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The Rise of Conversational Churches

Why a growing number of congregations are taking deliberate steps to relearn the habit of talking together.
The Rise of Conversational Churches
Image: Illustration by Rick Szuecs

In this age of social media, it is widely accepted that we don’t know how to talk together—and especially with those whose perspective differs greatly from our own. From Washington, DC, where the federal government teeters on the brink of shutdown every time a new budget must be passed, down to the smallest social gatherings, society in the 21st century is marked by an inability to talk about complex and divisive questions. And our struggles to converse go far beyond political and ideological divides. Economic, racial, generational, educational, and gender divides also play a role. And of course, social media technologies that give preference to brevity and consensus only amplify this problem. Amid these widespread failures of conversation, some churches across North America are devoting themselves to learning the practice of conversation, among their members and with their neighbors.

Although this budding movement of conversational churches goes against the flow of contemporary society, it follows in the footsteps of a long Christian tradition of conversation. The Gospel accounts of Jesus himself, for instance, portray him as one who didn’t shy away from difficult conversations with the Pharisees or others who might have been construed as enemies, including tax collectors, lepers, Samaritans, and others on the margins of first-century Jewish culture.

Amid stories of persecution and the early travels of the apostles, the Book of Acts also records a series of vital conversations that gave shape to the early Christian communities. Faced with the challenge of certain widows that were being neglected and not wanting to add an additional burden to the apostles, the Christian community talked together and selected seven leaders who could take on the work of providing for them (Acts 6). Other tense conversations in Acts revolve around the question of how Gentiles were to be integrated with Jews in this new community of the Spirit. How should they share meals together in spite of their contradictory habits of eating (Acts 10–11)? Should male Gentiles be circumcised when they decide to follow Jesus (Acts 15)?

These questions were vital to the life of the early churches, and at times the disagreements threatened to tear them asunder. Yet, as the Epistles reflect, the churches continued to discuss and wrestle with them forthrightly.

The practice of conversation has continued to play a vital role in the Christian tradition throughout its history. The ecumenical councils that spanned the first millennium of church history (and the Roman Catholic councils that continued over the second millennium) reflect practices of conversation and discernment on the shape of Christian theology and life. And conversation was just as important to the Protestant Reformation. The Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli argued for “The Rule of Paul,” a congregational worship practice rooted in the habits of sharing, conversation, and discernment that Paul recommended to the church in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:26–33). (This practice was also important among the early Anabaptists.) Dinner-table conversation was essential to Martin Luther’s practice of the faith, and as Joanne Jung has described in her recent book, The Lost Discipline of Conversation, the life of Puritan churches was centered on a practice of conversation that they called conference.

Circling Up

These traditions are largely unknown today, even among churches that are beginning to recover them. When my own congregation, Englewood Christian Church on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis, began our weekly gathering for conversation almost 25 years ago, we certainly had no idea we were following in those Christians’ footsteps.

Our weekly conversations began when, like a lot of evangelical churches in the early 1990s, our Sunday evening worship service began to fizzle out. Although we realized we couldn’t continue doing the evening worship service in the same way that we had for prior decades, some of our members didn’t want to give up being together on Sunday nights, so someone had the idea of circling up chairs and having a conversation together. But we quickly realized that we didn’t know how to talk well together (even in those days before social media, and even the internet). People sometimes yelled at one another or made sarcastic remarks. Some people left the church because of the conflict that was stirred up; others stopped participating on Sunday nights.

In spite of the volatility, we continued the conversation week after week, year after year. We sit in a circle and have a specific question or topic that we focus on each week. We also have a facilitator who makes sure that our conversation stays civil and on track. Each week’s conversation picks up from where we left off the previous week. We talk about Scripture, theology, and the shape of our life together. Although we’ve made a point of never bringing up operation or financial matters, our weekly conversations inevitably have an effect on our identity as a church and the decisions we make.

As conversations unfolded over the years, we found that we were being transformed, although not in the ways one might expect. We were not being magically transformed into like-mindedness. Most people continued to think in the same way and operate under the same convictions. What was happening, instead, was that we began to actually hear one another and grow in our knowledge and trust of one another.

This opened the doors for an even wider range of conversations and undertakings. We started businesses together as a church. An increasing number of our members decided to live in the tiny Englewood neighborhood where our church building is located. We eventually found ourselves immersed in a sea of conversation with one another and with our neighbors. Although Englewood and the surrounding neighborhoods of the Near Eastside faced some significant challenges, our neighborhood conversations led to some major transformations in the architecture and economy of this place.

We continue to gather weekly for conversation. In early 2018, we moved our conversation from Sunday evening to Sunday morning immediately after our worship service, so that more of our members could participate. Every year we learn how to talk better together: how to orient and integrate new members into the conversation, for instance, or how to engage existing members amid the changing seasons of their lives. Just as the human body functions as a conversation of diverse parts carried out through the nervous system, we are learning to be a healthy and maturing expression of Christ’s body that is capable of talking together and navigating different realities and challenges.

