Our human bodies are wondrous symphonies of diverse parts. An ear is nothing like a toe, and an eyelash is nothing like a spleen, yet all these parts and many more are intricately bound together and function in harmony for the health and stability of the whole body. How is this possible? Modern science confirms that at every level of our being, from proteins to genes to neurons to bones, we exist as a complex, multi-layered conversation of thousands of vastly different parts.
We are created in the image of the triune God, who exists as an eternal, attentive conversation between three persons.
When our bodies are very young and immature, some of our members do not converse or function well together. A healthy infant will reach a stage early in life when she realizes that her hands and feet belong to the rest of her body and can be set in motion as she wishes. Then, as her body matures and regularly practices moving, the child will be enabled to do increasingly skilled and precise actions: crawling, toddling, walking, perhaps eventually developing the physical skills needed to play a sport or musical instrument well.
On the other end of life, disease and death are marked by breakdowns in bodily conversations: We lose the capacity to do certain things with the same grace that we once did. Our lymphatic system, which protects us against harmful pathogens, slowly loses its capacity to ward them off, and, for some, cancer cells turn a deaf ear to the body’s messages to stop dividing.
Maturing as Christ’s Body
Our bodies are profound pieces of God’s handiwork, yet what can they teach us about our calling to mature into our identity as the body of Christ? This biblical metaphor for the church is familiar to us, but how often do we seriously consider what it means for the way in which we live out our faith? Although the apostle Paul didn’t have access to all that modern science knows about the human body, he still wrote compellingly about the ways in which we Christians have been integrated with one another in Christ:
For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body (1 Corinthians 12:14-20).
We are created in the image of the triune God, who exists as an eternal, attentive conversation between three persons. The abundant life into which we have been invited in Christ (John 10:10) is precisely this conversational life of the Trinity. Living into this abundant life, however, is no simple task. Since Adam and Eve severed their fellowship with God in the Garden of Eden, division has been a powerfully destructive force. Cain turned on Abel. Jacob took advantage of Esau and was alienated from him. Barnabas and Paul disagreed and split ways. The Corinthian church bickered and was divided over the leaders they favored (1 Cor. 1). In the 21st century, it seems that this fragmentation has been amplified: Political division, economic division, racial and ethnic division, generational division are all layered on top of one another, driving us further away from the life for which we were created.
Almost 25 years ago my church had a Sunday evening worship service that was rapidly dying off.
Political scientist Robert D. Putnam’s famous book Bowling Alone argues that many social groups—from bowling leagues to churches to civic organizations—gradually broke apart over the latter half of the 20th century, effectively ending our knowledge of how to talk and work with one another. The rise of social media in the 21st century has only increased that fragmentation. But we are not without hope.
Learning to Talk Together
Almost 25 years ago my church, like many other evangelical congregations of that time, had a Sunday evening worship service that was rapidly dying off. While we knew that our evening service would inevitably stop, our church didn’t want to give up being together on Sunday evenings. Someone had the idea that we should circle up some chairs in one of our multipurpose rooms and just have conversation.
One of the earliest questions that we explored together, which had bubbled up from a sermon, Sunday School class, or other part of our shared life, was “What is the gospel?” In retrospect, this question might not have been a great starter topic, because it cut to the heart of our identity as evangelicals and was a subject about which almost everyone had ironclad convictions.
As we wrestled with questions like this one, spending many weeks exploring each topic from a variety of angles, we rapidly found that we didn’t know how to talk well together. Our early conversations were highly volatile; people sometimes yelled at each other or, more frequently, battered one another with sarcasm. The conflicts that were unearthed led some people to leave the church, and others to avoid our Sunday evening conversations.
Few if any minds were drastically altered, but the sweeping change came in our capacity to know and trust one another—even when we didn’t agree.
