Like many, I am becoming weary of the tone of conversation in America today. It seems as if conversation is a lost art and we prefer to yell (or tweet in all caps) at each other more than talk with each other these days. It’s easy to give up hope that conversation is even possible anymore. If we are honest with ourselves, we also ask how much we have been caught up in the fray and contributed to the problem. If we are brave enough to do so, we must get over our pride and be willing to be part of the solution.
In a time like this, we need a book like How The Body Of Christ Talks by C. Christopher Smith. Smith acknowledges how society has become a place where it is harder and harder for people to have a real conversation on most issues. Increasingly, we have become isolated from those who are different than us as we gravitate into smaller and smaller tribes. Smith presents a different, more hopeful vision for how the Church can change the tide if we are willing to:
In a world where the pace of life seems to be ever-accelerating, I am hopeful that our churches can be communities that embody a different way, one in which we slow down, gather our hearts and minds together, and discern thoughtful, creative, and compassionate ways to respond to the situations in which we find ourselves.
For Smith, this is not a collection of heady, pie-in-the-sky ideals that no one can ever hope to achieve. What is presented is grounded in the experience of the congregation Smith is a part of and the stories of other congregations that have journeyed down this road as well. The foundation for this way of thinking is also tied to the very triune nature of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is also demonstrated in the intricate way in which our own body parts relate to each other. Conversation is interwoven into our own DNA, both physically and spiritually.
Since we have moved so far away from being conversational bodies, Smith starts with some a very practical guide for developing the practice in our churches. Part 1 of the book is filled with practical considerations such as conversational models to use, the role of a facilitator, establishing ground rules, and even what are some good topics to start with in developing a discipline of conversation in a local church.
In Part 2 of the book, Smith turns to the spiritual nature of this journey. He focuses on three spiritual components that are key to having a successful conversation: prayer, abiding in messiness, and self-preparation to participate in the conversation. He sees these as the spiritual tools of conversation. Ironically, for Smith, a conversation begins with learning to be silent in our prayers:
Silences teaches us how to be humbly and reverently in the presence of God and in the presence of our sisters and brothers with whom we are knit together.
The call to abide with one another in the midst of our messiness is reminiscent of the challenge the Apostle Paul gave the church in Ephesus, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Eph. 4:2, NIV) Humility and gentleness are key qualities we need if we are to persist in dialogue with others in spite of our differences and shortcomings.
In addition to prayer and abiding, Smith calls us to prepare our hearts, minds, and bodies to participate in a conversation. Some of this is practical, such as getting enough sleep and reading relevant material on the subject being discussed. Preparing our hearts is more spiritual and tied closely to self-reflection and prayer:
To prepare our hearts for conversation is to reflect seriously on our desires, to ask ourselves what it is that we really, really want. Do we want to see God’s reign come on earth as it is in heaven? Or are we more interested in looking or feeling good, or in acquiring things that promise to make us healthier, happier, or more secure?
As someone who leads a missional community that has made dialogue a key component of our community life and liturgy, Part 3 is affirming and challenging at the same time. Like many in my generation, I was trained that a church rises and falls on leadership and the best way to lead is through the monologue of weekly teaching times. If we are going to be able to carry on a journey of conversation for the long-haul, we need to learn from and value each other’s part in the larger story of the history of Christ followers. We also need to listen to and learn from those who have gone before us. We need to learn how to communicate in times of conflict. Talking with each other will bring us further down the road of spiritual maturity than talking/yelling at each other ever could. This all challenges us to enter into the fluid motion of a community that learns to move with the flow of the triune God. As Smith puts it:
In conversation, we learn the graceful maneuvers of life with others in the presence of God. We learn how to listen, how to speak the truth courageously, how to imagine next steps together, how to forgive those who have wounded us and be reconciled. Interweaving all these virtuous skills and more, conversation is a means to an end: action — namely, the graceful dance of our communal body on the stage of our place. We practice conversation together in order to sync our body better with the mind of Christ and to coordinate and train ourselves to move with the beauty and compassion of Christ among our neighbors.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this book for the 21st-Century Church in America. If we want to find a way out of the quagmire we find ourselves in, we need to learn how to talk with each other again. How The Body Of Christ Talks is an invaluable tool to help us learn to walk this road again.