July 31, 2014
By Chris Smith
As John and I wrote, and now have been traveling and talking about Slow Church, one of the questions that we frequently get is, What’s the first thing our church should do to start to slow down? The book’s final chapter, “Dinner Table Conversation as a Way of Being Church,” is one answer to that question—though certainly not the only one. Creating space for conversation is both a good place to start slowing down and the way to continue on the journey of discerning a deeper life together that is attentive to ethics, ecology and economy.
Conversation is the primary way we know and are known by the brothers and sisters of our church congregation, and thus it is a key practice in nurturing a community we want to belong to. In the language that we use in the ethics chapters, conversation helps reorient our desires toward stability (staying rooted in a community where we feel we belong) and patience (the more we know others, the more we are willing to be patient and grace-full with them)—both of which cut against the grain of our McDonald’s culture.
The sorts of knowing and being known that happen in conversing together highlight the ways our community is still fragmented (and hopefully some insight into how the fragmentation might be healed over time). These sorts of knowing also help us to see one another as gift, and how the skills of everyone can be orchestrated in compelling ways to bear witness to God’s reconciling work in our neighborhood (see the chapter on work/vocation).
When we come to know the gifts of those in our community a sort of economy forms as we begin to be grateful for and leverage the gifts that God has provided in both church members and neighbors: people are taken care of, fed, housed, clothed and so on. Maybe this means the church starts businesses or empowers neighbors to do so. But all these sorts of opportunities flow from getting to know one another through practices like eating and talking and being together.
In most churches conversations are already taking place in small groups, leadership committees and the like. While these sorts of conversations are very important, I think the most beneficial arena for conversation is one that anyone in the congregation can participate in. If we are seeking to understand who we are as a church—asking difficult questions about theology, mission, place—then this conversation needs to be as broad and as open as possible. Obviously, in small churches it is not difficult to imagine having these kinds of conversations. In medium-sized congregations, say 200-800 people, having these sorts of conversations might be more complicated, and given our fast-food culture, many people will simply choose not to participate.
If the size of the group is too unwieldy to include everyone in a single conversation, host multiple conversations, but be sure to find ways to keep the conversations integrated throughout the church; otherwise it might lead to fragmentation. Similar things would apply for larger churches, although the complexity becomes a greater factor. Conversations for larger churches may have to start in small groups, but again the key is to find ways to integrate conversations across the whole church. One way might be to draw upon proximity, inviting small groups that meet in adjacent neighborhoods to come together for larger conversations.
Complicated or not, conversation is vital to our slowing down and growing deeper together as a community of God’s people.
C. Christopher Smith is editor of The Englewood Review of Books, and a member of the Englewood Christian Church community on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. Englewood is one of the churches whose experiences gave root to the concept of Slow Church. Chris’s recent work has appeared in Books and Culture, Sojourners, The Christian Century and Indiana Green Living.