But week after week, month after month, year after year, we persisted in conversation, and like anything that’s practiced regularly, we started to get better at talking. The yelling and sarcasm eventually faded. We were indeed learning to listen more carefully and to receive one another with all our hopes and fears, our questions and our unshakeable convictions, our dreams and our failures of imagination. We were being changed, but not necessarily in the ways you might guess. Few if any minds were drastically altered, but the sweeping change came in our capacity to know and trust one another—even when we didn’t agree.
Our conversations, I should emphasize, are not idle banter. They have enabled us to act in deeper and more graceful ways in our neighborhood. The trust that we cultivated in our weekly practice of conversation prompted us to do many things for which churches often don’t have imagination. When church members—like my own family—want to live in the neighborhood and share life daily with the church here, we help them buy a home or arrange rental housing. We have started a handful of businesses, and these have flourished because of our increasing capacity for conversation (which, among many other things, helps us to navigate tense situations).
Conversation and action have been intertwined for us, but our conversations have not just been about doing things. In fact, we’ve intentionally said that our Sunday evenings are not a business meeting—we are not going to make decisions there about resources or other parts of our life together. Largely, we talk about Scripture, directly or indirectly. Sometimes, we focus on a specific passage, perhaps the one that was preached on that day, and try to understand its meaning. Other times, Scripture is regularly referenced as we explore a broader issue or question.
Navigating Divisive Issues
Talking together—really, truly talking—can help churches navigate difficult issues that threaten to divide us, but jumping into a divisive issue without any prior practice is not wise. Grandview Calvary Baptist Church, a Canadian Baptist church in Vancouver, British Columbia, has found conversation helpful in navigating questions about sexuality. An urban congregation whose members have a diverse range of convictions about same-sex attraction and relationships, Grandview once sent a few of their more mature members on a retreat together—a time of praying, listening, and talking about their differences. The Holy Spirit moved powerfully among the retreatants, drawing them closer together. The pervasive fear and anxiety that the group brought into the retreat had dissipated. “We may disagree,” said one participant, “but I can go into our church meetings and know that you all have my back.” This group’s experience continues to help the church talk and make decisions about issues of sexuality.
The retreat might not have had the same transformative effects, however, if Grandview hadn’t already had longstanding practices they share as a community. One of these practices is listening prayer, which they have used in many settings, including regularly at their annual congregational meeting. For Grandview, listening prayer involves taking a specific question related to the church’s life together, and in groups of just a few people, listening in silence to what God might be saying to them about this question, and then ultimately sharing and discussing what they believe God said—first in the smaller groups, and then as a congregation. Listening prayer is a way of being in conversation with God and attentive to the ways He desires to lead us. It also allows room for different people to hear God in varying ways and to discern in conversation what that might mean for the congregation.
Imagining the Future of Our Body
Conversation can also help us imagine what our life together might look like in the future. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a conversational method that developed in the business world but has been used by many churches. The AI process guides an organization through reflection and conversation on its past, highlighting the most energizing parts of its history. The organization is challenged to draw upon these stories to drive members into the future for which they hope. Mark Lau Branson has written an excellent book on AI for churches—Memories, Hopes, and Conversations. In it, he describes how his congregation, First Presbyterian Church of Altadena, California, used AI to recognize their rich Japanese-American heritage. It also helped them discern a future course that would involve caring well for the Japanese-American seniors who had devoted themselves to that church over many decades. First Presbyterian’s AI conversations set them on a course toward a deeper identity as a community and a deeper connection with one another as members of that body.
If our churches hope to be healthy and maturing toward the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13), then we have to truly know one another—our convictions, strengths, and weaknesses—in order that we might work more gracefully together. It’s essential that we strive to extend grace and forgiveness, because inevitably we will wound one another in the process. There’s no shortcut here, no way to speed ahead in becoming who God wants us to be, but the result is worth the effort. Through it all, we become prepared to bear witness to the practice of conversation not just in our churches but also in our homes, neighborhoods, workplaces, and all the communities to which we belong. Our deeply fragmented world needs the healing presence of Christ’s body, but are we prepared to receive that healing and everything that comes with it?
Illustration by Mark Weaver