Increasing Your Church’s Capacity for Conversation

It is in our churches, I believe, that we learn how to talk well with others. – C. Christopher Smith

I wish that were true, don’t you? That in our churches we would learn how to talk well with others—instead of talking past one another, or taking up positions of offense and defense, or focusing only on our disagreements, or pretending they don’t exist, or avoiding vital conversations altogether.

That’s why I was eager to read C. Christopher Smith’s new book, How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019)

This book is a theologically grounded and practical guide to the art and process of conversation in the church, with many examples from the author’s local church experience and from other congregations. It’s an excellent resource, with helpful guidance for both facilitators and participants, for churches beginning conversations and others addressing more difficult issues.

Below are my notes and a few choice quotes chapter by chapter from How the Body of Christ Talks. If you’d like to cultivate the practice of good conversation in your church, you’ll want to get a copy of this book if you haven’t already.

Chapter 1 – Orienting Ourselves for the Journey
Theological Roots of Conversation

. . . we have been created in the image of the Triune God, not merely to be in community but to be in community with those who differ from us. (page 18)

Part 1 – Setting Out on the Journey

Chapter 2 – Learning the Dynamics of Conversation

This chapter includes a discussion of various conversation dynamics such as the size of the group, the degree of homogeneity, whether the conversation is informal or formal, how the conversation is facilitated, as well as resistance to conversation. At the same time, the author acknowledges:

Ultimately, every community will have to discern how it is going to talk together. I cannot offer a single set of rules that will magically help all communities increase their capacity for conversation. (page 35)

Chapter 3 – What Will We Talk About?

As a congregation begins to talk together, two types of conversations are decidedly unhelpful: abstract matters and highly charged topics. A time will come when we will indeed need to talk about both of these things, but neither is an especially fruitful place to begin a practice of conversation. (pages 48-49)

Chapter 4 – The Healing Potential of Conversational Methods

A discussion of three structured conversation techniques: Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, World Cafe.

Part 2 – A Spirituality for the Journey

Chapter 5 – Conversation as a Prayerful Way of Being

When we learn to seek God together in prayerful conversation and carry these conversations in our hearts and minds, praying without ceasing as we move through our days, we should expect to be changed. (page 94)

Chapter 6 – Abiding in the Messiness of Life

When we gather for conversation, we come in weakness, bringing with us our personal messes and the social mess of our immediate and extended families, our places and workplaces, and indeed even the mess of our past and present churches. . . .

Rather than trying to force situations and people into our neat categories, we would do better to abide in the messiness of our lives: our own mess, as well as that of others. (pages 99-100)

Chapter 7 – Preparing Our Whole Selves for Conversation

To participate in conversation, we need to prepare our hearts (by prayer), our minds (by reading materials related to the conversation), and body (by getting enough rest).

Part 3 – Sustaining the Journey

Chapter 8 – Cultivating a Sense of Mission and Identity

The importance of story: the story of Scripture, God’s people in history, the story of our local congregation.

Chapter 9 – Sustaining Conversation through Conflict

A key question:

How do we love one another well, even when we vehemently disagree? (page 160)

Chapter 10 – Enmeshing Ourselves in the Dance of Community

The practice of conversation, as I have described it in this book, although vital to the life and well-being of our communities, is never the primary thing for churches. . . .

Rather, if our conversations are interwoven with a robust life in which our community acts together in a multitude of diverse ways, caring for one another and for our neighbors, celebrating and grieving together, working toward the flourishing of our place and bearing witness in substantial ways to God’s reconciliation of all things (Col. 1:20), we will find that we can’t stop talking together. (pages 164-165)

Thank you to Baker Publishing Group and author C. Christopher Smith for sending me a complimentary copy of How the Body of Christ Talks. As always, my opinions and the choice to review are my own. I’m happy to recommend this excellent resource for congregations.

___________________

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Ordained minister with 25 years' experience as lead pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church, now resident author with a liturgical worship community, and editor of Purpose, a monthly magazine of everyday inspiration. Author of Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. For more, see aprilyamasaki.com and WhenYouWorkfortheChurch.com.

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