IVP - Online Pulpit - July 2014 Archives

July 31, 2014

Conversation and Slowing Down

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.

Ethics

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.

Ecology

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).

Economy

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.

SmithOP.jpgC. 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.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 2:10 PM

July 15, 2014

The Necessary Conversion of Desire

By Jen Pollock Michel

Three pastors figure in the acknowledgments of my recent book, Teach Us to Want. There’s Tom: years ago, when we lived in Ohio, he agreed to let me write a hundred-day devotional for our congregation. And there’s Dan and Kyle: their substantive preaching at our church in Toronto has shaped and informed my theological thinking. I owe these men my gratitude.

There is another pastor mentioned in my book. Unfavorably, I’m afraid. He was a visiting preacher, years ago, and the sermon he preached is one I’ve never forgotten.

“Have you ever heard anyone pray,” the pastor asked, “God, help me to love you more”? How many of you have ever asked that of your husband or wife? Who asks their husband or wife for help like this? No, you don’t go to your husband or wife and say, “Help me to love you more.” That’s your job. And when we go to God asking, “Help me to love you more,” we’re praying the wrong kind of thing. Instead, we should pray, “Help me to know you more.” Because when we grow to know God more, when we read our Bibles and learn more about God, it will automatically be true that we will love God more. (Teach Us to Want, p. 46)

Maybe I bristled because I had learned to depend on the kind of prayers he was suggesting were wrong. At sixteen, I lived the return of the Prodigal Son, and there was nothing more fearful to me then than my own heart’s delinquency. God, help me to love you more. That prayer was a life raft, those words buoyant with hope. At sixteen, though daily Bible reading was commended to me as an important spiritual discipline, I never felt fully assured that my devotional diligence would keep me spiritually afloat. I needed a greater conversion—and would survive only by greater grace.

I’ve come to understand more recently, reading ancient thinkers like Augustine and newer ones like James K. A. Smith, that converted desire is at the heart of Christian formation. Discipleship, perceived as the transmission of information for the purpose of changing our beliefs and behaviors, is an inadequate model. We aren’t nearly as rational as think. We are worshiping beings, homo liturgicus, as Smith describes in Desiring the Kingdom, and we do well to pray, “God, help me to love you more.” “The church has been trying to counter the consumer formation of the heart by focusing on the head and missing the target,” Smith argues. “It’s as if the church is pouring water on our head to put out a fire in our heart.”

Our best question, for ourselves and for those we nurture in the faith, may not be, “What do you believe?” but rather, “What and whom do you love?” It sounds a clarion call for contrition. It solicits repentance from self-assured theology. And it nudges us to embrace the kind of exegesis that Eugene Peterson describes as permission for the Scriptures to “read us.” “The word of God is living and active … discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of whom we must give account” (Heb 4:12-13 ESV). What if, in reading the Word of God, we shed our inner Pharisee and remembered ourselves to be the chief of sinners?

Oh God, help me to love you more.

This prayer isn’t wrong. It is necessary, and indeed it is a line all of us cast for grace. “He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25 ESV).

MichelOP.jpgJen Pollock Michel lives in Toronto with her husband and five children. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s her.meneutics blog and has recently published Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition and the Life of Faith (IVP). She is the Director of Children’s Ministry at Grace Toronto Church.

Posted by Nate Baker-Lutz at 1:39 PM