How the Body of Christ Talks, C. Christopher Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.
Summary: A discussion of how substantive conversation can be central to the growth and transformation of our churches and the people who are part of them, the ground rules and spiritual practices that enable such conversation, and how conversation might be sustained as conflict arises.
C. Christopher Smith believes that one of the reasons many of our churches are struggling and many people are heading for the exits has to do with the lack of the capacity for substantive conversation about things that really matter. Just as our physical bodies are an ongoing conversation between our various members, so our social bodies, including churches, require ongoing and deeply connected conversations for both individuals and our collective bodies to thrive. Yet we live in a society where people have lost the capacity to talk about any serious matter where they might differ and we have become isolated in echo chambers of those who think like us. Sadly, conversation in the church often is little more than polite chit-chat about sports or recipes, or where we are going out to eat afterward. This happens in a body that is an earthly echo of the mutuality and conversation of the Triune God who is “God with us.”
Smith and his church have been practicing substantive conversations about ideas and practices that deeply matter in their congregation for over a decade. It was messy at times. People became angry. Some left. They learned how to set up ground rules to enable the speaking of truth in love. They developed practices to prepare for those conversations. They learned how to address conflict that can threaten to shut down conversation. This book is the distillation of that experience.
He begins by treating the subject of conversational dynamics, dealing with questions of group size, formal and informal conversation, how often a group meets, who facilitates and how to foster coherent conversations. He explores what to talk about, and not talk about, particularly when a group is learning conversation. He highlights three methods that have been developed to facilitate conversation: Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Café, giving brief explanations of each method and providing additional resources in an appendix.
Perhaps one of the most important parts of the book is the section on “Spirituality for the Journey.” Smith focuses on prayer as a means of being attentive to God first and throughout, including Quaker practices of silent, listening prayer. He helps us see the connection between the messiness of real life and our honesty about that, and the messiness of our conversations. Good sustained conversations have a high capacity for messiness. Finally he speaks of how we might prepare ourselves heart, mind, and body for conversation.
Conversation is critical in remembering and telling our story and discerning its next chapter. Often understanding our history and identity helps us discern how we might proceed on questions of how we might pursue our mission. The toughest season of conversation is conflict, which Smith believes is inevitable and can be healthy. Using the analogy of broken bones, he talks about acknowledging our fractures, aligning the fractured parts (our “like heartedness in Christ”), and supporting and healing the fractures.
His final chapter fuses the idea of conversation and dance and the picture of being drawn into the dancing conversation of the Triune God. His conclusion focuses on his church, Englewood Christian Church, and how conversation has eventuated in action creating a vibrant set of community ministries in the Englewood, and a church community that is integrally a part of the community in which it is situated.
The book includes numerous examples from different churches, including an appendix of examples of conversational ground rules different churches have set, and the governing principles at which a church arrived out of extended conversations on how to relate to LGBTQ+ persons joining their community in a denomination with traditional convictions.
Smith dares us to believe that the church could be the place where we recover the art of serious conversation, the kind that has the capacity to cultivate respect among people who differ, to live with messiness that defies neat resolutions, and to persist to the shared understanding that enables people to act creatively and missionally in their context. He shows how it has taken shape in real congregations, which makes it the most valuable sort of guidebook, one born out of years of trial and error and learning.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.