How We Can Restore the Dying Art of Communication in the Church

Our bodies are extraordinary creations, reflecting God’s intricate handiwork. We consist of diverse parts with different, yet collaborative, functions. For instance, a nose does not look or function like a bicep, and neither of these parts resembles a spleen. How are all of a body’s members integrated? You might say that they’re engaged in constant conversation.

The emerging sciences of proteomics and genomics explore how the proteins and genes in our bodies interact conversationally to give form and health to our body. Our nervous system, it turns out, is a conversational medium, an internet of sorts, that transmits messages not only from our brain to our various members, but also from these various members back to the brain in the form of sensations like pain, pleasure, and fatigue.

Building upon Jesus’ desire (John 17) that all his followers be united, as he is united with God the Father, it is not surprising that the apostle Paul uses the image of the human body to describe the life of the church. This familiar Pauline image reflects not only how we are to share life together in Christ but also how the divine persons of the Trinity share life together as one. Our bodies, both personal and social, are, of course, created in God’s image, designed to be a unity of diverse members that are bound together as one through the attentive presence and conversation of their members.

Recovering the practice of conversation is one of the most pressing challenges for Christians in the 21st century. Despite the conversational nature of our bodies and our calling to live conversationally with our brothers and sisters in Christ’s body, a long and complicated history of modern socioeconomic and technological forces has crippled our capacity for talking with others—especially with those whose backgrounds and convictions differ from our own. Fortunately, this struggle has slowly been rising in the church’s consciousness, and today we are seeing a wave of books on themes related to conversation. Among the titles in this emerging wave are Redeeming How We Talk: Discover How Communication Fuels Our Growth, Shapes Our Relationships, and Changes Our Lives by A. J. Swoboda and Ken Wytsma, and The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans by Joanne Jung.

The Power of Words

Redeeming How We Talk is structured in two parts: The first is a historical account of why conversation is so difficult in the 21st century, and the latter part is a theological exploration of the significance of words. Swoboda and Wytsma begin their history all the way back at the beginning of creation, with the divine Word that spoke creation into being. “Speech,” they observe, “is always powerful—whether it builds up, distorts, or tears down. Everything in the world is a result of words. It began with a series of words.”

The original care and creative power of words stands in sharp contrast to the ways that words have come to be used in our late-modern era. Specifically, the authors focus on propaganda and the technological threats to careful language introduced in the last half-century. The book’s first part concludes with a chapter on the nature of difficult conversations, which the authors take as essential to following in the way of Jesus, “one of the forgotten arts of Christian living.” They challenge us to immerse ourselves in these conversations, rather than fearfully steering clear. Although the history of our present struggle with civil conversation is, I believe, longer and more complicated than what Swoboda and Wytsma depict, their account is a helpful introduction, and framing it within the scriptural arc of God’s creative and redemptive work highlights why our use of words and our conversational practices matter.

In the second half of the book, the authors turn from history to theology, describing what it might look like for us to speak sacred words with care and wisdom. Fittingly, they begin with an exploration of the ways in which Jesus spoke. Jesus not only spoke truth, they observe, but did so in a way that resonated with those who heard him and sparked their curiosity. He also spent lots of time in conversation with his religious and political enemies. Above all, Jesus embodied a life lived in prayer, in conversation with God. The authors write:

To learn how to talk to others the way that Jesus did, we must learn to talk to God the way Jesus did. Jesus prayed. Jesus spent time with the Father. Jesus knew who He was before God. … There is a posture of the heart that allows for real conversational connection. If we cannot practice it by ourselves, and in the presence of God, then we won’t be able to practice it in the stress and conflict of our social relationships.

The remaining chapters of the book offer guidance on practicing Christlike conversations: how to speak and listen to one another in godly ways, how to seek the unity of the church rather than division, and how to speak winsomely. But while the authors excel in explaining why the practice of conversation has gone into decline, their discussion of how to revive it seems a bit thin at times. They could have done more to describe specific structures and practices that might help us learn to speak (and listen) in the wise, loving, careful way of Jesus.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, C. Christopher Smith