This review was published on the Englewood Review of Books website and is reprinted here with permission.
It’s not easy to talk these days. Try having a social gathering over Zoom and see how quickly you tire. Maybe one voice dominates. Maybe you’re frustrated by not having the side conversation you’d like to have. Maybe someone raises the issue of vaccine hesitancy for the 10,000th time.
We were having trouble talking even before the pandemic forced our conversations online, however. One of the founders of the Englewood Review of Books site, Christopher Smith, has been trying to get us together for years by offering us books like How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church. Church leaders have sensed for quite awhile that our muscle for deep engagement with one another has atrophied. The causes are myriad: busy schedules, social media siloing, the Great Divide (otherwise known as our political/cultural/communal catastrophe).
Perhaps we need to be brave. That’s what Elizabeth Hagan argues in her new book designed for church study: Brave Church: Tackling Tough Topics Together. Hagan, who has pastored churches and written a previous book on infertility, laments that so many churches feel artificial. In reflecting on her own childhood church she says, “We never talked about real life. We never talked about the parts of life that made us sad, scared, angry, or ashamed.”(11) She suspects that others feel the same and the result is disappointment. “Our refusal to talk about tough topics can push people away from the church.” (13) So why can’t we be braver?
Hagan thinks we can be, and offers this book as a training manual for developing our ability to talk to one another. She begins with five ground rules, written as commitments a group might adopt, to help set the stage: 1) We will accept conflict and commit to the way of kindness, 2) We will take responsibility for how our words are received, 3) We will ask permission before we challenge someone’s views on a subject, 4) We will show respect for one another and graciously receive feedback if someone feels disrespected, and 5) We will use “I” instead of “you” statements—we will not accuse or attack.
If the commitments seem starchy, they do open the door to deeper engagement with others. A community that leaned into these rules would hopefully make these habits a natural part of their life together. And if the space is challenging, Hagan suggests, “You may want to retreat to the comfort of a safe space when the conversation ends.” (31)
Hagan then moves into areas of possible discussion. For each chapter there are sections entitled “Brave Exploration,” which offers background information on the topic, “Brave Church,” which gives real-life examples of faith communities making a difference on the issue, “Brave Talk,” which provides questions for discussion, and “Brave Act”—a suggested follow-up action.
There are topics here that you might expect in a book like this. Yes, you can talk about race and sexuality issues. But Hagan also invites you into questions of infertility and miscarriage, mental illness, and domestic violence. In these chapters readers will get the chance to sit with problems that do not get as much attention in the media, but which certainly impact members of most every congregation.
Though you might imagine a kind of conversation guide that attempts to sharpen distinctions between positions in order to have a stimulating debate, Hagan’s approach assumes a more pastoral community engaging in these issues. The groups who use this book can’t be out to win points but rather to build a better, more respectful community.
A value that seems to underlie Hagan’s work comes to the surface late in the book in the chapter on sexual orientation and gender identity questions. Here she reclaims one of the Greek words for love: storge. “Here’s the beauty of storge: This love can bring together people who lack common cultural denominators (age, race, sex, class, or education) and even people with opposing worldview.” (92) The result of this kind of affection is a community that sees people first instead of issues.
A final chapter offers two more practices for maintaining the kind of openness that leads to bravery: listening to new people and listening to more stories. Here she introduces us to Gilead Church in Chicago, which has developed the habit of regular storytelling:
The personal stories told at Gilead don’t follow the form one might expect at church. Rather than “I once was lost and now I am found,” [Rev. Rebecca] Anderson said, “there are lots of stories that are ‘I once was lost, and I’m still kind of a mess.’” (106)
The book concludes with a leader guide that confirms it as a practical guide for congregations. Hagan’s work will bless churches that want to take a first bold step toward difficult conversation.