Conversation has fallen on hard times.
Let’s face it, most of us find talking to strangers to be a rarity. This is our new societal reality. The in-between moments of life — running errands and picking up carry-out — are now filled with checking our mobile devices. We’d rather scroll through our Twitter feed than venture out with the risky words of a bygone era, “Hi, what’s your name?” But more than that, when we actually make plans for conversation apart from business, it can sound more like a threat than an invitation.
Catherine Blyth picks up on this in her book The Art of Conversation. She explains that even the phrase “we need to talk” is heard negatively. For thousands of years, Blyth explains, the core of human interaction was the good, old-fashioned, face-to-face conversation, but today we are increasingly pushing that aside — and we’re all missing out for it.
The problem, contrary to popular belief, isn’t personality differences. The Western hemisphere isn’t suddenly inhabited by mainly quiet, reflective types. The real problem, or perhaps the splintered problem of our epidemic distractedness, is the plain truth that we have forgotten how to talk to one another. In large part, we don’t know how to have conversations anymore.
In large part, we don’t know how to have conversations anymore.
Blyth’s book is a practical guide to help us figure it out, including some basic maxims like “think before you speak” and “take turns,” and formerly intuitive rules such as “start with a greeting.” It doesn’t take long to sense the value in this education, even just to be a decent citizen. But for Christians, the seriousness is amplified — even vital to our calling in this world.
Jesus Tells Us to Love
First, there is Jesus’s command to love our neighbor. Specifically, he tells us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19). It’s important that we see this as he said it. He does not say, as my college professor on comparative religion once pointed out, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you.” That negative frame of mind would create a wholly passive enterprise — which pretty much describes the Minnesota in which I live. Good neighboring means not being a nuisance to the folks next door. And that’s all.
In a real-life cautionary tale, one of my neighbors, a friend who has lived in our neighborhood for 40 years, told me about the first time he got to know our late neighbor across the street, who had also spent decades in our community. It was at his funeral. He had regular duties at the mass, and ironically, was moved by his amazing eulogy — only to discover that it was the man he’d seen mow the lawn in front of him for years. My friend admitted, regrettably, that he just tried not to ruffle feathers, that he kept the music down and trash picked up. The two men ate dinner, and slept, and raised their families 100 feet from one another for years, and never enjoyed a conversation with one another.
Call that a tragedy, or call that culture, but most certainly, you can’t call that Christian. Jesus isn’t telling us not to bother people; he is telling us to love them. And loving them, among other things, means we talk.
The World Is Saved by Words
Jesus isn’t telling us not to bother people; he is telling us to love them.
So there is the neighboring part, but then there is the fact that salvation — the rescue of souls from the wrath they deserve — comes by hearing the audible gospel. The apostle Paul writes that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
If the word of Christ, the gospel, isn’t spoken, then it’s not heard. And if it’s not heard, nobody is saved. Track with me here: If we don’t know how to have conversations with people, how will we know how to tell them the good news?
The answer is that we won’t — at least not in a way that makes sense.
In fact, you might even say that our evangelism has been on the rocks lately because we’ve memorized canned presentations of the gospel that we just drop in conversation-less contexts. We tend to make evangelism into simply “getting Jesus off our chest,” as Jonathan Dodson puts it, rather than getting to know people, learning their longings and desires, and showing them how the gospel is good news for them. In Dodson’s book, The Unbelievable Gospel, he casts a vision of the relevance of everyday conversation for the sake of gospel witness.
In a recent interview, Dodson lays out three levels of conversation that are categorized by the types of questions we ask. Our questions are the gateway to our listening, and therefore, they are the building blocks of good interaction.
Level One is your common chit-chat. It’s the simple “hello” and “how are you?” Level Two steps down into personal history. It includes questions like “what was it like when . . .?” But then Level Three, as Dodson explains, gets down to the values of the heart. This is where we ask, “How did that make you feel?” or “What are you most excited about right now?” This is the deeper level of questions that moves us into getting to know someone. It’s where conversation truly happens — and who knows, possibly even friendship. Dodson summarizes these three levels in the words of David Powilson, “Listen to their story; empathize with their story; redemptively retell their story.”
As cumbersome as conversation might feel today, it’s time to bring it back.
Call it a missional strategy if you want, but it feels much too basic for that. We’re just talking about conversation, and Christians, of all people, introverts and extraverts, should lead its recovery — for the glory of God and for the good of our neighbors.