Can We Talk? (Sep-Dec 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

The Missional Church in Conversation

by Todd Bouldin
September – December, 2005

Have you ever had this conversation?

“Hello, how are you today?”
“Well, thank you.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“So how have you been?”
“Good.”
“What’s new?” (or “Sup?” depending on your age)
“Not much.”
“What’s new with you?”
“Not much either”
“What are you doing today?”
“Just chilling.”
“Yea, me too.”
“Did you see that Brad and Jen got a divorce?”
“That’s horrible isn’t it?”
“How about those Trojans?” (Insert “Them Vols, Sooners or Horns” here)
“Not bad huh?”
“Well, it sure was good talking. Have a great day!”
“You too. Bye”

Unfortunately, that conversation represents the depth of most of our conversations. Yet, Starbucks and coffee houses that provide little more than some expensive coffee and places for conversation continue to spring up on every street corner with such rapidity that it seems that our culture is longing to talk. In a time when so much conversation is about so little, good conversation is still a treasure that is delightful when found, or maybe more appropriately, when it finds us.

Good conversations may be hard to find in this fast-paced world, but you still know a good conversation when you have one. What makes a conversation a bad one? It is the empty feeling that we get when we sense that our conversation is not mutual, that both people have an agenda, or that one party has some ulterior motive that must be satisfied or otherwise the conversation will be considered a failure. Delightful dates and successful interviews are made of conversations where the talk just happens. No one is trying. It doesn’t feel like work. Then, truth about life and love can be discovered together free and unrestrained. Nothing is lost for either person, and much is gained.

In his essay on conversation, the famous British philosopher Michael Oakeshott writes, “Conversation springs from the perception of the pleasure of talk. It appears whenever talk is indulged in for its own sake, without ulterior motivate and emancipated from the servility of having to wait upon an appropriate subject, a matter or even an occasion.” (What Is History? And Other Essays, p. 187). Good conversation is free and unrestrained because the ego or identity is not at stake. It is simply delight in the presence of Otherness. It is what Scripture calls Love.

If we become too narcissistic or self-aware in conversation, or if we feel that something of ourselves is at stake so that we insist on triumph, the conversation loses its freedom and its effectiveness. Oakeshott writes in his article that the enemies of conversation are “those who, like a worn gramophone record, distract the company by the endless repetition of what have begun by being an observation but, on the third time around, becomes the indecent revelation of an empty mind; the noisy, the quarrelsome …. Conversation cannot easily survive those who talk to win.” (p. 189)

Most churches are not very good at conversation. This is not surprising since most churches ground themselves in absolute claims of truth that make mutual conversation with others outside its walls difficult at best and impossible at worst. Jesus claims, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). That is not exactly a conversation starter.

But it seems to me that the debate dissipates and the conversation can begin once we understand that Jesus is making a radically different claim about the Truth here than the one understood by his religious contemporaries. His contemporaries understood Truth as propositions contained within written texts such as law and prophesy. Jesus redefines Truth. He claims Truth as existing in Himself, the Logic of God (John 1:1), and not in a written text or proposition (John 5:39-40). Such relational Truth then can invite others into a conversation where one can speak one’s convictions with compassion and receptivity. If we understand our mission as one that calls people to believe certain doctrines about Jesus or about the church as we understand them, then it will be no surprise if we find ourselves involved in many debates where truth must win. If we can understand the Truth as relational and shaped by the character of Christ, then we can enter into conversations that are receptive, loving and humble while also being Truthful. These redemptive conversations can lead all of us toward freedom and wholeness, and not one-sided, all-or-nothing control.

Redemptive Conversation

Redemptive and effective conversations start with strong conviction about the gospel while also acknowledging that we do not understand all the mysteries of God. We confess that we are not the sole owners of God’s revelation of God’s self. Jesus is; we are not. Therefore, I must be as ready to receive from others as to give to others. When Jesus speaks to the woman at the well in John 4, he does not lecture her. He engages her in a conversation in which he first asks something of her (water) and then suggests that He can give her something too. Only when we are open to receiving from another can we enter into a conversation that is not forced or manipulated but genuine and free. The minute you think you have to win, you’ve already lost the conversation.

But aren’t we commissioned by Jesus to share the Truth? Yes, but the character of the gospel shouldn’t be lost in its communication. The gospel itself is good news of salvation through Jesus Christ which first requires that we admit two things common to all of us, regardless of who we are: That we all (believer and unbeliever, Christian and non-Christian) are made in the image of God and are God’s children, and that we all are fallen children of God with limited understandings and distorted identities. From this commonality, we then can enter into genuine and free conversations that first take account of what we have in common (our Father and our fallenness) — not our difference. From that point, it is a matter of trusting the Truth, not forcing the Truth, to prevail. Truth that really is the Truth sets us free, but Truth that somehow leaves someone feeling imprisoned or manipulated isn’t really the Truth at all.

