Good Conversation in Church
From the Chair – David Sims
Conversations are breaking down everywhere. In the UK there is much discussion about the breakdown of our national conversation, as we move from not being able to talk about death and religion to finding that we cannot even talk about our different views of a customs union. Conversations between governments on Brexit have broken down, conversation in Parliament has broken down, and conversations in many families, including the Johnson family, have broken down.
Some years back I worked with two colleagues who were both politically active, and were both standing in forthcoming local elections. Over lunch they would have lively and cooperative conversations about politics and make clear progress in their thinking together. It was only on the eve of the election that I realized they were standing for opposing parties, though not for the same ward. They were both making the most of the opportunity for a good conversation about politics, and found that they could not get such a conversation in their own party meetings.
Frederick Bird argued some while ago that the basis of ethics in organizations was good conversation. Bad ethical standards are an indicator that good conversations are not taking place, and it is almost impossible to sustain unethical action in the face of good conversation. It is more effective to ensure good conversations, and a culture of good conversation, than to spend a lot of time on setting up ethical committees and developing codes of ethics. This idea made good sense to a lot of organizational practitioners and academics, although it was probably seen as a threat by those who were making their living by setting up ethics committees and writing ethical codes!
So how are our conversations in church? Are they deep and satisfying, giving us a lot of learning, development, and a strong sense of being with others, or are they mostly superficial and disappointing? I have been reading a book by Christopher Smith called ‘How the body of Christ talks’. (C. Christopher Smith (2019) How the body of Christ talks: recovering the practice of conversation in the church. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press.) Smith argues that we have been too ready to let our church life mirror the poor quality of conversation in our culture. ‘How do we learn to talk together in our churches when we have been formed by a culture that goes to great lengths to avoid conversation?’ (p. 8). His book is based on years of practical experience of working with congregations, particularly his own, on improving the quality of conversation they are having, and he relates good conversation to a sense of belonging. He suggests that the feeling, for church members, that they are invisible, or that they are not being listened to, is one of the main reasons why congregations lose people. If he is right, and it makes anecdotal sense with most people I have seen leaving church, this could be important in discussions of church growth and decline.
He can point to plenty of examples of good practice. For example, he discusses the L’Arche communities as ‘a good example of faith communities in which all members are learning to be mutually present to one another’ (p. 14). Not all members of such communities are verbal; good conversation does not depend on fluency, but on attention and on being with one another, which makes an interesting link to this year’s MODEM conference. In a way that connects with the theme of our MODEM conference in 2017 he also talks about how social bodies, and their conversation, bear witness. He talks about the experience and learning of his church’s two decades of Sunday night conversations, carefully planned and facilitated, and what they have learned over that time. He quotes Margaret Wheatley saying ‘Real change begins with the simple act of people talking about what they care about’. So all that planning and facilitation must be made to serve the interests of the people in the conversation, and must not become another way of imposing the views or concerns of a church hierarchy on them. Conversation about Scripture, the principles of Appreciative Inquiry, and how to converse with good disagreement about issues such as sexuality, all come in to his discussions. ‘Conversation should not be reduced to something fun that we do on occasion, nor is it a tool to get things done. Rather, conversation is at the very heart of our being, as humans created in the image of the Triune God, who exists as a conversational community’ (p. 92 – though note also the questioning of this view of the Trinity by Claire Watkins in the 2016 MODEM conference). In other words, this is something much deeper and more interesting than the usual chatter over the coffee after church.
Smith is not just advocating a good chin wag. The conversations he has been working on go long and deep, and involving turning from what he describes as a ‘religious community’ to a ‘real community (p. 166), as the conversations go wider in the lives, experience and economy of the members, and as new members get drawn into the conversation and then into the church. This is not for those who are looking for the instant fix. ‘We rapidly came to realize the diversity of our convictions and even the varied meanings that we gave to shared terms like “gospel” and “salvation” and “the kingdom of God”. … Our early conversations were extraordinarily volatile as we tried to convert one another to our own particular understandings.’ (p. 171). That phase lasted for almost a decade, and still surfaces, but was gradually replaced with ‘a rich community life in which the spheres of our lives are gradually starting to overlap’, giving them ‘hope that God will continue to transform us’ (p. 171).
The connections he makes between conversation, prayer, silence, praying without ceasing, and abiding in the mess of life are too interesting and too rich to summarize here. He works through the topic with considerable care and detail, and also style – this is a very readable book. Members of MODEM are thinking and conversing continually about insights from organizational life that can be helpful to churches, and I recommend this book as a distinctive contribution to that conversation.