In our present social media age, it is widely accepted that we do not know how to talk well with others, and especially others who come from differing socioeconomic or political backgrounds.
My experience is that this conviction generally holds true, but that we are not without hope. Conversation is a practice that can be learned, and as we practice talking with others, conversation changes us and enables us to function with more grace and peace in all the social groups to which we belong: church, home, neighborhood, workplace, among others.
In my book How the Body of Christ Talks, I tell the story of how a number of North American churches, including my own, are learning to talk together. In the early 1990s, my church had a Sunday evening worship service that was rapidly dying off, but the congregation didn’t want to give up being together on Sunday nights, so someone suggested that we circle up some chairs and have a conversation together. We had no idea what we were getting into, and we quickly found ourselves in a huge mess. We came to realise (even in that pre-social-media era) that we didn’t know how to talk with one another.
Our early conversations had their sharing of yelling and sarcasm and lots of other unhealthy methods of communication. Some people even left the church, or avoided the weekly conversation times. But we were a stubborn group and kept moving forward in our conversation, week after week, and we began to find that conversation was ever so slowly changing us, and changing the ways we related to our neighbors. Today, almost 25 years later, conversation is one of the most important practices of our church (almost as important as the worship service), and has popped into in almost every facet of our congregation’s life together.
My family and I came to Englewood in 2003, and we jumped right into the weekly conversations, and over the last decade-and-a-half, I have found myself being changed by these times of church-wide conversation. I’m sure that practicing conversation has changed me in a multitude of ways, but three of these ways stand out to me, and I’ve seen others changed in similar ways by our conversations.
Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, in his heralded book Bowling Alone, described how over the latter half of the 20th Century participation in almost all social groups saw massive declines and many of these groups died off.
One of the effects of this social unraveling over the last 75 years or so is that today we find ourselves struggling to know what it means to belong to a community. My experience in our church’s conversations has convinced me that conversation is essential to the process of cultivating belonging. In conversation, we gradually learn who these people are that we belong to: what is their story, what do they care about, and how do they do the things they do? As our answers to questions of this sort grow deeper, we find our place in this body, finding where our passions and skills fit providentially with those of other members.
Our human bodies are a wondrous illustration of this sort of belonging-through-conversation. An infant has basically all the same body parts as an adult, but an infant cannot do many things because their body parts have not yet learned that they belong to one another and can work harmoniously together. Our bodies mature through an intricate neurological conversation, in which our parts are coming to know what other parts can and cannot do.
Over the last 15 years of participating in our church’s conversations, I have felt an increasing sense of belonging. I am learning who I need to talk to in particular situations of life: if I need help fixing something in my house or if my kids need help with their schoolwork, for instance. Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness, is a poignant meditation on our deep desires for belonging and our struggles to belong, and her experience resonates with that of our church. To find true belonging, she writes, “[we’re] going to have to learn how to listen, have hard conversations, look for joy, share pain, and be more curious than defensive, all the while seeking moments of togetherness.”
2. Slowing Down
When I first joined our church, I was still in my 20s and full of youthful optimism. I had a strong sense of how the things needed to change in the church and the world, and I was eager to see those changes realised.
I still have a deep longing for the sorts of peace and justice that seem so profoundly absent in our world, but I’m coming to realise that God isn’t in a hurry. My experience in conversation has shown me that moving too fast or forcing my agenda on others who see things differently is its own form of violence, breaking down existing channels of conversation and sometimes wounding my sisters and brothers. Yes, we have to keep pressing into the new creation that was secured in Jesus, but we have to do it together and in ways that fit the peaceable ends that we desire.
3. Abiding in Messiness
And related to slowing down, I’ve been coming to realise how messy the world is. Sure, there’s a healthy dose of sin and rebellion in me and in the world, but even beyond that, we are finite creatures with finite experiences. We can never fully understand another person’s perspective, because we don’t share the full range of their experience.
I’m not a moral relativist; I believe in right and wrong, but my experience in conversation has taught me that we need a healthy dose of humility about the degree of certainty with which we know reality. We can try to pretend that this messiness does not exist, or fight vehemently against it, but ultimately our best course is to learn to abide patiently within the messiness. In our conversations, I found that it’s often hard to leave some things unresolved, but inevitably abiding is the best way, the way of love.
As our church continues in our habits of conversation, I find I’m being changed in these ways, but I’m also seeing others being changed by our conversations, and we take these changes with us as we go about our daily lives, and they bear witness to our neighbors not only of the transforming work of Christ in our lives, but also of the hopeful possibility of change in our neighborhood and beyond.
C. Christopher Smith is the editor-in-chief of The Englewood Review of Books, and author of the new book, How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press). He lives on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, where his family is part of the Englewood Christian Church community.