I have been involved in a leadership role in the United Church of Canada from a very young age. Throughout that time, my participation in communities of faith has provided a container to engage in many, many conversations about things that matter: ideas, emotions, hopes, fears, critiques, relationships, philosophy, cosmology, theology. The conversations that I have shared with thoughtful and open-minded people shaped my understanding of my life, of our common life, and of the universe. My understanding, in turn, has influenced the way I act and behave in the world.
I have also engaged in other forms of conversation: by reading books and articles by thoughtful men and women who offer their hearts and minds in printed words to which I formulate my own response; by listening to preachers and speakers as they inspire with oratory or paint word pictures and stories for consideration; by reading poetry and prose that engages my imagination inviting me to consider not only the world of experience but the world of possibility.
My experience is not unique — all of us spend much of our lives engaged in conversations with people, books, movies, sermons, lectures or song lyrics. These conversations shape our interpretation of everything that happens and they determine how we behave as we interact with the world around us. In fact, I would suggest that conversation may be the most important thing we do because our conversations ultimately influence everything we believe and every action we take.
And yet, many are quick to diminish the importance of talking and eager to elevate the importance of action. As change agents and social innovators, our most powerful strategy is the creation of places for deep and honest conversations. And not all conversations are of equal importance in the shaping of our beliefs and actions; some conversations matter more than others. In fact, sometimes the conversation is enough. If we engage in conversations that change us, then our influence on our world will change even when we don’t define outcomes and create an action plan. Some conversations — just by happening — significantly reshape our minds and influence our relationships, our institutions, our economy, and our work.
I am convinced that the most important activity for any organization that intends to change the world is to create containers for conversations that matter. That includes churches. It is true that the corporate activities of churches can have a significant impact by providing direct aid and influencing our political and social systems. However, the institutional activities of a church pale compared to the impact of its members living out their 112 waking hours each week. Even if you consider only the 150,000 who attend United Church worship services each week, they represent almost 17 million hours per week of influencing the world around them as they go about their jobs and personal lives, in homes, trades, corporations, factories, farms, institutions, and volunteer organizations. .
The most effective mission strategy for any church is to intentionally create spaces for conversations that matter. After all, Jesus did not create programs — he created disciples and engaged in conversation with all who had ears to hear.