Review: How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ Talks

How the Body of Christ TalksC. 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.

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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.

Reading as a Spiritual Practice

Man reading

Man Reading, Vaino Hamalainen, 1897

 

I recently gave a seminar on reading as a spiritual practice, that is, that reading may be one of the disciplines that helps us pay attention to God, and grow in our relationship with God and to more thoughtfully live in God’s world. Now I know that not all who come across this post will share my faith perspective. That’s OK. Feel free to translate this in whatever way might be meaningful for you, or even just skip it. No harm, no foul. But I thought it might be helpful to share some of that material with a wider audience.

First of all, it is dangerous for me to write about this because my temptation may be to read and to love reading too much! Sometimes other spiritual practices might be better for me–silence for example, where I am not taking in information off a page; or service, where I get up off my duff and practice my faith with others. I would also say that while in one sense all my reading choices (I hope) are things I would be comfortable offering to God, not all the reading I do is a “spiritual discipline or practice.” Sometimes, I, like most everyone who reads, just likes to read for fun–a good mystery or baseball book.

O.K., enough for disclaimers! I thought I might share some of the influences in my life around reading as a spiritual practice, and then some ideas for our practice.

Influences:

  • I work for and came out of a ministry that teaches college students practices that might be called “the close reading of scripture” –observing themes, literary devices, context, what we called “the laws of composition” that taught me not only how to read scripture but made me a better reader of other books because I had learned to look carefully at the text attending to the “meaning pointers” in the text.
  • We had leadership from the president on down to my immediate supervisors who encouraged us to sink our teeth into meaty and classic works of theology as well as devotional classics and works that analyzed contemporary culture like Os Guinness’s The Dust of Death, published when I was a student. Our president would say, “not all readers are growing Christians but all growing Christians are readers.”
  • The couple who ran a retreat center we used for student programs for many years, Keith and Gladys Hunt, talk as well as wrote about the joys of reading aloud as a family. Before there were recorded books, we would read aloud as a car and some of our best shared memories are our read aloud times as a family–from Bible stories to Narnia and the Little House books and so much more. From them I first learned that reading could be a shared rather than solitary practice.
  • A later president commended the reading of history and biographies. The questions of character and how character enhances or undermines effectiveness whether in leadership or everyday life has been a source of reflection for me.
  • Hearing Eugene Peterson at one of our staff conferences first introduced me to some of the formative practices of the church and the literature around these practices.
  • Working as part of a multi-ethnic team with strong men and women leaders has challenged me to begin to listen voices of both genders and many cultures. God is not a white male and women writers and those of other ethnicity help me understand dimensions of encountering God I may otherwise miss.

Ideas for Practice:

  • Recognize that we read in various ways–for leisure, for information, and sometimes just skimming and browsing.
  • Spiritual reading is different: it is slow, reflective, and repetitive. You are not reading to get through but to chew over and reflect on what you’ve read. You might read a passage several times or even pray it. Perhaps you will read it aloud if alone. Sometimes, just a few pages is enough.
  • Protect the hours you set aside for spiritual reading. Depending on whether you are a morning or night person, the early or latest hours may be best–out of the distractions of mid-day.
  • Finding a place and time where you won’t be distracted is key, even if for just 15 minutes. (It is estimated that if a person reads 15 minutes a day, they can read 15 books a year.)
  • You might also consider finding people to read with. Talking over things you don’t understand or things that for some reason have caught your attention with a group reading the same text can shed light we may not see alone.

A few book recommendations:

  • Eugene Peterson’s Take and Read provides an annotated list of spiritual literature. His Eat This Book goes into greater depth on the practice of spiritual reading.
  • C. Christopher Smith’s recent Reading for the Common Good is the best book I’ve seen on spiritual reading in community, of how reading together may change communities. I recently reviewed it.

I believe reading is an important practice for maintaining spiritual and intellectual vitality. I don’t think this necessarily means lots of books, but rather engaging deeply with the books we do read, and allowing them, in a sense, to read us.

 

 

 

The Month in Reviews: June 2016

Reading for the Common Good

This was one of those months where my reading was all over the place from essays in military history to fictional accounts of Irish country doctors to a new book on sleep. There was the usual theology, including a collection of essays on Karl Barth, an outstanding book on the atonement, an inter-generational dialogue on the future of our faith, a discussion of the roles of parents in their children’s faith, and conversely a discussion of the religious choices of “nones” around raising their children. Two other outstanding reads concerned the role of persuasion in Christian witness, and the role of reading in the life of Christian communities. So, without further ado, here is the list!

