[Editor’s note: This is the third, and final, post in the “Slow Work of Life” series, a collaboration between TWI’s Missio and Slow Church exploring the patient ways that vocation can be cultivated in a community through particular communal disciplines. Read the first post, by Josh Stoxen, here, and the second one on reading and vocation, also by Chris Smith, here.]
As we seek to discern vocation in our local churches, reading is one practice that is particularly helpful. Another practice that is equally significant, if not more so, is that of conversation. Just as our physical bodies navigate the world through a sort of conversation between our brains, our nervous and muscular systems and the diverse parts of our bodies, so our churches are bodies that are learning to navigate the world as we listen to Christ, our head, and acting accordingly as our maturity allows. It is in conversation that we discern our vocation as a community – i.e., how we are going to be faithful together and what sorts of work we are going to do together. Similarly, we discern in conversation how the gifts that God has given our members can best be orchestrated to bear witness in beautiful and compelling ways to the reconciling love of God. We also discern our personal vocations in the context of community and conversation; what kind of work is each one of us called to do as our church community seeks to grow deeper in our faithfulness to the way of Jesus.
Conversation, unfortunately, is all too foreign a practice in most of our churches. In this post, I will briefly recount the story of my church’s practice of conversation, and why I think conversation is a necessary and hopeful practice for all churches. (Parts of this post have been adapted from my ebook The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities.)
In the mid-1990s, Englewood Christian Church had a Sunday night service that was little more than a “lite” version of the Sunday morning service. Like many evangelical churches of that time, we could attract little interest in that service. It was dying, but we were not ready to abandon altogether the habit of meeting on Sunday nights, so we decided to try something different.
One Sunday night in 1997, we set up a big circle of chairs and started to talk together. Taking cues from other conversations already under way in other parts of our life together, we began with the question: “What is the Word of God?” It was commonplace at that time—and still is today—for many evangelicals to speak of the Bible as the word of God, but what did the biblical writers mean when they referred to the word of God? Is there a consistent meaning for this phrase throughout the biblical texts, and if so, what is it? And with such questions, we plunged into a deep and tumultuous sea of conversation.
When we gathered the individuals of our church community for conversation, they brought with them not only a divergent array of theological, social, and political convictions, but also deep emotional attachment to these convictions. Additionally, we found ourselves part of a broader culture that was rapidly losing the capacity for conversation, as books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort have described.
It quickly became apparent that we did not know how to talk to each other. Our conversation in those earliest years was extraordinarily volatile. People frequently got angry and yelled at others; some would get up and walk out. The conflict was intense, and not everyone was prepared to handle it. Some members quit coming on Sunday nights; others left the church completely. The Sunday night conversation had been unfolding for about eight years when my wife and I first came to Englewood and was still often harsh and sarcastic. My wife’s comment to me after her first Sunday night conversation was: “These people don’t even like each other.”
Despite the conflict that raged, a sense of commitment emerged over time among those that remained—a commitment to one another and to God’s work in this place that ran deeper than the depths of our disagreements. The ongoing effect of the Sunday night conversation was that we were beginning to love and trust each other in meaningful ways; love was gradually becoming something more than a hollow, religious word to us. We also were slowly learning to talk together; a vernacular was taking shape, a local language rooted in the shared convictions about the nature of God’s creation and what God was doing in our midst.
Conversation is an essential practice for all churches. I am, however, not saying that others churches should do exactly as Englewood has done. Churches should find ways to carve out space in their life together for open conversation that fits who and where they are.
In the wilderness, God led Israel in a cloud of fire. In the age of the church, God leads the people of God through dialogue in the church community that is grounded in the gifts of the Spirit. This gift of God’s leadership is depicted throughout the Pauline epistles, but nowhere more clearly than in 1 Corinthians 12 – 14. If it is the Holy Spirit who unites us and gives particular gifts to each member of the church community (chap. 12), then as we gather together, we should make room for these gifts to interact with each other in a sort of conversation (14:26-40), and we must above all be sure that such conversation is guided by the love of Christ (chap. 13). In the last verses of chapter 14, Paul instructs the Corinthians that when they gather, everyone should come prepared to share out of the gifts given to each member. Paul explains that such dialogue, guided by the gifts of the Spirit, serves to drive the congregation toward maturity and one-mindedness.
