen call each other co-CEOs (also sometimes, in presentations and interviews, “twin sons of different mothers”). They note that business acumen is essential to managing an organization with so many priorities and stakeholders.

Together Chicago resisted thinking about gun violence as a stand-alone challenge, appreciating the ways it is interconnected with economics, racism and other injustices. How would such an approach to discernment invite you to think differently about your ministries and their impact?

Dillon and Allen
David Dillon and Michael Allen, co-founders of Together Chicago.

“We’re over a $2 million organization now,” Dillon said. “There’s just a ton to manage in terms of complexity. We’re audited by every agency that gives us money to do work. We report, literally, sometimes weekly on our activities to various agencies. It’s a huge amount of overhead and red tape.”

The organization, which has 50 employees, is funded by grants from foundations, churches and individuals, contracts with local businesses, and government grants for services related to violence prevention and reduction.

Like other business leaders in 2023, Dillon and Allen understand the importance of data and how to use it.

With access to data on crime, education and other metrics through partners like the University of Chicago, North Park University and the Department of Education, they track their efforts. That includes the number of students in volunteer programs, the number of parents in the Parent Champions program and the number of school/church combinations, Dillon said.

Beyond thoughts and prayers, metrics let them know whether they’re heading in the right direction and what goals to set.

“We’ve had some double-digit reduction in violence last year [2021] compared to the year before, but we’re still not back to pre-pandemic numbers,” Dillon said, reviewing data from the University of Chicago Crime Lab portal, which tracked gun victims on the West Side in 2021 (nine) vs. 2020 (16).

The city experienced 695 homicides in 2022 — still some of the highest numbers since the 1990s, but lower than the 804 in 2021.

Watching numbers like those provided by the portal in real time helps provide a more granular picture of spots to focus on in the areas they serve.

“We’re not doing as well this year as we did in ’21, but we still are seeing a reduction,” Dillon said. “At the end of this year, we’d love to see another double-digit reduction in homicides and shootings.”

How do you measure success? What partners might help you learn from your efforts and pivot for greater effect?

prayer service
People gather at First Baptist Congregational Church for Chicagoland United in Prayer.Photo by Nate Tubbs

Interrupting street violence

Tio Hardiman, the executive director of Chicago’s Violence Interrupters program, supervises Together Chicago’s street outreach team. Former gang members, people who have been incarcerated and gunshot survivors serve as community liaisons to keep local at-risk youth out of prison or the morgue.

“We provide the training so they know what it takes to become a credible messenger and how to prevent conflicts on the front end before any shots are fired,” Hardiman said.

“They don’t just meet with the guys on the streets; they actually have a relationship with different community stakeholders like church leaders, community residents and community leaders, which is very, very important.”

One strategy is to interrupt bad actions through volunteer peacemakers who engage in “positive loitering” to change street dynamics. Another strategy is to interrupt bad actors through personal visits and messages of hope.

Derek Wright is a West Haven resident who learned about Together Chicago’s street outreach program because of its network. His brother knew Charles King, a former gang member who now counsels local guys like him.

Wright said that King helped him get a job with the city of Chicago, when previously he had been “hanging on the street.”

“It’s not just he got me a job; he got seven other people jobs. He helped the community,” Wright said. “[Charles] has been involved in my life for a minute. When life has its ups and downs, I give him a call, and we work it out. Not everything is peaches and cream.”

In other situations, the Chicago Police Department shares names of local youth most at risk of landing in prison, possibly repeatedly, with the group’s anti-violence leaders.

“The commanders give a message of warning to these guys,” Allen said. “We give a message of hope and help to them: ‘The police will stop you if you make them; we will help you if you let us. Give us a call when you’re ready to put the guns and drugs down. We’ll show you a better path.’”

The Rev. Joe Cali, a North Side minister, has a list of 100 families of “acute offenders” he checks in on as one of the organization’s volunteer counselors. He considers it a success if any of the youths indicate they want to hear what he has to say. Not everyone he counsels stays out of jail, but he can still help them if they don’t.

