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  • Understand how to actively listen, observe, understand, and respect the needs of the people around you.
  • Align what you do and how you communicate with the unique person or group of people with whom you’re trying to communicate—not simply based on your personal preferences.

Anchor verses: Matthew 14:13-21

“Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. … Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he gave the bread to the disciples, who distributed it to the people. They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers. About 5,000 men were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children!”

Have you ever wondered, “What are the immediate needs in my larger community?” Or have you asked, “How can we serve our city?”

A common desire of many churches and Christian organizations is to grow bigger and attract more people, as a higher attendance is considered a success. There is nothing wrong with having this goal of reaching more people (it is a way to live out the Great Commission, after all), but that is a framework we might want to adjust.

Instead, what if we started with the needs of our greater community rather than trying to grow our own church community? What if we focused on serving others around us and around our church? We might not have the staff we desire to do the big things or the budget to be grand and get a new building to house the youth center, but we will be practicing Matthew 14 and feeding our community.

What does it mean to feed the community?

Jesus gave the apostles–and us–a beautiful gift when he said, “You feed them” (Matthew 14:16). The apostles had no vision for how to do that and in their fear they questioned Jesus. We often do the same. So, let’s start with simply feeding the sheep. That means not just the people in your congregation, but those in your city, state, or even your country. Jesus fed all on that hillside–everyone in his midst at that time. When we do the same, we are trusting that God will bring the increase. God will give you all you need to feed the sheep. Recall the equity-based hospitality value of trust. We are trusting God to meet our needs. In the anchor verse for this lesson, a few simple loaves and fish feed a hillside of people. 

Right now, the state of Mississippi has a water crisis. Colleges are sending students home, people need to shower with their mouths closed, and all drinking water needs to be bottled or purified. If you consider the United States as your home, these are your people. If you are a church goer in the southern U.S., these are your people. If you are a church in Mississippi, these are your people. As followers of Christ, let’s ask together: “How can we solve this problem?” Can you imagine if Christian organizations in our nation came together to prioritize and help the people in Mississippi?

As we live out equity-based hospitality and welcome people from different contexts, we think about their food and what excites them and what makes them feel at home. Here’s an example from New York City, New York, which has a coffee culture. There is a population in NYC from the Caribbean who drink tea, not coffee. To be hospitable, it’s important for coffee shops and churches to have tea and creamer for those who are from different cultures and prefer tea over coffee. Prioritizing the needs of others in order to have equity-based hospitality asks us to consider the needs of others and to understand the different experiences people have.

Lastly, feeding Jesus’s sheep is more about providing food and water. “Food” represents other basic needs, too–safety, shelter, nourishment, and care. Think again of the story of the feeding of the 5,000 people. Jesus was bringing healing and care for the people before they were physically fed. Apply that healing and care to today’s crisis with child abuse–around the world, in the U.S., and in many churches. What if we considered how to “feed” these children? Ask: how can we help the children who have been abused? How can we stop abuse? What would happen if we prioritized the needs of these children who are not safe?

Prioritizing the needs of others, as Jesus did, also means listening to make sure we understand the needs. Every culture has their own dynamics. Active listening helps us to learn about the different cultures and experiences in our communities.

Listening to understand the needs of others

Often, prioritizing the needs of others starts with active listening. This is more than just having a conversation in which you listen to someone and then go off on your merry way. 

Active listening is making a conscious effort to hear, understand, process, and retain the information given to you.

This involves more than just listening to the words. You are fully engaged–your body, your mind, and your ears. Active listeners ask questions, wonder about what is being said, and seek to understand. Your motivation is to help the other person (or people), not yourself or your agenda. You are present, paying attention to the content and the emotion. You can accept (not agree with) what the other person is expressing.

To prioritize the needs of your church’s community, ask: What do the different groups in your community say they need? Ask the questions and seek to understand.

Gordon Training International has a rich history of training up leaders to know how to actively listen. They advise the following steps in order to listen well.

  1. Face the speaker and have eye contact.
  2. Be open to showing empathy. Body language is open and you actually do care to hear what is being said.
  3. You reflect back what was said to clarify any missing information or messages. Make sure you are present in the conversation and listening.
  4. Check for understanding.
  5. Don’t give judgment. Remember, we are listening to learn.
  6. Don’t interrupt and give advice.
  7. Try to understand what the speaker is feeling.
  8. Pay attention to what is not being said. Look at body language as well as the words being spoken.

Actively listen to your community. Listen so then you can adapt and prioritize. Based on what we hear, we then know how to care. Consider your community; go out and see how they need to be fed (with or without actual food). Where are the people who are marginalized and cast aside in your community? What are the needs of your community? Who are you called to serve? 

Actively listen to your congregation, too. What are the needs? What do new people need, and what do seasoned members need? Take time to actively listen to their needs so you can then take action.

One place I’ve seen active listening modeled well was Be the Bridge. This organization is actively working to build bridges with different cultures and races. They ask new participants who are not of color to spend 30 days just listening, taking in content, and opening up their heart to others’ stories. It was an incredible experience for me personally. I was often reminded of Bible verses about being slow to speak. There are over 50 verses in Scripture on being slow to speak and quick to listen. I needed this time in order to open my heart to others and their experiences. Active listening is truly a way to be a bridge builder.


  1. Read Luke 14:7-11. What do you learn about equity-based hospitality in these verses?
  2. Read James 1:9. What does this verse teach us about active listening? 
  3. Find ten verses from Scripture on active listening or being slow to speak. Write them down on index cards and place them around your house. Consider memorizing them.
  4. What steps can you take to become an active listener?
  5. Where can you take the next step in prioritizing others’ needs above your own? (Start with the need. Actively listen and then help meet the need.) Examples were listed in this lesson. (If you want to prioritize the needs of those in Mississippi, research organizations like the John & Vera Mae Perkins Foundation and Help Fight Hunger – Mississippi that are helping, actively listen to discover how they are helping, and see where you can join them.) Do you have other examples in mind?
  6. Spend time in prayer and meditation. Journal about how you can live out equity-based hospitality through the value of prioritizing the needs of others.