Conversation is by nature participatory. Even when we are not speaking, we participate by listening carefully and by weighing in our minds what is said. If a gathering is not open for participation, it is not conversation. Passively listening to a podcast, a panel discussion, or even a sermon – as beneficial as each of these might be in certain contexts – is not conversation.– C. Christopher Smith, How The Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church
Until the long-running show was cancelled in 2015, I used to listen to an excellent program on the Moody Bible Institute radio network called Midday Connection. The hosts, Anita Lustrea and Melinda Schmidt*, modeled for listeners the values of curiosity, thoughtfulness, and courage as they explored a wide range of topics.
During the last few years of the show, the hosts facilitated a Friday discussion each week with a couple of people connected with the show (including Mark Breta, Lori Neff, and Caryn Rivadeneira). Dubbed “The Millrose Club”, each participant brought a question or topic to the table and launched a discussion about the subject during one of four segments of the show. The topics included current events, spiritual formation, life experiences, and more. This weekly feature highlighted for me what a gift it could be to have purposeful discussion. I learned as much from the way the on-air individuals interacted with one another as I did from the topics they explored during those Millrose Club Fridays.
I was delighted when Melinda extended an invitation to me to try an experimental in real life conversation group based on the Millrose format. A few months after we launched this group, I blogged about the experience here.
I continued with that group until our move to Sarasota at the end of June. I hope I grew in my ability to be present, to ask questions, and to learn from those who didn’t agree with my own cherished ideas. Sometimes, my ideas needed a kick in the keister from someone with a different perspective. And in this climate of supercharged political polarization, listening to and talking with those with whom I didn’t always agree had benefits far beyond the confines of a conversation group. What I practiced in the group, I applied in a few emotionally-charged situations in other places in my life.
I jumped at the chance to join a group Anita was forming here in our new hometown of Sarasota, FL. The group has met a few times, and I’m excited about the desire among the group to dive into some challenging questions as we continue to get to know one another.
I’ve had a few people ask me questions about how to start and maintain a group like this. I would share my limited experience, but wished I had a resource that could offer a meaty discussion on how conversation forms us, thoughtful guidelines for groups and churches who ‘d like to add meaningful conversation to their community’s life, and plenty of real-world examples.
C. Christopher Smith, editor of the Englewood Review of Books, has had years of practice in conversation in his church community. We go to church to listen, to participate in corporate worship, and perhaps to learn, but that learning is focused on spiritual instruction or indoctrination. Conversation is something entirely different than presenting the correct answers at a Bible study.
His excellent book, How The Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church, is a primer on what conversation is, how to begin relating to one another in a church in new ways and how to navigate landmines and potholes (because they will happen!). He digs into the formational nature of conversation for a community, and offers lots and lots of excellent real-life examples from his own congregation and others who’ve made this an essential component in their lives together. I commend the book to you if you’re wondering how to bring the lost art of conversation into your church – or simply want to find better ways to be intentional in forming a conversation group to practice using your ears to listen well and using your voice to speak with intention, truth, and grace.
*Melinda and Anita have since become IRL friends, an unexpected gift in my life.