The Power of Conversation and the Movement of the Holy SpiritEmail This Share This Tweet This
by Gil Rendle, TMF Senior Vice President
Conversation is powerful. It is a primary way in which we are changed. In his book seeking to recover the act of testimony for the church, Tom Long points out that we don’t figure out what we believe, in silence, and then announce the results to the world. What we do is put words to our experiences, and then give testimony to what we believe we see. By giving words to our experience and seeking meaning through those words we, as Tom might say, talk our way into faithi.
Thinking out loud, testimony, is talking to ourselves. It is also conversation with God and with one another in search for the meaning of who we are and what we do. Deep, thoughtful conversation with God and with one another changes us. That is what faith is supposed to do.
In part it has to do with language. Finding the new and the right words reorders our experience. Consider the language of “deep change,” for instance. Writing about old and well established organizations that are so constrained by their own behavior that they have lost connection with the fast changing environment around them, Robert Quinn concludes that there can be only one option – either “slow death or deep change.”
A small group of leaders in the United Methodist Church began to use the language and ideas of deep change very intentionally a few years ago. Within months the language was being repeated across the church. It was not an idea that we didn’t already understand. But Quinn’s language “gave it legs,” and the reality of our situation was captured in a few simple words. Intuitively, we could now talk with one another without constant explanation. “Deep change” gave us a shorthand that allowed us to signal quickly that we didn’t want to talk about simple problem solving or surface cosmetic change for the church. The use of “deep change” quickly made us more serious, more open to the purpose of God in our churchii.
Conversation about a good question or new idea that involves deep listening and thinking changes the old conversations that weren’t getting us anyplace. It doesn’t make the conversations easier, but it can fill them with purpose and make them holy.
In his address to the entering plebe class at West Point, William Deresiewicz spoke of the need for solitude for developing leadership. The irony of speaking about solitude to a group beginning training in a military institution in which there, intentionally, would be no private space in which to retreat, did not escape Deresiewicz. He explained that too much constant engagement with the pressing realities of the moment, without time to reflect, builds leaders who take their position at the front of the herd that jumps off the cliff by going the wrong way. He referred to our cultural addiction to constant talk, including 24/7 news reports, emails, tweets and other social media posts, as leading to the constant rehearsing of other peoples’ ideas without discerning direction and importance for ourselves.
Deresiewicz was not exercising generational prejudices against the new digital age. He was pointing to the need for solitude to prepare leaders to lead others – and in our case, to follow God. In Christian community we know this about prayer, Sabbath, retreat and study. But Deresiewicz also described this kind of solitude as conversation – talk among a few friends that is thoughtful enough, honest and risky enough, to say what we are actually thinking, so that we can hear what we need to hear. It is talk among friends that is slow enough, and with pauses long enough, to provide space for the movement of the Holy Spirit in ourselves and in our church.
My great sense of hope at this time comes from the growing number of people in our church who are no longer trying to fix our past but who are open to discern our future. It takes conversation. It is conversation with God through prayer to seek a holy connection. It is conversation in mind and spirit with self in search of courage. And, to the point here, it is conversation with friends – conversation thoughtful enough to be in pursuit of a missional and purposeful future.
TMF works at hosting conversations. President Tom Locke captures the spirit by saying that if we get the right legs under the right table with the right conversation we, and the church, will be changed. Have some conversation and then take it to others who want conversation with you. The Spirit of God is waiting to change us even more.
i Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (The Practices of Faith Series), Jossey-Bass, 2004.
ii Robert E. Quinn, Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within (US Business and Management Series), Jossey-Bass, 1996.