It’s So Much More Than “The Conversation”
Earlier this week, Christianity Today published an article by Chris Smith, from Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, entitled “Before ‘Transforming’ Your Neighborhood, Talk to Your Neighbors.” It shares a little bit of the story of this urban church and how the practice of dialogue and conversation transformed their congregation and, as a result, is transforming the broader community.
Chris shared with me an advance draft of the forthcoming e-book that goes further into telling Englewood’s story, which will be published soon by Patheos Press. It’s a beautiful and inspiring story, and one which I hope many faith leaders will read and consider.
On Wednesday night, I had the opportunity to actually visit Englewood and join them for their community dinner, and it was a treat to sit and talk with Chris about what is happening in and through the church and meet some of the men, women, and children from the community (many of whom live right around the church and in the Englewood neighborhood). Englewood is an old independent Christian church (who are cousins to the Disciples of Christ, my tribe), with a long history … a “turnaround church” story … a success story of “revitalization.” And Chris credits conversation — and (I would add) open, honest theological conversation — for that revitalization.
For quite a while now, the emerging missional church movement has been referred to as “the emerging church conversation.” I think this was initially just part of the nature of something that was seeking to earnestly embrace and embody epistemic humility, because to call this thing a “movement” might be to over-inflate the status or importance of it. And besides, that would jinx it, right?
So “the conversation” has been, for many us, shorthand for “the emerging missional church.” And indeed, it has been within this movement that the practice of conversation has been reclaimed and space for robust theological discussion has been created and nurtured. Emergent Village launched “cohorts” as local expressions of the movement where self-organizing groups could engage in conversation.
I still believe there is a great opportunity and need for Emergent “cohorts,” because there are still not very many churches engaging in theological conversation and creating safe(r) spaces for that to happen.
Church or Cohort?
As we talked over pork and beans in the Englewood basement hall, I shared this analogy of Emergent cohort with Chris, and he reminded me that churches (like Englewood) have advantages over Emergent cohorts in that they offer place (a sense of history and community), commitment (to a local body and shared ministry values/goals), and accountability (to move from talk to action).
I think he’s absolutely right, which is why I’m dedicated to lighting a fire under people to start churches, to form new missional communities of practice, to organize experiments in kingdom living. We will still need cohorts, but we also need churches and courageous leaders to open up those spaces for conversation that leads to action — for the good of the broader community and the world.
Conversations and Communities
Last summer, I had the privilege of meeting Meg Wheatley and Juanita Brown, the founders of the Berkana Institute and World Cafe, respectively. Meg’s writing on emergence theory went viral a few years ago (in Emergent circles, anyway), and her thinking has become very influential for many of us.
I was only vaguely familiar with World Cafe, and I was not aware at all of Juanita’s work with the Art of Hosting, as well. Core to both of those networks is “harvesting conversations that matter.” And Berkana Institute’s mantra is, “Whatever the problem, community is the answer.”
I think our religious/faith communities have much to learn from these two brilliant women and from all the participants in the networks they’ve started. We desperately need more faith communities (like Englewood) that recognize the power of conversations and are willing to do the hard work of cultivating and harvesting the riches that can come from them.