I am continuing to read through Thom Shultz’ book Why Nobody Want to go to Church anymore, in which he identifies four key objections to church and proposes four responses, what he calls the Four Acts of Love. Having explored Radical Hospitality, the next chapter explores Fearless Conversation.
Interestingly, Shultz addresses this in two quite distinct contexts. The first is the context of conversation with those outside the church and Christian faith, proposing that we should be ready to engage positively with a wide variety of other views and listen carefully to them if we are to offer a convincing account of Christian faith. His example from Lifetree Café (an open version of church which seeks to engage non-believers on neutral territory) is of a session entitled ‘The Witch Next Door.’ After an introduction, and a video interview with a practicing witch, some pagans and a Wiccan who had become a Christian, there was an exploration of what Wiccans, Jews and Christians believed (because those attending included people from all three sets of beliefs). This sort of dialogue would raise eyebrows for many of us—but for Shultz it was rooted in a confidence that the truth about God will out, and that Christian faith can stand on its own two feet in the marketplace of (religious) ideas.
This comes from two sets of observations in the NT. The first is that Jesus’ style of communication often too the form of questions, many of which were open-ended and invited his listeners to think for themselves or provoked them into rethinking their assumptions.
Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable (Matt 13.34).
And alongside this, Jesus appeared to have no qualms about engaging with people on the margins, mostly on their own territory. There appeared to be no ‘no-go areas’. Rob Bewley makes a similar observation about Jesus’ conversational style in his Grove Biblical study of Mark’s gospel, Transforming Conversation:
In short, Mark’s gospel depends on what Jesus says while engaged in conversation with other people and on what they say to him in those same conversations, more than on what Jesus says when freed from the constraints of interaction. So it makes sense not only to study the words of Jesus, but also to study the shape and nature of the encounters in which these words are uttered (p 4).
This suggests that listening belongs to the task of evangelism much more than we have traditional thought, and perhaps particularly with those who appear to us to be a long way from Christian belief. Steve Hollinghurst explores this in his study of New Age, Paganism and Christian Mission:
Those attracted to the New Age will be interested to engage with a Christianity that offers genuine spiritual encounter and a God who works in miraculous ways, indeed without such they will show little interest. Those who have set up stalls exploring Christianity at mind, body and spirit fairs have found people willing to engage on these issues, and I would commend this idea to others. Certainly we need to be taking our faith to them in their environment rather than expecting them to come to us.
Shultz also notes the emphasis on respectful conversation in the epistles:
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Col 4.6)
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry (James 1.19)
The verse from James is most usually read in the context of conversation within the body of believers—but why should it not apply equally to conversation with enquirers and those of other or no faith?
This then leads to the question of the nature of teaching, learning and conversation within the church. Here Shultz draws on a range of commentators who have written about learning in the church, and the widespread failure of monologue, lecture-style teaching to actually engage with the questions Christians have or offer effective and memorable learning that changes lives. What is really interesting here is the way this connects with aspects of first-century culture as we see it in the NT. David Shepherd, a regular contributor to comments on this blog, offers this insight:
‘Christian Origins and Hellenistic Judaism: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament’ contains a chapter written by Carl Mossier called Discussion and Prophecy in First Century Synagogues. He presents a convincing case that demonstrates that the early church inherited the first-century Sabbath instruction format of scripture reading, initial teaching and then open discussion. It was this period of open discussion that allowed Paul and Barnabus to participate as strangers and share their ‘word of exhortation’.
Mossier carefully explains that the early church adopted this format and that Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church reflect this: ‘Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy…Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. (1 Corinthians 14.1, 29-33)
The issue today is that there is little opportunity for current liturgy to permit open discussion durimg which the prophetic reflections on the reading by non-clergy could be heard and evaluated for comfort, edification and exhortation. Our modern liturgy is devised by those who can’t help but promote the role of the clergy while marginalising the participation of the congregation in instructive, prophetic discussion.
Hasten the day when most churches might permit the decent, orderly and open prophetic discussion in their services that Paul encouraged in Corinth.
All this has serious implications for how we think about church, witness and engagement with those around us. It suggests that we take seriously the questions we have and others express if we are to be a community of learning; after all, that is the primary meaning of discipleship. This isn’t about making faith intellectual, but it is about making faith comprehendible, reasonable even. And this might well imply change for the way we ‘do church’.
First, it implies a significant change of culture for many churches. Are our congregations places where people can comfortably ask difficult questions, and where those questions will be listened to carefully, taken seriously, and engaged with faithfully? This kind of culture is often associated with a ‘liberal’ theology, where it can appear as though there are no definite answers, so there is no problem with having questions since that is all we have. In fact, it seems to me that it is contexts where we do ‘have answers’ that can create the safe space for asking questions.
That leads into the second implication: we need to have confidence in at least two directions. The first is that we have confidence in the gospel, in the Christian faith, that it will stand up to scrutiny and survive cross-examination from other points of view. That in turn means that our own faith will be based on conviction that has survived our own hard questions, and not simply on an impulsive ‘leap of faith’. But it also requires us to have confidence that, within the church and beyond it, we can trust the Spirit of God to direct our conversation and work through the interactions that we have with others.
Finally, this has implications for our style of communication and leadership. Questions cannot be asked where leadership is autocratic or defensive. And perhaps the greatest challenge for preachers is to take the risk of preaching in the form of a dialogue, where control of the discourse is surrendered for the sake of authentic engagement. More on that in a future post!
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