How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church
Reviewed by Tim Muehlhoff, Professor of Communication, Biola University
C. Christopher Smith, senior pastor of Englewood Christian Church (Indianapolis, IN), describes early attempts to bring diverse people in his church together to talk as a “hot mess.” Yelling and sarcasm were default modes as members gathered Sunday nights to discuss potentially volatile issues. Out of sheer stubbornness, Smith and church leadership stayed with it as trust among conversationalists slowly developed. Out of that determination and years of experimentation comes a book that serves as a reliable guide to those wanting to follow their example.
Smith lays out a theological foundation of communication when he asserts that we are “conversational bodies, created to live most fully and most healthfully in conversation” (6). Specifically, we are to model the attentiveness inherent in the Trinity: “In mutual presence, the persons of the Trinity are fully attentive to one another, speaking and responding out of this complete attentiveness” (13). Our ability to be attentive has been challenged by what Bill Bishop calls, the “big short” (6), where we surround ourselves with like-minded people. Thus, when interacting with people with diverse or opposing views, we struggle to attend to each other’s perspectives: “As our social networks become homogenized, we lose the capacity to talk, to work, and to be with those who are different from us” (7). Enlarging our capacity will require us to not only utilize communication models, but also assume biblical virtues like open-mindedness, humility, and courage.
Smith’s guidebook is divided into three parts that lay out his approach to conversation, with salient aspects of pre and post communication. Part I, “Setting Out on the Journey,” encourages readers to examine key parts of the communication process by asking salient questions: How is our communication shaped by cultural factors? What role does neutrality play in facilitating difficult conversations? What ground rules should be adopted before potentially divisive topics are addressed? Once ground rules are in place, would it be wise to tackle less controversial topics before moving on to complex and potentially divisive top- ics? How can these conversational rules be enhanced by placing them within the context of communication models or techniques such as Open Space Technology (OST), Appreciative Inquiry (AI), or World Café technique? What type of communication climate do each of these models or techniques nurture?
Part II, “A Spirituality for the Journey,” wisely asserts that ground rules, communication models, or techniques will be ineffective if there is not a deep spiritual reservoir to strengthen resolve. Difficult conversations “will be most beneficial when seen as opportunities for prayer, for presence with God and with one another” (84). Ironically, what is needed for productive conversations to occur is not more talk, but silence: “In silence we prepare our hearts and minds for conversations, reminding ourselves that the end we are seeking is not that of our personal agendas but an encounter with the very presence of God” (85). Smith asserts that we need to wrestle with a pivotal question in moments of silence: “Do we really desire to be united with our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ?” (116).
Part III, “Sustaining the Journey,” asserts that disagreement is inherently part of human interaction and does not, in and of itself, cause conflict: “Rather, conflict is disagreement that has become insidious and is ripping a community apart” (148). Toxic conflict is held in check as we shun destructive attitudes such as “jealousy, bitterness, judgement, and de- monization” (149) and adopt virtues such as humility, open-mindedness, and courage (150).
For students of communication, there is much to like about Smith’s astute observa- tions born out of years of experience mixed with successes and failures. First, he is wise to remind readers that the real work of communication happens long before the conversation starts. Through observing thousands of conversations at Englewood Christian Church, Smith knows that simply meeting to talk it out most likely ends in vitriol. The first step is to understand why many within the Christian community are “hesitant, confused, or resistant to the idea of conversation” (51). Having been immersed in today’s argument culture—a term coined by Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen—it is no wonder we are quick to avoid divisive topics with fellow church members. This hesitancy will only be countered when participants are convinced there are rules in place to make sure decorum is maintained. This sense of security depends on the ethos of the facilitator. Is the facilitator someone who garners the respect of all conversationalists involved? Are they trained in how to curb negative communication spirals? “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam,” note the ancient writers who comprise the book of Proverbs, “so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out” (17:14). Communication models noted by Smith provide a framework to keep our conversations in check.
Second, our communication models or strategies will be useless unless we first apply spiritual disciplines such as silence and prayer. Through deep spiritual work we can adopt a posture of humility, open-mindedness, and courage. The apostle Paul prays for a young church at Ephesus that the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened (1:18). In Greek, the heart includes our emotions, intellect, and volition. As academics, there is nothing easier than writing on a topic from a solely intellectual perspective. Smith is wise to state that for healthy conversations to occur, we need to holistically embrace spiritual virtues.
It is this last observation that brings me to a mild critique. Martial arts pioneer Bruce Lee asserted that it is better to be proficient with one kick or punch than to be marginally good at twenty. Perhaps Smith could have adopted Lee’s approach with communication. Rather than introducing readers to Open Space Technology, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Café, it might have been better to focus on one approach. While Smith does provide a help- ful appendix that guides readers to seminal books on Open Space Technology1 or online resources for Appreciative Inquiry,2 it may have served readers better to focus on depth rather than breadth. Smith could have presented the same approach employing just one model. For example, what are best practices for applying Open Space Technology to potentially explosive conversations? What are the challenges of training facilitators in OST? Provide an instance where OST did not work according to plan and had to be adjusted. Focusing on one model would have allowed Smith time to introduce readers to the advantages and disadvantages of OST.
The same could be said of Smith’s advocating of the virtues of open-mindedness, humility, and courage. For readers deeply influenced by a ubiquitous argument culture, humility and open-mindedness are disparaged and easily cast aside. Subsequently, they are becoming harder for Christians to practice. While Smith makes a good argument for adopting these much-needed virtues, he does not explore how to cultivate them. His advocating of silence is surely a crucial first step. The late Dallas Willard—a seminal advocate for spiritual disciplines—equally argued that solitude was the foundational discipline. But how does one cultivate humility via silence? What criteria can be used to assess if one has authentically adopted a humble posture toward another? Or are we using false humility as a rhetorical trick to bolster our ethos? By going deep with one virtue, Smith could lay the groundwork for pursuing other biblical virtues. Many today naively adopt an attitude of just talking it out. Smith deftly avoids such simplistic thinking. Yet, as a reviewer I longed to learn from his vast experience with the models advocated. Perhaps less would have been more.
In today’s fractured and argumentative communication climate, we need diverse communication strategies. Despite the hesitations I have noted, Smith’s book should be part of our repertoire. His counsel has been forged in over 20 years of helping people come together not only to converse, but also to prayerfully model the attentive unity of the Trinity.