Every pastor knows the scenario. An issue has arisen. Relationships are frayed. People are more than willing to talk it out with the pastor, but with each other? Not so much.
C. Christopher Smith, editor of the Englewood Review of Books, has been an advocate for the spiritual practice of conversation based on the long-running Sunday evening conversations at his home congregation, Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. In a new book, Smith takes his advocacy further with an extended analogy of the physical body as an image of conversation. “We are conversational bodies,” he says, “created to live most fully and most healthfully in conversation.” (6)
How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church is a deep dive into a neglected means of grace. It might seem simple to say that we just need to talk more, but Smith knows that even church people are being shaped by new ways of being that have made holy conferring difficult. “How do we learn to talk together in our churches when we have been formed by a culture that goes to great lengths to avoid conversation?” (8)
Patiently, Smith lays out the case for recovering the practice. First, he explores the theological roots of conversation, noting the social nature of the Trinity and three facets related to God’s way of being: mutual presence, an economy of reciprocity, and the interplay of being bound together in diversity. The church exists as a continuing incarnation of God’s presence, something Smith emphasizes by revisiting verses like 1 Corinthians 6:19. “The grammar of these references is often obscured by the quirks of the English language and the prevailing individualism of our modern age: ‘Your [plural] body [singular] is the temple of the Holy Spirit.’” (22)
In subsequent sections of the book, Smith lays out a comprehensive vision for fostering conversation in congregations. He rejects the notion that conversation is simply a tool to be employed as needed to solve problems. Conversations are, instead, constituent of who we are, “constantly structuring and restructuring the world in which we live.” (83) Therefore, it’s important that we have healthy conversations that cultivate trust and relationship.
Smith combines practical guidance for structuring conversations with other spiritual practices that can prepare congregations and sustain them through inevitable times of conflict. He explores prayer, Bible study, and abiding with one another in relationship. I found his description of specific conversational techniques like Open Space Technology and Appreciative Inquiry to be particularly interesting for breaking open staid expectations about what conversation looks like.
Through it all, Smith emphasizes the importance of presence to one another, rather than problem-solving, as the essential ground of conversation. Conversation can lead to transformative action and Smith relates how that has happened at his church and others. The Englewood Review of Books is one outgrowth of his congregation’s practice. But, he notes, “Our primary end in conversation should not be doing but being.” (109)
I’ve known Chris Smith for over a decade now and he was my editor on A Space for Peace in the Holy Land: Listening to Modern Israel and Palestine. He has also been a guest contributor to Heartlands. This book faithfully represents his journey and persistent values. Knowing how conversation has formed him explains why he has been able to cultivate broader communities that extend far beyond Indianapolis. You can get the benefit of a little of that long-lived wisdom in this book. And perhaps foster some conversations of you own.