The Missional Church in Conversation

A church which intends to be missional in the twenty-first century must change the terms of its discussion with “the world,” and particularly with those of other religions, if we are to proclaim and live the Gospel in our time. We must move from debate or indifference to engagement. The tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath have shown us the horrific consequence of a form of religion that is bent on triumph at any cost. The problem with this radical fundamentalism is not that it holds to absolute claims but rather the manner in which it holds those convictions. It seems to me that one can hold to abiding Truth while simultaneously believing that the nature of that Truth calls for understanding and tolerance of those who do not accept the same truth claims. Anything less ends in abuses of power, violence and domination that does not represent the Truth of Christ, and by its very self-seeking and violent arrogance violates the very nature of the Gospel and the character of the Christ we seek to proclaim and share.

So how can we hold to our convictions about Jesus Christ but also enter into a new way of being with other faiths that is at least tolerant and hopefully even redemptive? I believe that such proclamation begins with conversation. Conversation rather than debate is a metaphor of being and doing the Gospel that can open up new opportunities for the church in a pluralistic world. This conversation begins in commonality, mutuality, and humility. It ends in confession rather than triumph. Surrounding this conversation is an atmosphere of delight, love and seeking that opens up inquiry and does not shut it down.

A New Conversation

The past twenty years has seen a renewal of unity, cooperation and understanding among Christian traditions. There is still much work to do. But while this conversation continues, it is time for a new conversation. This conversation must be with those who find Christian faith difficult to believe, and with those who practice another faith other than Christianity. If we do not broaden our narcissistic discussions of worship, women, and sexuality beyond these to hear the deeper questions of those who make their faith home outside of Christian faith, we will wake up to find ourselves increasingly irrelevant in our nation and world where many are seeking but finding their home in non-Christian religions. In fact, our narrow self-focused discussions are rather strong evidence that we are not hearing their questions at all … for if we were, we would find that they are much more compelling than some of the issues that are preoccupying us. If we are so sure of our convictions, then why do we fear the conversation? Why do we keep writing and thinking about ideas that are of no relevance to the person honestly seeking faith? Something tells me that it isn’t because we fear compromise. We might actually be more insecure about what we believe than we are ready to acknowledge or even realize.

So what we might first need to get this conversation started is, ironically, more conviction. If we hesitate to converse with those different than us, my hunch is that it might be because we don’t trust the Truth we believe. The power of the Truth we believe is not in the messenger or in the doctrines. The power is in the person of Jesus Christ who is that Truth, and that is a Truth we can firmly trust. Once we trust the power is in the Truth and not in our tradition or understandings, then we can enter into a conversation shaped by that Truth – that is, a conversation of mutual respect, humanness, honesty and always, love. But the Truth should never be compromised in our search for understanding. That type of insipid and lifeless interfaith dialogue has been tried in the past and has been found wanting.

I sit on an interfaith board at our local state university, and my ministry has been blessed greatly from the experience. I realize that many Christians have been hesitant to engage in ecumenical or interfaith conversations for fear that they will further an “anything goes” faith. My experience has been nothing of the sort. Each of us remain true to our own convictions but openly discuss ideas that matter to us. For example, our interfaith group was asked to speak to a class about interfaith relations and why we believe that our religious groups should be involved in conversation and service together. When I was given the microphone, I shared a bit about our tradition, and why I believed that my participation in interfaith conversation grew out of my faith and not in spite of it. I explained that I could enter into conversation with my Jewish, Bahai, Catholic and Muslim friends because I believe that Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. This belief calls me to a life of humility, engagement and tolerance rather than fear, withdrawal and domination. If I trust the Truth to “win”, and not myself, then I can enter into any conversation with freedom and without fear. By entering the conversation, I lost nothing, and we all gained something. That seems to me to be the first step towards becoming a missional church.

Beginning the Conversation

So how can begin the conversation? It really starts with conviction, confession and love. Beyond this, I have a few suggestions. Befriend an unchurched person and ask them why they choose not to believe, or what they do believe. Go to their synagogue or temple to show your desire to understand their faith. Invite a religious leader of another faith to share their religion and ideas with your church on a Wednesday evening. Our church recently was blessed when I invited my Jewish rabbi friend to teach a Wednesday night class on Reformed Judaism and its interpretation of Scripture. I then, in turn, was asked by the rabbi to lead the prayer at the annual holocaust service at the local temple. Again, we lost nothing, and we all gained something.

If Christianity is to thrive in the pluralistic urban centers of our country and world, we must enter into a new conversation. This should be a conversation with our Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist neighbors that moves beyond small talk and niceties. Let’s enter into real conversations about things that matter. If we do, I believe that we will begin to engage startling and exciting questions which can energize our faith and call us back to the core of all that we believe. If we do we will find that nothing was lost, and that much was gained.

We believe in Jesus Christ, dead, buried and raised. That’s a Truth we can trust. Now let’s get on with the conversation.New Wineskins

Todd BouldinTodd Bouldin lives in Los Angeles, California, is a member of the faculty at Pepperdine University and is the senior minister of the Camarillo Church of Christ. He is a licensed attorney, but his passion is the ministry of Jesus Christ through preaching and the equipping of our church for discipleship and ministry. He is an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University and has also lectured at universities: Abilene Christian University, Lipscomb University, UCLA, and UCSB. You might also enjoy his previous article Co-Workers With God. E-mail him at [Todd_Bouldin@yahoo.com].

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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