The Virtue of Dialogue -- A Review

THE VIRTUE OF DIALOGUE: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities.   By C. Christopher Smith.  Englewood, CO:  Patheos Press, 2012.  (eBook).

                Conversation:  If we’re willing to engage in it, it might transform a congregation.  But, are we ready and willing to take the steps required to truly engage in conversation, to listen to one another, even when one vehemently disagrees with the other?  

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.


Unknown said…
It seems extremely odd to me, that dialog in a church community, is suggested as being an experiment - something that, "If we're willing to engage in it, it might transform a congregation." If dialog is a form of love (which I believe it is), then loving one another might equally be considered as something to try IF we are ready and willing to do so. It seems odd that is, until I remember that the overwhelming majority of church communities hire men as spiritual models who hone their skills in homiletics (monologs), but know little about dialogical discourse. Meanwhile, in the secular world, intentional communities are adopting forms of non-violent communication and non-hierarchical decision-making. Little wonder that the "church" communities continue the downward spiral toward powerlessness, triviality, and irrelevance.
David said…
I agree, it can be frustrating.

Hey Don, we can hone our skills on and bring them to church.
Jeff said…
I have participated in two types of what are often called consensus models. The first among Quakers (3 types), who are more homogenous as Churches in that they self select for people who tend to think along ways similar to themselves, are largely committed to non-violence means and seeped in a worship style that involves intense listening for God speaking through another and yourself -you don't voice your opinions but your leadings even business meetings are worship meetings. They don't call what they do consensus.

The other experience was as the group facilitator for a campus peace group that was the catch bag for everything on the left at a conservative institution -with very strong passions among the individuals for different causes and seven very strong personalities among about another fifty or so quieter ones. If we were to get anything done and not endlessly hash things out we had some guiding principles.

1.)We didn't vote on decisions, we agreed, agreed to disagree but didn't stand in the way of another's acting, or we set it aside and worked together where we could. The latter two rarely happened do to, IMHO, the other 'rules'.

2.)The agenda for discussion was set up ahead by those who showed up early and was then the first point of the meeting for adjustment.

3.) There was an end time set up.

4.) We would critique the discussion at the end. Was everyone given an opportunity to speak? Did you feel heard? Were you respected?

5.) I found as facilitator I couldn't have a dog in the race I had to trust the wisdom and the diversity of the group. My job was to make sure the stronger personalities didn't trample someone else, that everyone was offered a chance to speak (and outright asking for the views of quieter people directly) AND policing respect of others and of time -not saying what's been said unless asking if you understood it correctly. Generally, I found that the facilitator had to be a strong personality themselves, but not have a personal agenda, to be more committed to the process than the outcome.
John said…
So Don, you propose more multi-sided sermons? More sermonizing conversations?
Robert Cornwall said…
Don, for churches that are rooted in principles of democracy, this is a difficult direction to take. It's possible, as Chris shows us, but it takes time and patience, two things we often lack.

Jeff, you have laid out nicely the possibilities and the pitfalls of using a consensus/dialog model. We either self-select as pretty much being in agreement at the outset,or we require a commitment to the process and a strong facilitator. Not always easy to do, especially since strong personalities will try to dominate the conversation.
David said…
Here's something worthwhile to talk about. We're kidnappers-
Unknown said…
Seems to me, that there is a need for conversations within congregations concerning the "principles of democracy". It would be especially appropriate for congregations to do so as the New Testament word we've transliterated for "church" is "ecclesia" - a political or decision-making gathering. From what I understand, in the Athenian Ecclesia, voting was not considered to be the most democratic method for decision making. One of the problems with voting, as I see it, is that it always creates division unless there is a unanimous vote. Another is that, as Jeff mentioned, voting seems to place a priority of outcome over the process - or it sub-prioritizes the "edification of the Body".
But "principles of democracy" is just one of the things that need to be discussed. But rather than discuss those issues, valuable time is wasted while the "laity" sits passively listening to "clergy" deliver "sermons". What is the purpose of sermons? To teach? We know that the lecture method of teaching is the LEAST effective means of teaching. Which accounts for the extreme ignorance of the laity - even those who have spent years sitting listening to sermons. The other purpose of sermons might be to deliver prescriptions for living. But, as Paulo Freire, points out, such prescriptions rob us of a critical consciousness. Sermons create a dependent laity and a co-dependent relationship between the clergy and laity - similar to that of an abusive father and the other family members. About the only good sermons do, in my opinion, is they are a boost for the ego of the one who gives them. But, perhaps that's not such a good thing.

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