Becoming Conversational #1 – Open Existing Meetings for Conversation

The Virtue of Dialogue - C. Christopher SmithMy ebook The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities was released last week by Patheos Press, and in it, I argue that open conversation is essential for the health and flourishing of church communities and the places they inhabit.

Over the next two weeks, I will be running a 10-part series that I am calling “Becoming Conversational” in which I offer suggestions for how churches might enrich the conversational life of their church communities.  (Some of these ideas have been adapted from my earlier ebook, Growing Deeper in Our Church Communities, which is available for free download here.

In the spirit of conversation, I encourage readers to utilize the comments section below to ask questions, share relevant stories from their own experience, etc.

#1) Open Existing Church Meetings for Conversation

Most of our churches already many times at which we regularly gather together.  Typically, conversation is not a priority for these meetings, however.  What if we decided to make our Sunday School classes, small groups, etc. more conversational? Instead of having a teacher stand up and teach us uni-directionally, what if we sought to study and learn in conversation together, leveraging all the gifts inherent in the members of that group?  Even if we’re not ready to do away with “the teacher,” adding a time in which the material could be engaged conversationally would be  beneficial.

What if we opened up our business and finance meetings so that anyone could attend, and invited conversation and reflection on the choices that need to be made regarding the administration of our life together?    All of our churches could learn much from the Society of Friends (Quaker) church communities that have a long and rich history of conversing and making administrative decisions by consensus of the congregation (You can find a good and brief intro here).  I’m not saying that all churches should make decisions in this way, rather that the Friends’ process is worth our attention and reflection as we seek to create spaces for meaningful conversation in our churches.

Even more radical perhaps is the suggestion that we create spaces for open conversation in our primary worship gathering.  Here at Englewood Christian Church, we are starting to experiment with this through a practice we call “Sharing Time,” an open time for members of the congregation to share burdens, praises and brief reflections for the edification of the whole church.  Sharing Time closes with the things that have been shared being lifted up in a congregational time of prayer.  Other churches set aside some time after the sermon for questions and conversation about what has been taught.

Our congregations have many opportunities for conversation already in place. All too often, however, we are more interested in entertainment, personal education or organizational efficiency that our forms quench the Spirit’s conversational work in our midst.

Tomorrow… #2 Leveraging the Skills of All Our Members.

  • Pmpope68

    Good idea and I tried this–at an evangelical Friends church, no less. However, previously the congregation had been under a fairly dogmatic leader in which conversation was not really encouraged. When I became an elder and even as a teacher, I tried leading in a conversational way as I enjoy dialogue, but often found I was listening to the crickets. There is quite a hurdle to clear when you come out of a controlling atmosphere into one in which dialogue is encouraged and welcomed. I would advise leaders that if this is their situation, to be very patient with the process and prepare themselves for the long haul because it’s not easy creating this kind of atmosphere. You may encounter those who are still afraid to speak or who are skeptical that you really want their advice to those who give all kinds of input from the doable to the ridiculous and the petty. You may have to teach people by example how to dialogue and give feedback in a healthy manner if this has not been the norm for them.

    • Anonymous

      “I would advise leaders … to be very patient with the process and prepare themselves for the long haul because it’s not easy creating this kind of atmosphere”

      AMEN! There’s a reason we’re featuring this book on the SLOW Church blog… ;-)
      I’d also add the recommendation that leaders not try to change the culture of the congregation alone, but rather find allies (however few, even if just one ally) who can work together with you to model a different conversational way…
      ~Chris Smith

      • Adamssusanr

        At ECC we found early on that we needed to be provoked a bit to talk about what had previously been assumed to be shared beliefs and understandings. We were shocked to learn that we did not all see everything the same way and this unleashed a lot of anguish, but also a lot of talking that eventually turned into more clearly understood shared language.

        Chris’ idea of allies must be done carefully and pretty transparently or folks will, rightly or wrongly, become suspicious that you are ganging up on them. Encourage small groups to continue the conversation in other times and places and then ask them to bring back the fruit of that talk into the larger group. You can also break into pairs or small groups during the discussion time to talk about some guiding questions or better yet, to generate some questions they would like to see the whole group tackle.

        Talking openly where there has been no prior practice does require great patience and strong stomachs because what will emerge will likely be painful and feel destructive. In our experience, this is sort of how you know that you are on to something important and worth pursuing. Folks will get mad. Some will be so uncomfortable they will stop coming. Someone will try to shut it down, no question. Prayerfully and lovingly persist in speaking truth to one another and with God’s help, you will begin to see fruit. It is no exaggeration to say that our first 10 years of persistence were painful, frustrating, and sometimes destructive, yet I can also say those years were exciting, engaging and powerfully engaging for those of us who kept at it.

        May God lead us into greater love for the Kingdom, for one another, and for our neighbors through our conversations.


        • Anonymous

          Susan, Thanks for the clarification on allies… Good point.