Churches are also shaped by the voices we choose to listen to. The people that we choose to give authority to have a powerful say in what sort of communities we are and what sort of communities we are becoming. Yes, we affirm that God, the Bible, and the ancient creeds are our authorities, but the truth is that those authorities are almost always mediated to us through human beings. The Scriptures weren't written in English, after all.
It is unavoidable that churches will be formed in the images of those who lead them and those who are allowed to speak in them. Communities have a way of taking on the personalities of their leaders. Those whose voices are heard the most will have the loudest influence on the character of a community.
Sarah Bessey's book, Jesus Feminist, makes the pretty airtight case that it has predominately been the masculine voice that has reverberated throughout sanctuaries and church classrooms and theological halls in contemporary Christianity. Though there have been notable and important exceptions, the voices of men have echoed the loudest from our pulpits.
In my endorsement, I wrote this, "Sarah says she doesn't feel a call to preach, but she speaks with the fire and artistry of a great preacher. Her sermon is one of hope: though the Church has often ignored the voices of women or lumped them into one limiting category, a revolution is coming. Sarah's voice is prophetic and she will free other women to speak and act with power, love, and courage. And may it be a summons for men in the Church to speak less and listen a lot more."
I was not just being colorful in talking about Sarah's preaching. If you have read my book, you know that I believe strongly in diverse leadership and that I want to see a lot more women teaching and preaching and pastoring and leading in our churches. This is an equality and justice issue, absolutely, but it is also a spiritual and community formation issue. Who are the voices that are shaping us? If we only hear the voices of men on Sunday mornings, and in Tuesday night budget meetings, what, and who, are we missing? What are the scriptures that get neglected? What are the images and metaphors for God that are overlooked? How are our church budgets lopsided? What are the gifts and who are the gifted that we are neglecting?
I believe it is high time for us male leaders to drop the mic for a while. We have had our turn to speak and now it is time to listen. If we are truly serious about being "servant leaders," then we need to acknowledge that the first task of a servant is to listen. If you are not listening, you are not a servant. You can't talk about an "upside down kingdom" without getting on the floor and looking up.
I do not mean that sort of listening that is simply listening for ammunition to use in our argument, the silent pause before the thunder. I do not mean listening to the warm-up act before I headline the tour. I mean the sort of listening that comes in with an genuine openness to having our minds changed. The sort of listening that says I will listen to you not just once but again and again and again, because you have had to listen to me again and again and again and again. I will lead with my ears. I will risk listening to the pain of others, and I will be open to their pain breaking my heart. I will take up my cross and die to myself so that others may be exalted.
I have no doubt that Sarah's book will get a wide hearing among women who have felt silenced or relegated to corner ministries in the church, but this post is primarily a call to men. Read Sarah's book. Especially if you are prone to disagree with her theology, take a small step. If you don't believe that women should be preaching in church, take a risk and go and hear a female preacher on Sunday morning and listen for the Word of God. Stop talking and listen.
One image of God that Sarah says is neglected by the predominance of the male voice in our communities is God as Mother. If women were preaching every Sunday we would hear a lot less about war and football and a lot more about childbirth. I am convinced that something new is being born in the church, and God's daughters are waking up to the gifts the Spirit has given them. It is a time for hope. The music of the future is wafting backwards into the present, and I hope the Church is listening.