So why has conversation become a lost practice in churches today? Conversation is waning in the culture at large, but why does this cultural trend persist in churches?
Conversation is slow and often messy; it doesn’t fit well with our industrialized culture that puts a premium on speed and efficiency. The shared life of most churches therefore typically takes a shape that minimizes conversation. One shortcut is our reliance on hierarchical and authoritarian forms of leadership in the local church; we appoint leaders to make decisions for the church as a way to avoid having to talk and make decisions together. In a similar vein, making decisions in the local church by voting is a way of avoiding conversation, particularly undercutting those who hold the minority position on any given issue. I do not intend to demonize voting here, but if we are going to make decisions democratically in our churches, we need to realize that some ways of voting promote conversation and other ways squelch conversation. Do we have spaces in which people can have meaningful discussion of an issue before it is voted on, or venues in which minority opinions can be heard and thoughtfully and prayerfully considered? The size of our churches can also be a hindrance to conversation. Large congregations do not necessarily preclude conversation, but larger churches need smaller-sized groups in which conversation can occur.
In many churches, small groups or cell groups can be a viable place for conversation to occur, although the life together that is shared in these groups needs to run deeper than simply a weekly Bible study. Anonymity and disengagement, both all too common in large churches, are antithetical to conversation, and in order to foster conversation, a larger church will need to find ways to connect people in smaller groups where meaningful conversation can occur. Not all forms of conversation are beneficial. I would like to highlight two particular characteristics of healthy congregational conversation.
First, our conversations must be eucharistic, by which I mean not that they should be directly connected to our practice of this sacrament, but that we enter into conversation with the sort of radical self-denial that defined the life and death of Jesus and that we remember in the celebration of the Eucharist. It must be the Holy Spirit who speaks in our midst and guides our conversations. If we speak (or listen) out of our sinful nature, passions will be ignited and division will ensue. If we allow our selfish agendas to dominate our conversations (and particularly the “what’s in it for me?” mentality), we are setting ourselves up for power struggles and many other kinds of trouble.
Second, conversations should be open; anyone and everyone should be allowed to contribute. Open conversation in the church is rooted in the convictions that God has assembled us together in this place and that everyone that God has assembled is a gift given for the maturing of Christ’s body. Our conversations should be both eucharistic and open; everyone should be permitted to speak, but those who speak should do so not out of self-promotion or selfish ambition.
Silence and careful listening are just as important in church conversations as speaking. Sometimes we need to hear the particular wisdom of certain people (e.g., in reading and understanding a particular biblical text); at other times, it is just as necessary to hear the questions of one who does not understand something that has been said. One sister church is so committed to open conversation that they intersperse “pulse checks” in their conversation, in which they go around the room and encourage each person in turn to speak what’s on their mind. “Pulse checks” may not work in every context, but they might be a helpful tool for some churches in the process of learning how to speak openly together.
Conversation is a hopeful practice; by discovering how to talk together in our churches, we are learning to be reconciled to each other. In a world that is rapidly losing the capacity for civil conversation, our churches need to create spaces in which we can talk together in open and Eucharistic ways. Our experience at Englewood has taught us that in learning to talk together within our church community, we become equipped to talk with our neighbors and others who are not in our church communities.
In nurturing public conversations that are open and that focus more on the common good than on selfish desires, we have found that we participate in the healing, reconciling, and transforming work of Christ in our neighborhood. And it seems from reading scripture and church history that all churches are called into this flourishing life of conversation. As we seek to become a functioning body of Christ in which all members work and converse together we come to realize the deep hope that we have in Christ, a hope that is slowly and patiently transforming us through our conversations together.
And the hope that we realize in Christ is the hope of the world, the hope of the reconciliation of all people and of all creation. Our job as churches is to learn to talk together again and to allow our conversation to spill out of our churches and into our neighborhoods, a stream of hope scented with the rich fragrance of the reconciliation, the shalom that God desires for all creation.
C. Christopher Smith is founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books, co-author (with John Pattison) of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus (IVP Books, 2014). He is a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis.
Photos: Muriel Miralles de Sawicki (feat. image); Jon Wisbey; Patheos.