A Feature Review of
How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church
C. Christopher Smith
Reviewed by Karen Altergott Roberts
There is a great need for dialogue at this moment in history. There is a need to share words about human concerns and the common good. The church is a great place to start this vital communication. Reading the gospels, it seems that conversation is the heartbeat of being Christian. Churches that are having meaningful and frequent conversations – within and outside its walls – are weaving together the body of Christ, word by word.
In this helpful and thoughtful book, Smith first connects theology to conversations within the church. Talking among church members can serve as a “corporate spiritual discipline.” Then, developing the dialogue to include those outside the church walls allows the church to know others and allows others to know the church. I have read many, many books about how to help churches meaningfully grow deeper together. This book is one of the best. I’d say it helps the church be Christian!
Without any gimmick, guide, or program to promote, Smith develops the basics of forming conversations that make the church. Potential resistance, suggestions for the choice of topics to use and to avoid, and different models of conversation are all subjects that are reviewed. One strength of this volume that must be mentioned is that the author writes out of a decades-long learning experience within Englewood Christian Church. From the time the church decided to dialogue differently, the learning process commenced. The first three chapters are lessons in process. The importance of mutual presence, careful listening, and the agreement on ground rules are all clearly illustrated. Practical decisions about group size, type of conversation, and topics of conversation are carefully chosen. Ground rules for good conversation are necessary, since some of our common human habits can destroy good communication. These practical chapters are filled with wisdom and spirit.
But what can conversation do for the church? In chapters four through nine, Smith illustrates the outcomes of careful and communal conversations. Talking can provide healing, through linking different segments of the congregation and through providing peaceful and cooperative ways to make decisions. Like prayer, conversation involves listening to the said and unsaid, the easy and difficult, the messy and the clear thoughts. These coexist in every congregation. Listening and speaking can slow down the common drive to get things done. Communication can lead to better plans and getting the right things done in the right way. With patience, we’re able to reach a good communal decision about present issues.
Conversation can help us prepare in mind, spirit, and body for work within the church that is more faith-based than utilitarian. Healthy communication is vital. A show called Church Hunters illustrates a consumeristic way of talking about church, but as the church, we need to carry more spirit and faith than power and consumerism. There is a way of communicating in holy expectancy, and a way to train the eyes and ears of the church. Such conversation can bridge the boundaries by introducing new people to a church’s mission and identity.
One service that Smith does for us is to offer brief and useful models such as Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Café. Each of these methods vary a bit; OST offers one broad topic for deep discussion and discovery of issues, Appreciative Inquiry focuses on the assets of a community, and World Café looks for patterns to emerge from diverse perspectives. One structured practice not mentioned is Living Room Conversations, which was developed to allow those on deeply conflicting sides of an issue to safely dialogue. This gentle approach demonstrates a path for dialogue between people with sufficiently divergent opinions.
Inviting people in churches to use good communication is vital. What images do the storytellers in your church convey to the newcomers? Is yours a church that can talk about issues without setting a bad example for others? Can your church have an honest disagreement without fracturing people’s hearts and harming the unity? Disagreement need not lead to conflict or division, if good communication practices are well embedded in the church. Solving problems is a constant need in any organization– doing so with communication in a spirit of open-mindedness and humility serves the church more than solving problems with arrogance, utilitarianism, or timidity.
One of the author’s true advantages is that he has experience communicating within a church community over a long period of time. His examples are lively and true. Englewood began communicating by simply sharing life together, a practice that then grew toward interweaving with the neighbors of the church. The congregation then tried to figure out how to use the resources of members so that not only the church would flourish, but so would the community. As Englewood talked about what sort of church to be, and as they communicated, the congregation changed and developed. The kind of work they can do together now and can do in cooperation with the surrounding community is a good witness to the benefits of churches talking within and outside of the walls of the building.
In chapters 8 and 9 especially, Smith illustrates how churches can cultivate mission and identity and sustain themselves through conflict– through communication. Using both biblical examples and the experiences of contemporary churches, we see the creative power of communication. Congregational stories matter. The way we talk through conflict creatively, setting fractures right, and caring for brokenness – these are all spiritual ways of communicating until our sense of mission and identity is firm.
Our church body bears witness by the way we talk within and outside of the boundaries of the church. The last two chapters address the ‘dance of community’ or the dialogue with the world. In essence, once the church becomes a place of shared conversations, we can then step out and share life with the world, interweave with others in our places, and help our communities flourish. This has been true for Englewood. It may take effort, and certainly practice, to learn how to talk, work, play, and serve the larger community. It may be the best story of the church worldwide. The church can become an agent of change through overlapping conversations. It takes time, and many conversations, to grow a community web that works together for the benefit of all.
Karen Altergott Roberts
Karen Altergott Roberts has been a faculty member at several midwestern universities, a pastor in Indiana, and a writer. She writes on social issues, teaches public speaking, and paints as a spiritual discipline.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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