“We went to one young man’s house three times because he kept being on the Top 10 list,” Cali said. The young man finally reached out after landing in prison for breaking into cars.

“He started calling me almost every night from jail: ‘Pastor, I’ve got to change.’” He has been staying out of trouble since he got out.

“We just took him to the Blackhawks game last night,” Cali said. “He’s a different person now. He’s smiling big.”

What skills are essential for your ministry? If your team doesn’t already have those skills, how might you develop them?

neighborhoods working together
Pastors and leaders commit to prayer and action in their communities at Apostolic Faith Church.Photo by Mandy Pelton

Gospel justice, education and economic development

Together Chicago’s focus areas are informed by the needs left in the wake of Chicago’s documented disenfranchisement of minorities on the West Side. After several formal and informal listening sessions among community members, Allen says, it was clear there was a need for legal assistance.

“People said, ‘We’ve got so many families involved in the justice system. How do we help those people solve some of their civil issues before those civil issues become criminal issues?’”

Together Chicago, in partnership with the legal aid organization Administer Justice, runs Gospel Justice Centers in 19 churches. On Saturday mornings in primarily South and West Side churches, local volunteer attorneys offer legal aid clinics to advise clients on civil cases, typically involving family, housing, probate court or tax issues.

Together Chicago also seeks to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline by working with schools and families and developing the economy in the city’s marginalized neighborhoods.

To improve education, Together Chicago pairs with Chicago Public Schools to help churches and other organizations “adopt” schools to provide resources and help they may lack.

Some efforts are focused on student learning, such as tutoring. Together Chicago also trains mentors to work with students and recruit churches to help build a “village of support” for their families.

This support ranges from training volunteers to donating money and furniture and, in one case, preparing an end-of-semester meal for staff at Doolittle Elementary in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

The Parent Champions program offers counseling for stressed-out parents with the difficult task of raising kids in a tough environment.

How do you practice listening in your context? Whose voices are loudest? Whose are missing? Are you paying attention to needs, hopes, gifts or something else?

new grad and family
Damien Howard, director of education initiatives for Together Chicago, visits with graduates of its mentoring program.Photo courtesy of Together Chicago

“I know Together Chicago’s work is paying off when I see a kid like Camden,” said Damien Howard, the director of education initiatives at Together Chicago.

“He was a young man with behavioral issues at school. He took to [our] Social Emotional Learning training that was not just happening at school, but it was happening at home as well because his mom was taking part in it too.”

Camden Woodley, a third grader, said Together Chicago’s SEL training made a big difference.

“[The training] helped me take control of my emotions and make better choices and be a better friend,” he said.

Once students graduate, Together Chicago wants them to be able to find jobs and live in economically healthy communities. Much of this effort involves job placement, but the group’s economic development work is broader than keeping people out of prison.

In one case, the nonprofit worked with a nearby health care system that purchases $100 million in goods and services, helping it identify local businesses.

“They asked us to find local businesses that are minority-owned that they can use to do various services for their hospitals,” Dillon said. “We found IT companies and attorneys and repair companies and all kinds of companies that are minority-owned that are now doing services for Rush Hospital.”

The role of faith communities

None of this work would happen without faith community mobilization. In late January, the group was preparing for its annual Prayer Gathering event, in which 170 churches across Chicago pray virtually and in person for peace and thriving communities. It’s organized by Chicagoland United in Prayer, a sister organization. They even offer a special guide to prayer for each of the city’s neighborhoods.

“What’s really cool about these prayer gatherings is it’s very racially integrated,” Dillon said. “It’s a very visible way to show that the body of Christ really can unite, as in the Bible in John chapter 17. We pray together. We train together. We learn together.”

