THE VIRTUE OF DIALOGUE: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities. By C. Christopher Smith. Englewood, CO: Patheos Press, 2012. (eBook).
We live in an age that demands immediate results, that has become increasingly segregated, not only along ethnic and linguistic lines, but also political and generational lines. The old homogeneous principle that Church Growth enthusiasts hailed as the key to success, has been successful, but I’m not sure that the results have been beneficial to society or the church. We also live in an age where civility in conversation is a rare commodity. I realize that civility has always been something difficult to attain and maintain, but it seems as if things have gotten out of hand, making fruitful conversation difficult at best. But, there is hope and there are models that can guide us, if we’re willing to engage and be patient along the way.
Part of our problem is that in our embrace of democracy, which can mean the rule of the majority (or in some cases the tyranny of a noisy minority), we find it difficult to move toward consensus. There are faith communities that work on this model, but few try it – I’ve yet to really try it, but it’s a model that is suggestive of possibilities. It is a model that is described and illustrated in a new e-book written by Chris Smith, editor of the Englewood Review of Books and a member of the Englewood Christian Church of Indianapolis, which is the focus of the book.
Before I comment further on this brief but insightful book, I need to reveal that I’ve been a regular contributor to the Englewood Review of Books, and Chris has reviewed my own books. Having added this caveat, I will also say that what I have to say about the book isn’t some kind of quid pro quo arrangement where I say nice things about his work so he’ll nice things about mine! It is a book, brief though it may be, that needs to be read with care.
Chris tells the story of the transformation of an aging urban congregation that in its heyday was a mega-church and one of the leading congregations of its tradition. Over time the surrounding community began to change. The leading employers closed factories or downsized. The population declined and then changed. Many of the members of the Englewood Church moved to the suburbs, and commuted to the church. Despite various attempts to adapt and grow, usually making use of church growth principles, the church found it difficult to move forward and membership dropped to about 200. The future looked bleak, but then a conversation began that would ultimately prove transformative.
This conversation that is the subject of Chris’s book began on Sunday evenings as a replacement for a fading Sunday evening service – what he describes as Sunday morning lite. What is intriguing is that this conversation began in the mid-1990s and continues to this day, expanding beyond that Sunday evening slot. During these conversations, congregants, and members of the community that surrounded the church, gathered to discuss scripture, theology, the community, and ministry. These conversations often were difficult and contentious, but they helped move the congregation to a new way of being present in the community. It helped them reenvision their ministry as a church, even if not everyone agreed as to the nature and purpose of the church.
I approached this book with deep interest, in large part because I pastor what one might consider the remains of a former mega-church. Like Englewood, Central Woodward was once a leading congregation in our denomination. It was a church that provided national leaders to our denomination and to the ecumenical movement. It was also viewed as the “cathedral” for Michigan Disciples. But, as Detroit changed the church found it difficult to adapt, and finally it followed the remaining membership into the suburbs. It was a choice made by many predominantly white congregations during the 1960s and 1970s, though it probably did so a decade too late. Unlike Central Woodward, however, Englewood stayed put in its neighborhood, though its future looked grim.
The church has not returned to its former mega-church status, which we’re introduced to in the first chapter of the book, but it has embraced its call to be present in the community and developed ministries appropriate to its setting. It has involved itself in creating businesses, housing, and ministries to the neediest in the community. It has taken root in the community, and it’s been able to do so because it committed itself to taking the long road of conversation that began in the mid 1990s.
Chris speaks of conversation being an essential practice of the church, where we “learn to set aside our personal agendas and talk together in Christ-like ways” (location 121). But as is clear this doesn’t happen overnight. The conversations were hampered by the fragmentation present in the congregation that reflected a “culture of individualized faith.” Participants brought with them their various theological, social and political views, along with “an emotional attachment to these convictions.” All of this took place as our culture lost its ability to engage in conversation. As Chris describes the realities of this conversation one wonders how they stuck with it.
Our conversation in those earliest years was extraordinarily volatile. People frequently got angry and yelled at others; some would get up and walk out. The conflict was intense, and not everyone was prepared to handle it. Some members quit coming on Sunday nights; others left the church completely. (loc. 258-259)
Being that this was a congregation with evangelical inclinations some of the most volatile conversations centered on the nature of salvation. Some focused on personalistic views while others sought a broader less individualistic vision. By the time that Chris got involved, these conversations had been going on for eight years, and the climate was still difficult. And yet they persisted in the conversations. What ultimately sustained them was the commitment to each other and God’s work in that community. They didn’t agree on a lot of items, and they fought about them, but they remained together, engaging in conversation. Eventually the conversation became more civil and structured, but the work has not ended.
As I read the book, I have to admit that I’m not sure I’m ready to take this path. I can be rather averse to conflict, and thus I might shy away from engaging in such volatile conversation. Besides, the culture of democracy that pervades our congregations makes a consensus form of decision-making difficult. It’s rather scary, and yet there is great attractiveness to this vision. It is a reminder that much of our functional church life is rooted less in spirituality and more in modern institutional life. Our churches look more like legislatures than a council of spiritual leaders.
Chris has provided us with an introduction to the kinds of conversations that can be transformative, even if they’re not easy to engage in. These are conversations that require much patience and willingness to work hard at achieving our goals. Still, we’re blessed to have this primer that can encourage us and guide us toward a much more healthy way of being church, one that is rooted theologically in scripture, and one that allows us to move beyond individualistic versions of our faith. For this we are grateful.