Confessing Christ

Confessing Christ for Church and World, Kimlyn J. Bender. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A collection of essays in Barthian theology, exploring his ecclesiology, his confessional theology, particularly as it bears on the canon, and his understanding of the relationship of Christ and creation. (Review).

Future of Our Faith

Future of Our FaithRonald J. Sider and Ben Lowe. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. Two activist evangelical leaders forty years apart pose critical questions for each other about issues facing the church, with responses from the other. (Review).

Christ Crucified

Christ Crucified: Understanding the Atonement, Donald Macleod. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A thoughtful, contemporary restatement of the classical doctrine of the atonement including different contended terms in reference to the atonement including substitution, expiation, propitiation, satisfaction, and victory. (Review).

Christ and Crisis

Christ and Crisis, Charles Malik. Grand Rapids: Acton Institute, 2015 (originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1962). Contends that the deepest crisis of his (our) age is a spiritual crisis that the church properly addresses by laying hold of all the resources and pursuing the calling of people of faith. (Review).

An Irish Country Doctor

An Irish Country Doctor, Patrick Taylor. New York: Forge Books, 2007 (an earlier version published 2004). A young doctor fresh from medical school becomes the assistant to a rural, and somewhat eccentric, general practitioner in a small village in Northern Ireland and learns lessons about life, love, and medicine they didn’t teach in school. (Review).

Father of Us All

The Father of Us All, Victor Davis Hanson. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010. A collection of essays arguing from history that war is a tragic but persistent feature of human existence that explores some of the particular challenges that democracies from Athens to the present day United States face as we are faced with the prospect or reality of war. (Review).

Fool's Talk

Fool’s Talk, Os Guinness. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015. Guinness argues for the recovery of the lost art of persuasion that combines good apologetic work with evangelism and is aware of the many people Christians address who are not open to their message. (Review).

The Sleep Revolution

The Sleep Revolution, Arianna Huffington. New York: Harmony Books, 2016. Huffington summarizes the research on sleep, the impact of sleep deprivation on our lives and performance, and steps we may take night by night to reverse this deficit and improve our lives.  (Review).

Losing Our Religion

Losing Our ReligionChristel Manning. New York: New York University Press, 2015. Qualitative sociological research on the religious category of “nones” exploring the different types of “nones”, the influences of time and place, and the parenting choices around religion “nones” face in raising their children. (Review).

dupee.indd

It’s Not Too Late, Dan Dupee. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016. A book addressed to Christian parents of teens making the transition from high school to college on the continuing important role parents may play in their teen’s faith journey. (Review).

Miracle Work

Miracle Work, Jordan Seng. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. A description of how God wants to work through us to do things in the world, including supernatural things like healing, delivering people from demons, prophesying, or intercessory prayer. (Review).

Reading for the Common Good

Reading for the Common Good, C. Christopher Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016. Explores how the communal practice of reading in congregations fosters a learning community and shared social imagination the results in clearer congregational identity, sense of mission in one’s setting, and wider engagement with the environment, economics, and political order. (Review).

Best of the Month: This was a tough one. Christ Crucified and Fool’s Talk are both quite good. I’m going to give the nod to C. Christopher Smith’s Reading for the Common Good, a book I wish I’d written and I think vitally important if Christian communities are going to become vibrant learning communities. Smith connected the dots for me about how our personal love of reading can connect into our communal life in life-giving ways.