Prayer Gathering event
Participants form “prayer huddles” at Apostolic Faith Church during a Chicagoland United in Prayer event.Photo by Jantzen Loza

However, many of the spaces Together Chicago advocates for and works in — gangs, public schools, courts, law enforcement — are not necessarily places of faith.

Allen and Dillon say they follow a general philosophy: they lead with but do not force religion on anyone, especially members of the street outreach team, several of whom are Muslim.

“We have a statement of faith, the core values that we want everybody on our staff to live out in their day-to-day work,” Allen said. “It’s a work in progress. Most of our staff, even among the street outreach team, have no problem with our core values.”

Prayer gatherings, including this one at The Moody Church, are intended to foster seasonal rhythms of prayer and action throughout the year.Photo by Mandy Pelton

But sometimes, Dillon said, a faith connection grows where there was none before. When police officers depart, a young man might develop a rapport with a visiting minister who lingers to talk. Or a client who steps inside a church looking for affordable legal counsel might find something more.

“It’s meeting a legitimate, everyday need that they have that then sparks a faith journey,” he said.

There are many more intimate, less scalable ways the organization helps the community.

Shortly before Christmas, 16-year-old Kimberly Campbell was indoors on the West Side when she was shot in the head by outside gunfire. She later died. Together Chicago helped raise funds for her mother to spend some time at a hotel away from the triggering pressure and sadness of the neighborhood.

Cali, the volunteer counselor, said he once counseled the mother of a young man in jail for accidentally shooting and killing his best friend.

“I asked the family, ‘Do you need anything?’ The mom said, ‘I just broke my last pan.’ We bought her three new pans so she can cook her food.”

Looking ahead

Together Chicago’s goals for the year ahead are ambitious. The double-digit reduction in gun violence. More locations for the Gospel Justice Centers. And some signed truces between rival gangs.

In the spring, local gang factions will leave their guns behind and meet for several hours with the street outreach team to talk about what peace in the community might look like.

“They will be offered food, fun activities and noted hosts or participants who are well respected on the streets. These peace circles promise some ways and means out toward safety and prosperity,” Allen said.

No amount of data or funding can build this type of trust, he said. It takes solid partnerships built over time, a person-to-person model Together Chicago aims to reflect at every level.

“When we do get asked to come into a community,” Dillon said, “before we do that, we sit down and say, ‘How can we really coexist well together?’ If we can’t do that, we have no business even being in existence. It’s really core to our whole DNA.”

Questions to consider

  • What partners do you invite into conversation when you face what seems like an intractable problem?
  • Together Chicago resisted thinking about gun violence as a stand-alone challenge, appreciating the ways it is interconnected with economics, racism and other injustices. How would such an approach to discernment invite you to think differently about your ministries and their impact?
  • How do you measure success? What partners might help you learn from your efforts and pivot for greater effect?
  • What skills are essential for your ministry? If your team doesn’t already have those skills, how might you develop them?
  • How do you practice listening in your context? Whose voices are loudest? Whose are missing? Are you paying attention to needs, hopes, gifts or something else?

For communities across the United States, 2020 was quite the year. The global COVID-19 pandemic raged. Racial justice uprisings called attention to police and state violence following the murder of George Floyd. Our political landscape became increasingly polarized and fraught. All this together leaves little doubt that history books will be processing for many years to come the experiences we are living through now.

Against the chaotic backdrop of a world made undone, we as Christians are called to be messengers of radical hope. Ours is a resurrection hope that can see possibility where others see insurmountable challenge, to see new life where others see death. I believe in my core that the Gospel invites us into a place of imagination as active participants in God’s larger work of justice and reconciliation.

The hard work of this moment is to create space to become quiet enough to discern how God is uniquely calling you to respond in this season.

In 2015, my friend Nicholas Hayes and I created and piloted a resource dedicated to helping young people leverage their life story as a roadmap for vocational discernment. To us, vocation is not synonymous with a job or role. Vocation, in our understanding, is a matter of articulating your prophetic purpose in your own words.

