B.E.L.L.S Mission series - LISTEN

Before you listen WATCH THIS - then the intro will make sense! 


Who saw the gorilla?

This experiment brilliantly highlights that we see what we focus on. Daniel Simons, a Psychology researcher, created this experiment in 1999. It has famously become known as the “invisible gorilla” experiment.

On average 50% of people miss the gorilla in this video. If you know the gorilla is coming of course you would spot it, but for plenty of people who see this video for the first time, their attention is so focussed on counting how many times the basketball is passed that they miss it. People focus on the white shirts to the extent they block out the black shirts and in turn block out the gorilla in the black gorilla suit.

Theologian, Andrew Root wrote a recent article commenting on this experiment in relation to our contemporary society and Christianity and he says that like the gorilla: “God is in the background, and our day-to-day, moment-to-moment attention is on material things. Most people are unwilling to stop paying attention to what society deems most important. They can’t, as it were, stop counting the number of basketball passes—or focusing on their bank accounts, Twitter followers, product promotions, or consumer purchases—to attend to something different.”[1]

He goes on to say that Pastors too are drawn to focus on the proverbial basketball. Things like church budgets, membership, and programs capture our attention.

And yet even in the midst of this God is at work in the background even if we don’t notice it because we are preoccupied with everything but God.

Andrew Root goes on to say: “The problem is not that God is not visible but that (to pursue the analogy) God is the gorilla to whose appearance we have been blinded. There is, however, a way to avoid this observation blindness, a way even to encounter the event of God speaking. This is the way of prayer.”


I think that this observation is just so relevant and important to consider.

Yes, the Gorilla is pretty comical. But what isn’t so funny is the thought that sometimes as a church we can get so focussed on everything but God that when God is at work amidst us, we miss spotting it.  


Today we continue in our series here at St John’s – a five-week series looking at how we might make disciples, taking seriously Jesus’ commission to go out and do this.

This series is grounded in a fantastic book called “Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People.”

This book makes the valuable point that we are all called to mission. It isn’t just for so called missionaries. Every single Christian is called to mission, to sharing the good news of Jesus.

The point is that all of us are called to be doing mission and we can do it in an everyday and natural kind of way right where we are.

These five habits are made memorable by an acronym B.E.L.L.S

Today we are looking at the embracing the habit of listening.

How do we partner with God in God’s mission to restore and heal a lost and broken world?

It all begins with listening, with paying attention, with not missing the gorilla so to speak.

If we don’t listen to God, then how will we know what God is calling us to do? Or how will we know who God is calling us to be?

When it comes to everyday mission, reaching out to the world with the good news of Jesus, it all begins with us listening to God and following God’s lead.

Listening is so central in the life of being a Christian.

It is so central because God speaks to us consistently through Scripture, and in the circumstances of our life, through nature, in our thoughts. The Holy Spirit is so often at work speaking, prompting, guiding, drawing attention to Jesus, yet we can so often miss it if we aren’t listening, if we aren’t tuned in.

Sometimes God shouts to get our attention. Some of us would have had moments in our lives where God is so powerfully speaking that we just can’t ignore Him, but a lot of the time God whispers, and we are required to listen.

Henri Nouwen names the importance of listening beautifully when he says:

“The great movement of the spiritual life is from a deaf, non-hearing life to a life of listening. From a life in which we experience ourselves as separated, isolated, and lonely to a life in which we hear the guiding and healing voice of God, who is with us and will never leave us alone.”[2]


Isn’t that true? So much of being a Christian is hearing the voice of God speak the truth loudly in our lives – the truth that we are loved by God, that even though we are broken and sinful that through Jesus’ death and resurrection we can be healed and set free.


In our readings from today we encounter two stories about listening.

In the first one we meet Samuel.

Samuel was born to Hannah who had not been able to have children but desperately prayed to God that she may have a child and promised that if she did that she would dedicate the child to God. And so this happened, God gave her this child Samuel and he grew up in the house of the priest Eli.

Samuel was lying down in the Temple of the Lord, presumably about to go to sleep when he hears a voice.

Three times Samuel hears a voice, but doesn’t know it is God. He keeps going to Eli because he thinks Eli is calling him. On the third time Eli realizes it is God and so he tells Samuel to respond by saying: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Two things stand out for me in this story.

The first is that even though Samuel hears the voice of God three times, he doesn’t recognize it.

So, there is a sense that hearing God and listening to God has something to do with knowing him, it is about relationship.

In John’s Gospel Jesus says “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

And the second thing that stands out to me is the need to be responsive. God doesn’t give Samuel the message he wants to give until Samuel responds and says, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The posture that Samuel is invited to by Eli is one of active listening.

How might we do this too?

In our second reading today, we are given a clue.

Jesus says: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.”

Jesus critiques the hypocritical religious folks who loudly pray where everyone else can see them so they might be regarded as good people who say all the right things. These people expend their energy on many words, but their reward is superficial, they miss the real meaning of prayer which is communion with God, connection with Him, getting to know His voice, His love and goodness in our life.

Jesus says go find a quiet place where you won’t be seen and pray.

It is this kind of place that is conducive to listening.

Jesus modelled it consistently in the midst of his busy ministry with so many needy people around him he would get up early or stay up late and find a quiet place to pray on his own, listening to the will of the Father.

You and I are busy too right? We live in the age of distraction. Not long ago we saw the rise of the smart phone – a phone that connects us to the internet, to multiple apps, social media, videos, email, the works. Now people have become so addicted to these that there are companies producing so called “dumb phones” that look like smart phones that help people wean themselves from the distraction.

