by: Lindsey Johnson

In kindergarten, you learn about trees. My six-year-old son just wrapped up his first year of school and, on the last day, his backpack came home full of school projects that accumulated in his cubby over the course of the year. There were paper and glue creations and stick figure drawings of his family (and many of the Incredible Hulk). One of those projects was from the unit his class completed on trees. 

His crudely cut out construction paper tree had its parts labeled: roots, trunk, branch, and leaf. From this early age, he is being taught to look at a tree in a certain way: Identify its parts; learn each part’s purpose; distinguish one tree from another by its bark, its leaves, or its shape. 

In her book, “This Here Flesh,” author Cole Arthur Riley (@blackliturgies) describes her favorite sound this way:

This passage is from the preface of her book, and she goes on to say that she was wary of using the image of a tree as an introduction. It’s been done. It’s not new. She says, “Would I really use a tree — this image that has been used so often, used to the point of death — to begin this book?” 

But she also recognizes that this image is actually quite fitting. Her book, in her words, is not full of new things or new ideas. Her thoughts have been thought before. They are old, even familiar. Her goal instead, is to go deep. To change the way you think about the tree. Not “What is the tree?”, but What is the tree to me? When did I first touch its bark? How does it move me? What would I call this shade of green? What do I hear when I listen?”

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine I learned about trees around the same age as my son, and in roughly the same way — parts, purpose, identifying characteristics. All these years, I have looked at trees the way I was taught, without much further investigation or introspection. 

I certainly have never stopped to really listen to a tree. And now I wonder, what other areas of my life and my work am I viewing the way I was taught? Do I look at my community and only see the narrative I learned at a young age? What assumptions have I made about the people and the places around me, and what am I missing? What stories haven’t I heard before, and how would my perspective change if I took time to really listen

The work we do as innovators must take on a similar stance of curiosity, of going deep, of removing assumptions, and thinking about things in a new way, even old ideas that have been used to the point of death. We must ask ourselves: What is this thing to me? How does it move me? What do I hear when I listen? 

Listening is a sacred act of ministry in this post-pandemic season. The Innovation Lab’s new resource, the Community Discovery Package, was developed to help your faith community listen deeply, move beyond assumptions, and explore your community with new lenses. You’ll uncover the challenges, stories, and assets that your community holds as you seek to develop new ministries. The Community Discovery Package provides the process and a tool you need for engaging this work with intention. Click here to learn more. 

Lindsey is the Lab Coordinator in the Innovation Lab at CYMT. She has worked in church ministry and youth ministry as a lay leader for over 20 years.