Voices for Vocational Accompaniment

In today’s lingo, “prophecy” is often associated with predicting the future. But in the biblical tradition, a prophet is someone uniquely attuned to the present, one who reads the signs of the times. More specifically, the prophet gives voice to the tension between the world as it is now and the world as God dreams it to be. A prophet clearly sees and feels the brokenness — the injustice — of the world as it is. But a prophet also keeps faith in the potential for the world to be healed and transformed by the coming of God’s justice. Anger and grief, on the one hand, and passionate hope, on the other, are the two sides of prophecy.

Each of us has a prophetic vocation. We are called collectively to live in spaces of grief and hope, so that we might become partners in God’s work of justice and reconciliation. Yet each of us also has a unique role to play. To find it, we must read the signs of the times for ourselves and discern where the Spirit most moves each of us to act. What specific part of the world’s brokenness most speaks to you? To your own passions, griefs, hopes? Where do you feel most called to do the work of justice?

A key insight we gleaned as we piloted this project with young adults is this: While one’s job or role can change, their prophetic purpose often remains consistent over the course of a lifetime. Discovering our prophetic purpose anchors us in our ability to reflect and understand our own story and the stories of the people, places, and communities that have helped shape us along the way.

The Bible is full of famous prophetic call stories, from the uncertainty and reluctance of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-19) to the supernatural splendor of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:1-8). Most often these narratives involve the prophet hearing the audible voice of God and being directly commissioned into service. Sometimes our prophetic purpose is revealed through these obviously spiritual experiences, like those recounted by the biblical prophets. But more often, it comes from the powerful, everyday experiences that “wake us up” to the brokenness of the world. One way, then, to understand our prophetic purpose is to look at the ways God calls us in those moments of awakening and respond to that call through the choices we make.

As you begin to explore your prophetic purpose through the moments that shaped and still shape you, here are a few questions that might be helpful:

  1. When was your first experience of injustice? How did the experience change your worldview?
  2. Describe a moment, recent or long past, when you witnessed an act of injustice that broke your heart. How did you respond to your anger?
  3. When was a time you believed you could make a difference on the issue that broke your heart? What actions did you take? How did you know God or others were with you?

When we take the time to examine these transformative moments of call and response that have inspired us, we see themes emerge. Perhaps you have always had a passion for caring for God’s creation, or for offering radical hospitality to strangers. Maybe you have always had a tendency to speak up for those denied a voice in certain halls of power. Whatever it is, know that God is with you and will never leave or forsake you.

Finally, a word on roles. In my own ministerial journey, I find that making the distinction between prophetic purpose and role is incredibly important — even liberating. Societal norms tie our sense of call to the jobs we hold. As a result, we allow our self-worth to be wrapped up in our ability to be productive in these positions. Some of us will be blessed to have these two things — our job and our prophetic purpose — align for a season. But in my lived experience, there are few things that are as certain as change. As we progress through the life cycle, our responsibilities and those to whom we are accountable will necessarily transition. Parental figures age. Our health status changes. We may choose to partner, raise children, or not. These life cycle shifts do not mean we need to abandon our prophetic purpose, but rather assess and discern how our purpose might be called to manifest differently in each new season. You might be called to the front lines of protest now, and into more of a support role later in life. It’s all okay.

One of the beautiful things about being a Christian is the constant reminder that it is not up to us alone to solve the great challenges of our time. Rather — as we seek our prophetic purpose amid the pandemics of virus, injustice, and political division — we might take solace in these words, often falsely attributed to the great freedom fighter Archbishop Oscar Romero:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

[From a 1979 homily written for Cardinal John Dearden by the Rev. Kenneth Untener; quoted by Pope Francis in 2015]

May it be so. Amen.

From “Voices for Vocational Accompaniment: Leading, Mentoring, and Learning From the Next Generation” edited by Patrick B. Reyes. Copyright © 2021 by the Forum for Theological Exploration. Used by permission of the Forum for Theological Exploration.