Appreciative Inquiry

Some churches have stumbled into the practice of conversation as they find themselves trying to discern the future direction of their congregations. Although some congregations may find organic ways of structuring their conversations about the way forward, others have turned to a conversational method called Appreciative Inquiry (AI). Widely used in business settings, AI challenges an organization to reflect on its past and draw upon the most energizing parts of its history as guides into the future.

Faced with the recent departure of a pastor and the reality of declining membership, First Presbyterian Church of Altadena, California, decided to take on an AI conversation. Mark Lau Branson, a member of this church and professor at Fuller Seminary, describes their experience in his book, Memories, Hopes, and Conversations: Appreciative Inquiry, Missional Engagement, and Congregational Change. With the AI process in mind, the congregation assembled a list of questions about the church’s past and present that it would ask its members in a series of interviews. Church leaders conducted these interviews, taking copious notes that would be used to discern common themes among the members’ stories.

The church took five key themes and fleshed them out into specific proposals for moving forward. Each proposal gave vision and direction to the church. Recognizing the crucial role that older Japanese American members had exercised in past decades of the church’s life, they launched another AI conversation aimed at identifying ways of enriching care for senior members. The church’s AI conversations set them on a course toward a deeper identity as a community and a deeper care for one another as members of that body.

Divisive Issues

Other churches are drawn into conversation when faced with divisive issues, including disputes about sexuality, gender, and marriage. One such congregation is Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, a church of about 300 members that is very active in its neighborhood on the east side of Vancouver, British Columbia. Grandview is part of the Canadian Baptist denomination, which maintains a traditional understanding of sexuality. It is also situated in an urban neighborhood with a thriving LGBT community, and recent years have witnessed fractures in the church body related to questions about same-sex relationships. The congregation may not agree with one another, one leader observed, but perhaps they could go deeper in their love and mutual understanding.

One of their means of talking about these questions was to send a select group of members on a retreat referred to as a “deeper dialogue.” The church selected 12 members known for their spiritual maturity—and also for possessing a wide range of perspectives on sexuality. They represented a diverse mix of genders, ages, and experiences. One of the church’s pastors met with each participant before the date of the retreat. She recalls that there was fear and apprehension on all sides of the disputed questions.

This retreat began with a reflection on Philippians 2, a reminder that their shared hope was to grow in the mind and humility of Christ. Most of the retreat was spent telling and listening to one another’s stories about how their views on sexuality had been formed, in grappling with the witness of Scripture, and in talking about other experiences and relationships that may have shaped the perspectives of each participant.

The retreat ended with participants sharing what they had learned. The pervasive fear and anxiety that the group brought into the retreat had dissipated. “We may disagree,” said one participant, “but I can go into our church meetings and know that you all have my back.” The group agreed that this retreat was a powerful experience of talking openly with one another and learning to do the hard work of loving one another. As the group came back and eventually shared stories of their experience with the church, they bore witness to the possibility of a different way of loving one another and being Christ’s body together.

Formed into Christ’s Peace and Healing

In the mid-1990s, Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in Seattle established a conversational process for orienting potential members to the way of Christ in their particular congregation. This program—which spans the better part of a year, from fall until Pentecost—is a structure that demonstrates to potential members how to participate in the conversational life of their church.

Each candidate is paired with a sponsor, an existing member of the church, and together they go through the program. A sponsor and candidate may connect during the week, and each weekend they participate in a gathering of all sponsors and candidates. The gathering begins with a meal, after which participants spend significant time reading and discussing the passage of Scripture that will be the focus of the next Sunday’s worship service. The Scripture passage is read in a lectio divina format that invites conversation with the text and with a small group of others. This immersive process has been wildly successful in forming new members for participation in that church body. Candidates who complete the process and become church members are often eager to sponsor new candidates in subsequent years. Although the primary focus is church membership, another benefit is that Phinney Ridge’s members are learning to talk and to work together—often across generations—building relationships that help propagate their identity and facilitate their shared work as the church.

In the present age of strained conversation, churches like these are learning to practice conversation among their members, and in doing so they are recovering an ancient Christian tradition and finding a deeper life together, along with a strengthened capacity for talking with their neighbors, coworkers, and others outside their congregations. These stories offer hope that a renewal of conversation is possible. And more importantly, they offer hope that by learning to talk together in our churches and taking these skills into our homes, our workplaces, and our neighborhoods, we bear witness of a way forward for an often bitterly divided society. Conversation can be a means through which Christ’s peace and healing is poured out on our broken and lonely world.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. His latest book is How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press), from which parts of this article were adapted.

July/August
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