catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 11, Num 6 :: 2012.03.16 — 2012.03.29


Transformation through conversation

As a pastor of a congregation in a changing neighborhood, I would love to have a parishioner like C. Christopher Smith.  In his brief new book, The Virtue of Dialogue, Smith, the editor of the Englewood Review of Books, details the transition that his church took from being an old-line megachurch on the Near Eastside of Indianapolis to being a congregation of people journeying with their transitioning community into a new form of being church.  In the process, Smith reveals a level of respect and love for his sometimes difficult congregation that any church leader would envy.

As the title of the book suggests, however, this is not simply a tribute to Englewood Christian Church, it is primarily a call to conversation as a primary Christian practice and a means of reformation.  As Smith narrates the process by which a flailing congregation moved to supporting businesses and housing projects in a neighborhood transformation, he gives credit to simple dialogue: “How is it that this modest church of about 200, a failed mega-church that spiraled downward with the neighborhood, has come to help orchestrate these strains of change?  …The short answer is that we learned to talk to each other.”

Beginning in 1997, the church began a series of Sunday night conversations around issues of interest to those who came.  In a circle of chairs, facilitated by a skilled and provocative lay leader, some messy, fertile interactions began to happen.  “Our conversation in those earliest years was extraordinarily volatile,” Smith says.  “People frequently got angry and yelled at others; some would get up and walk out.”  But enough people stayed committed to the circle that new ideas began to emerge and new actions began to grow.

Now the church is at the center of a neighborhood renaissance with an unusual collection of initiatives.  A daycare and preschool, a bookkeeping business, a landscaping operation, and Smith’s own book-related ventures all took root in the church.  But the operation about which he is most eager to share is the affordable housing initiative that led the congregation to buy an abandoned public school and to renovate it into a mixed-income rental housing property.  According to Smith, all of these efforts enable a continuing weeklong conversation that leads to new projects and stronger community.

As a United Methodist, I admire the way that Smith and the Englewood Sunday circle have discovered a form of conversation that shares a kindred spirit with John Wesley’s conferencing.  In a culture that seems to have no time for difficult social interactions carried out face-to-face, the deepening community at Englewood is a witness to the continuing power of distinctly Christian modes of being in the world.  Smith acknowledges this by calling such dialogue “Eucharistic,” marked by the "radical self-denial that defined the life and death of Jesus and that we remember in the celebration of the Eucharist.”

The Virtue of Dialogue is no naive celebration of bloodless harmony; it is born of a particular community’s patient practice over many years in the ways of Christian community.  Though he offers no concrete guide for how groups might take this journey in other contexts, Smith extends an invitation for other struggling congregations to fall in love with their communities and to return to the discipline of shared conversation.  In this short, hope-filled treatise, Smith combats the narrative of decline by reminding us that the quality of Christian communal life is defined more by how it exists in the world than by how well it mirrors the cultural indicators of success.  As Stanley Hauerwas says, in a quote Smith uses to preface his work, “People that are together to be together, that’s just another name for hell, as Sartre well understood. You never are together [simply] to be together, you’re together because you have something you want to do, work that [needs to be done].”

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