Talking in Church
Review of "How the Body of Christ Talks" by Christopher Smith
“I love Zoom coffee,” announced a friend with a tone of surprise. “Last Sunday we were in random chat rooms for ‘coffee’ after the church service. I met some wonderful people that I’ve never talked to before, though we’ve been part of the same church for fifteen years. I always had people in my own circle to catch up with after church. Now because of the pandemic lockdown I’m experiencing a bigger church.”
Christopher Smith would not have been surprised. Smith, the author of Slow Church, wrote How the Body of Christ Talks as a plea and a guide for the kind of structured conversation that captured my friend’s heart.
Structured conversation, Smith suggests, is a key tool for the challenging and difficult work of gluing together the diverse collection of people that God brings into the body of Christ.
Informal coffee conversation in the church foyer clumps the like-minded and tends to drive away those who stand alone. As Smith notes “One of the most acute pains that prompts the exit of church members is the sense that they don’t belong.” Smith proposes structured conversations, mainly in groups of five to seven, as a remedy: creating spaces in which we can learn how to talk to people who are different from us – who are new to the congregation, who have different backgrounds, who hold different opinions, and who may not be on the same theological page.
Structured conversations can help us practice patience with one another, working through our differences in language and outlook. Practicing patience, Smith suggests, is how to avoid the impulse to fight or to flee from one another. And this “third way” can be learned. Patience, I observe, is the first adjective Paul uses to describe love in I Corinthians 13. Patience is a building block for a healthy church.
Smith’s structured conversations help people who seem quite different find similar interests. Structured conversations can create moments to repent and apologize for what we have done amiss. Structured conversations can help us avoid avoiding each other. Structured conversations can help us welcome strangers with grace and openness.
Smith has also found that congregations who engage in patient structured conversations find them useful for planning, for encouraging ministry and for exploring new forms of outreach. Structured and patient conversation can open the ears of the congregation to the whispers of the Holy Spirit.
How the Body of Christ Talks is a toolkit book full of specific suggestions to facilitate healthy conversations. It describes models and formats appropriate to different kinds of conversations. Smith gives advice on managing difficult people and inappropriate comments. Helping congregations talk to one another is neither easy nor automatic. If you look back through the first part of this review the word that comes up most often is “can,” not “will.”
Smith warns against starting a conversational program too ambitiously. Controversial or abstract topics are rarely a helpful way to begin. Start small. Start concrete. Start by discussing a topic as simple as sharing your favourite songs for worship.
As congregations begin to gather in groups that reduce COVID-19 danger – smaller than the full Sunday morning worship service used to be – Smith’s suggestions for congregational conversation cells offer a practical and flexible way to grow in fellowship together.
This is a wonderful book.