More than ever we live in a world that is inattentive, noisy, and chaotic.

How might we take the time to listen to God and to follow God’s lead in our lives? Like Samuel we might hear the voice but not recognize it.



I’d like to give some practical tips for listening, for following the lead of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

In his book Mike Frost encourages us to develop the habit of listening for the Spirit’s voice. He says, “I suggest the you find at least one chunk of time, preferably at the beginning of each week, to stop and create space to commune with God.”

So, some very practical tips:


-Firstly, Make time. Set a designated time.

For me this has been so important. I have literally put time in my calendar for coffee with God. At some point during the day for me I just try to pause, grab my Bible and sit with a cuppa reading it and asking that God would speak to me. So often God does. I find myself encouraged, chastised, inspired, and drawn to love God and his world more.

Another thing I have found helpful is to find a friend to accompany me on the journey. I meet with another minister in our district and once a month we go out on retreat for a hike, shared silence, and prayer. We keep each other accountable for creating room in our lives to hear God speak. I have found in these times that God has clarified things like what I spend my time on, who I should reach out to, and just simply his love for me through Jesus.  


-Secondly, eliminate distraction in your life. Find a quiet space. Jesus modelled this himself. He went away to a quiet place. Find your quiet place. It may be a chair in the sun in your house, it might be a local park, or the beach. Find somewhere where you can take time to say to God: “Speak, for your servant is listening.”


-Thirdly, Let God in. Let God set the agenda, just enjoy God’s presence. If we come to our time of prayer only with our own concerns or our own agenda we can so often drown out the voice of God. We can spend so much time talking about our own concerns that we miss what God might want to say to us. Silent prayer is an important part of listening to God. There are lots of great resources on different ways to do this and if you’re interested and love to share some with you, so just ask.

Fourthly, Listen with discernment. Of course, not everything that pops into our head is God speaking to us. It’s important to attend to what we hear in conversation with the Bible. The Holy Spirit speaking to you won’t contradict what the Holy Spirit says in Scripture. If you think you’ve hear the Holy Spirit telling you to steal a car or sleep with your neighbour’s wife it’s not the Holy Spirit you’ve been listening to. These are obvious examples, but seriously, we must weigh and discern with Scripture and in community, what God is saying to us.


Fifth and finally, and very importantly, Follow God’s Prompting

When the Spirit leads us follow it up. We might be prompted to talk to someone, to invite them into our life, or to share an encouraging word. The Spirit might convict us of sin in our life or encourage us in our faithfulness. We are invited not just to listen but to respond.

I was recently so encouraged by God in this area.

A few weeks ago, I was walking around the neighbourhood and I spotted a woman zipping past on a mobility scooter. As I saw her I had a loud thought that I think was from God. “Talk with her.” And so as she zipped past I said hello and she continued zipping by at some speed I might add. It struck me that God had invited me to do that, but she passed fairly quickly and I thought “Oh well, wonder what that was about.”

Later that day I was wandering around again, on my way to offer an impromptu pastoral visit to someone. I turn up and they aren’t home. Turns out my plan doesn’t work and I wander on. On the way out I bumped into this woman I’d seen earlier zipping past. We’ll call her “Penny.” Again as I see her I hear the loud thought once more – talk with her. She says hi, I say hi, and then I linger for a moment and she strikes up a conversation with me.

She mentioned that earlier in the day she saw me wandering down the street and she had a loud thought that she should call out to me and ask to speak, but she ignored it and carried on. When she saw me the second time, the loud thought turned up again and she decided to strike up a conversation.

We talked for about an hour and had the most incredible conversation. Penny had been a Christian for many years but in recent years had struggled deeply with her faith because of some awful circumstances in her life. She had walked away, shook her fist at God and given up, closing the door to that part of her life. The day we spoke she shared that she just wanted to be close to Jesus again. She shared at length and I assured her that there is always a way back, that God is always willing to forgive us when we come to him, and then and there we prayed.

Penny called me a week later to tell me just how much that moment with God has transformed her life.

It took both of us that day to listen to that “loud thought”, to acknowledge the prompting of God and then see what happens. God used that moment to bring a precious child of his closer to him and remind her of his love.

That day my pastoral visiting plans didn’t work out, but God’s did, and that is what matters the most. It reminded me of the challenge to listen, and how when we do listen to God, when we begin with where he leads our mission will bear much fruit.

So today I hope that you are encouraged to listen to the Lord. I hope that you hear loud and clear God’s voice of love deep in your heart. I pray that you know the good news of the Gospel deep in your bones, that Jesus lived and died for you. I pray that you may hear God’s voice drawing you to share his love with your neighbours.


I want to finish with this prayer by Scott Erickson and Justin McRoberts:


May I have vision and courage

          to join God in the places

He’s already working

          rather than feel

Responsible for bringing Him

          with me. Amen.

[1] Andrew Root article “Being a Pastor Within the Secular Frame Means Teaching People How to Pray.” Found on: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/being-pastor-within-secular-frame-means-teaching-people-how-pray?fbclid=IwAR38BFUxpdFZIQz-SG_bw8W0KqjuygajSIG3qlFu0zqiz00DHTVN6b5rlpU, accessed on the 26th of June 2019.

[2] Henri J. M. Nouwen with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life (London: SPCK, 2013) Kindle edition

Josh Taylor