Quote of the Month: Here I will go with a quote from Donald Macleod’s Christ Crucified, his rejoinder to those who argue that the idea of substitutionary atonement is little more than “divine child abuse.” He writes:

“…the child-abuse charge ignores the clear New Testament witness to the unique identity of Jesus. Not only was he not a child; he was not a mere human. He was God: the eternal Logos, the divine Son, the Lord before whom every knee will one day bow (Phil. 2:10). This is no helpless victim. This is the Father’s equal. This is one who in the most profound sense is one with God; one in whom God judges himself, one in whom God condemns himself, one in whom God lets himself be abused. The critics cannot be allowed the luxury of a selective use of the New Testament. It is the very same scriptures which portray the cross as an act of God the Father which also portray the sufferer as God the Son, and the resulting doctrine cannot be wrenched from its setting in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The ‘abused child’ is ‘very God of very God’. It is divine blood that is shed at Calvary (Acts 20:28) as God surrenders himself to the worst that man can do and bears the whole cost of saving the world.” (p. 64)

Coming Soon: I’m currently reading Kirsten Hannah’s The Nightingale, historical fiction exploring conditions in German-occupied France through the lives of the Rossignol (which means “nightingale”) daughters and their father. I’m also working my way through David Maraniss’ account of the life of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Mattered. Lombardi was one of the coaching greats of my youth. Maraniss explores the tension between faith, family, and football that was his life as well as the way Lombardi transformed pro football. I’ve just begun Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian by Michelle Lee-Barnwell, exploring whether there is a different way of thinking about gender roles than these two polarized positions. Marva Dawn’s In the Beginning, God is an older work meditating on what the creation accounts reveal to us of the character of the God of Creation.

My summer project has been the creation of an index of reviews on Bob on Books. Since the inception of the blog, I’ve reviewed around 350 books. Soon, hopefully, you will be able to scroll through a list of these by author. Of course, you can always use the search box on any page to find whether I’ve reviewed a book or to search on a topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how I can continue to make the blog more useful as a resource for “thoughts on books, reading, and life.”

Review: Slow Church

slow churchSlow Church by C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This book argues that the church has been “McDonald-ized” and that just as the Slow Food movement has returned to embracing food that is good, clean, and fair, so the church needs to embrace an ethic of quality, an ecology of reconciliation, and an economy of abundance.

Slow church. That’s not what I wanted when I was growing up. I wanted to get my weekly dose of church and get on to more interesting things. If the authors are to believed, the church growth specialists gave my generation what we wanted–fast church. Messages that cut to the chase, efficient, homogeneous organization that led to big box churches that provided a great show. For a time, I was part of such a church in another city, typically driving 10 miles to attend. But it seemed totally unconnected to the place where we lived and so when we moved to our current home town, we found a church in the neighborhood, which in recent years has come to embody many of the things the authors of this book describe as part of the “slow church” movement.

The authors describe an approach to thinking of the church that gives words to much of what we were looking for. They believe that God’s redemptive work is slow and values the unique qualities of people and place and gifting that our particular places of worship reflect. They organize their approach around three categories.

First they think in terms of ethics. What is the good to be pursued in the life of a local congregation? It begins with a sense of place that takes time to become a community that shares life together and learns how to serve the mix of people in a real neighborhood rather than efficiently reaching a “market segment.” It encourages stability that takes time to understand a place rather than our restless mobility. It values patience that is willing to suffer alongside others and walk alongside the people of one’s community through the seasons and changes of life as Christ is formed in us.

A second emphasis is on ecology. It focuses on the connectedness of all things and all of life as opposed to fragmenting life, and groups of people into segments, often with the result of dividing them against each other–young and old, liberal and conservative, poor and affluent, and even humans versus the rest of creation. It cares about the dehumanization of work and fosters good work based in our neighborhoods. It celebrates sabbath where God provides enough in six days for us to live seven.

A third focus is on economy. Will we join the culture’s economics of scarcity or the kingdom economy of abundance? This means noticing all the abundance God has placed in the people and physical resources of a church and a community and responding with gratitude and hospitality. And in a wonderful connection with the slow food movement, it means reveling in the fellowship of the table, having rich conversation over good food.

This book is particularly important for churches that take seriously the work of “re-neighboring” and community development in transitional or struggling communities. It is also important for churches in more suburban “communities” that often don’t have a real sense of community and place, and are at great peril over the long haul.

The authors challenged me to consider how, even though I am in a church that is seeking to become these things, I am embedded in a “fast church” life and way of thinking that is formed more by my culture than the church community with which I identify. I work in a ministry that is not located in the community where I live, where I travel extensively, and work with colleagues in a tri-state area, and more widely with individuals throughout the country as well as an extensive virtual community. As I write today, I don’t have good answers to resolve this tension. But this book serves as impetus for a conversation, maybe a slow conversation, but one that I recognize needs to begin in my life.

How about you?