Beyond a Thin Jesus: Developing the Art of Listening to Kids

October 7th, 2009


I do love to talk. Specifically, I love to tell stories. Sometimes they’re true, sometimes…well, they’re still good stories. I somehow missed the gene that allows for anything to be told without some manner of elaborate setup and a long drawn-out explanation. Simple questions, questions that should have a yes or no answer, are beyond my grasp. Everything is connected to a story. Once I realized how much I connect the dots by story, I made the switch to really begin to listen for stories. As a minister, I have a story I want to get out to the world (or at least my little corner of it). There are times when I’ve been too focused on the message and lose sight of Christ. In those times I can only offer a thin Jesus who barely, if at all, connects with my students.

I talk with my students about Jesus. We talk about him being on their side, that they’re not alone. We talk of families and the blessing they are or can be. And then one day, in the midst of all our talking, I finally heard what one of my girls was saying; sadly it wasn’t when she was actually talking to me. It was by accident, over the phone, and I heard what she’d been telling me for nearly two years. Tina said her mom doesn’t like her. Now being the savvy youth minister, I listened and found every way to reframe the negative comments she reported to me. I found every way to defend what seemed to be consistent exaggerations (Tina was one of those girls who exaggerates everything). I’ve met her mom; I’ve spent time in their house; I’ve seen them at church together. They look like the perfect, put-together middle-class family. And then I listened.

While on the phone with me, her mom yelled. She yelled not commands, random thoughts, or even cussing; it was worse. She told her daughter that she was worthless, useless, and that she wished she didn’t have to be stuck with her. This wasn’t in the middle of an argument. Just five minutes before I’d heard Tina asking what time she needed to get dinner out of the oven, her mom responded and then Tina was back talking to me. There was no context—her mom burst out of nowhere, yelled, and was gone. Tina tried to tell her mom that she was on the phone with someone from church—that she wasn’t just chatting with a friend. Her mom didn’t hear a word. Just as quickly as it came on, the yelling was over. Tina apologized that I had to hear it; and without missing a beat, she said that happens once or twice a day and went on asking me what time we were going to meet. I was stunned. She’d been telling me this happens for nearly two years and I never really heard her. Worse, I’d been offering responses based on what I thought rather than what she’s been saying. I' been offering a very thin understanding of Jesus.

Thick and thin may seem like funny language for talking about Jesus; Michael Walzer uses this language a lot in his writings. Here's an example: Ask a room of people to think of “mom.” A thin understanding is that everyone has the same general picture of a mom—a female who gave birth to an individual. The thick understanding includes each person’s own experience—their own understandings of “mom.” This seemingly easy-to-agree-upon concept is complicated by what we really mean with the words we use. Was she the neighborhood baker, the tough but dependable woman on the block, hard working and successful at her career, sad a lot or yelling a lot, loving and soft-spoken, or the life of the party. For some people “mom” brings up wonderful thoughts and memories. For others, “mom” is who they aspire to be nothing like. Additionally, we must recognize that to many a mom has nothing to do with biology and can even represent multiple people. While we can all talk about “mom” in a surface way, it’s only after really listening to one another that the conversation can go deeper, that the conversation can move to a thick meaning.

A thin language is useful and often necessary as a beginning point for conversations or storytelling. But we can (and do) get in trouble if we don’t move beyond this, especially in a postmodern, multicultural world. Many of us share stories of Jesus assuming that everyone else's understanding is similar to ours. We assume that there are some things we don’t have to explain, which simply isn’t the case.

Many of us tell stories that only reveal one part of Jesus. We tell of a Jesus who’s one dimensional, either only in relation to salvation, or only as teacher, or only as comforter. We forget to listen to kids' stories and respond to what they’re actually asking. In a cabin, two weeks ago I was with a group of girls who were as different from one another as could be. Two in particular stand out. One has been in the foster care system for years, is sexually active, and worldy beyond her years. The second is from a stable, two-parent family; she's very innocent, silly, inattentive, and disruptive. As I was listening to their stories, though, I noticed that they were far more alike than different. I had pre-conceived notions of how I could best share Christ with each girl. In cabin time, I asked if they believed God loved them, and both said yes. I pushed them to consider this and to wrestle with whether they really believed it. I asked if they lived like someone who was loved…silence…and then almost in unison, each said they felt like they needed to work to be accepted by people around them before they could live as though God loved them. They each understood God in their lives by the people around them and both felt unaccepted—very different lives and yet so many similarities. Had I not listened, I would’ve been sharing what I thought they needed to hear. When I finally slowed down long enough to listen, we had a real conversation. The conversation was between us as people; what we shared was the reality of God.

Thinly, I share the easiest of answers. I come to a conversation already knowing exactly what I want to say, and I share a thin Jesus who may or may not have anything to say to my students. When I listen, really listen, I cannot have a pre-scripted conversation. Their questions are real and my answers have to go beyond the surface. It’s amazing how much more I can say with fewer words when I truly listen!


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