Listening deeply to your city

In my previous post I encouraged Christian leaders to consider ways they could listen deeply to the yearnings, desires, hopes and disappointments of their community.

My reason for encouraging such deep listening is that I believe all mission is contextual. All mission. We’ve been buying ministry ideas off the shelf for too long, dishing up the same old tired suite of products currently on offer in every church right across the country.

Mission is provincial. It’s local. It’s indigenous. It grows in the peculiar eco-systems in which its planted, and so it will taste and smell different in different settings.


So, how are you to know how to respond to the needs of your community, or how to collaborate with the things God is already doing there, unless you can listen? Truly listen.

One of the world’s most revolutionary listening devices is the stethoscope. It was invented in 1816 by the impressively named René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec. He pioneered its use in diagnosing various chest conditions (stethos derives from the Greek word for chest).

In commending his new instrument, Laennec was noted for saying, “Listen to your patients. They’re telling you how to heal them.”


Get that? The patient’s sick body knows what it needs to be healed. You just have to listen carefully enough.

I think deep down your neighborhood knows what it needs to be healed too. I also think we were sent to our neighbors with a ministry of reconciliation and healing. So we need to place a stethoscope on our neighborhood’s chest. And listen. Deeply.

But how exactly?

In my new book with Christiana Rice, To Alter Your World, we explore what has been called the “Five S’s to Studying Your Place.” They’re drawn from the work of Dr Michael Mata, professor of Transformational Urban Leadership at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles. The five areas he suggests you should listen to are structures, signs, spatial dynamics, social interaction and spirituality.

In coming posts I’ll look at all five, and even add a sixth one Christiana and I think needs to be included. But for now, let’s look at the first one – structures.

When listening to your neighborhood, pay attention to what the structures or buildings are like. The built environment will tell you about mission in that city.

Built environments create certain conditions that have the potential to build and enhance community or to destroy it. Freeways can separate communities. Gentrified housing developments create divisions. Shopping malls destroy downtown commercial districts. But increasingly, city councils are assisting in the renewal of communities. How are they doing that in your city? What are they building that helps or hinders?

Also, be conscious of the different districts or neighborhoods in your city. Districts are areas with perceived internal sameness. Districts may be neighborhoods, public housing zones, etc. Some cities have a history of racial segregation with enforced district boundaries. So look for the structural edges of a place, the dividing lines between districts. They are the linear elements not used or considered as paths by the observer, but which separate districts. They might be freeways, rivers, train lines – anything that marks the termination of a district. But they tell you who can and can’t enter those zones.

Be aware of important landmarks. What do they commemorate or celebrate? Whose history do they tell? Whose history is not told? Do they imply messages of violence and conquest, or racism and oppression? Other landmarks might be points of reference like well-known or loved buildings, signs, stores, etc.

In exploring the five S’s you are trying to answer a very basic question: what are the blockages and where are the bridges to my community.


If we can discern the bridges into the heart of our city, we are better at responding to its desires and needs. But we also need to be conscious of the blockages, the barriers, the do-not-enter signs. Negotiating our way around them requires greater sensitivity and insight. As I said, there’ll be more about this in future posts. But in the meantime, here’s a few questions you can use to get started on listening to the structures of your city:

  • What are the actual structures that exist in this neighborhood and what kinds of people are they built for?
  • What is their purpose?
  • When were they built and what funding was used to build them?
  • Are the structures older or new, well-kept or run down, rentals or home owned, businesses, third spaces or services?
  • Are there fences, barriers or walls?
  • Are there ‘open doors’ and ‘welcome mats’ in my city? Who opened those doors? Who enters there?


[image credit: Banksy, San Francisco]



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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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