Providence sometimes displays a sense of humour. A couple of months ago, just before the Covid-19 lockdown started, and churches and homegroups were suddenly prevented from meeting, I read a book on conferencing, and it has been on my mind ever since.
Until just this year, conferencing was a practise limited mostly to international business. But suddenly, everyone is doing it. Families are conferencing with elderly parents, schools are conferencing with pupils, children are conferencing with friends, and churches are using video conferencing for services and homegroups. No wonder that video conferencing platforms such as Zoom have reported a ten-fold increase in business. Moreover, it seems unlikely that this will go away; even when all the social restrictions have been lifted, however long that takes, conferencing will be, in that hackneyed phrase, “the new normal”. Christians can be grateful to God that he has given us this technology at just the right time, and the desire of millions of people, Christian or not, to have some form of contact with their neighbours shows the truth of what the Bible says: that “it is not good for man to be alone”, (Genesis 2:18). We have been designed and created with a deep need and desire for relationships with others, a need to be face-to-face with an other, a “thou” in Martin Buber’s terms. However, conferencing via the internet is not a substitute for the real, physical presence of an other. At the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, churches embraced conferencing with enthusiasm, but there are now anecdotal but clear signs that fatigue is setting in. Many report that they find video conferencing tiring and frustrating; homegroups and church services are being shortened for this reason. I recently took part in the excellent “Zoomutopia” conference run by Gospel Reformation UK; before it, all participants were recommended to have a “Zoom fast” for twenty-four hours. The strain of constantly using Zoom or Jitsi is beginning to tell. That is why I am glad that I read that book on conferencing. But it wasn’t about the sort of conferencing you are thinking of; it was about the conferencing that was going on 400 years ago, long-before computers were a twinkle in Alan Turing’s eye. This is the sort of conferencing that we badly need in churches today.
The Lost Disciple of Conversation.
The book in question is The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans, by Joanne J.Jung, the professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University in California. Happy are the students who have such a professor who coaches them in the practises in this book! This blog post is not a full critical review (and I would have some criticisms), but a recommendation of the book, and a brief exploration its implications for one area of our church life. The Lost Discipline of Conversation was published in 2017, before the Covid-19 crisis, but seems remarkably prescient. Jung begins from the “fragmentation” and “isolation” that have come to characterize Western society, that have led to “the demise of face-to-face sharing of life”, (p2). With Covid-19, isolation has now become a way of life for billions of people, and leaving it behind will prove difficult. Jung says “We are warned not to let anyone get too close”, words which have come true in a way that she could never have imagined. The result, according to Jung is “unattended souls”, and she lists some of the symptoms: “Bitterness. Loneliness. The tendency to doubt… Regrets. Depression. Envy. Anger. Fear. Hopelessness… Being short-tempered with the people I love… Feeling fake and empty… Feeling inadequate… Mask-wearing… Wasting hours on the computer or in front of the TV… Apathy”, (yes, she actually does say “Mask-wearing”). Jung concludes “So how is your soul?” (p4).
This is the situation we were already in, and Covid-19 has made it worse. For help, Jung turns to the wisdom of the past, and in particular to Puritanism, the movement of spiritual renewal that took place in Great Britain and America in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The Puritans taught the “spiritual disciplines”, or as Jung (and I) prefer to call them “the means of grace”. These are practices such as prayer, reading and meditating on the Bible, coming to church, listening to sermons, fasting, worship in families, and so on: the basic, bread-and-butter habits of the Christian life. They are not means by which we earn God’s favour, but they are the ordinary, indispensable ways in which God’s grace works in a human soul. There are many excellent books about the means of grace; if you have never thought about them before, a good starting point would be Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald S.Whitney. But there is one discipline that is almost left off the modern lists, despite the great importance put on it by the Puritans, as Jung shows. That practice is what the Puritans called “conference”. “Conferences” were “reflective conversations”, characterised by “a heightened ability to be present before God and others”, or as one Puritan put it “the freedom of speaking and conferring the thoughts of the heart” (p19).
Such conversations usually began with the Bible, and were always governed by the Bible, but were much more than what we might call a “Bible study”, which has as its primary goal understanding the text of the Bible. “Conferences” required a deep openness and attentiveness both to the word of God and to one another, and the goal was transformation. Conferences might take place in formal or informal settings, but the target was always the souls of those taking part. “Conferencing” is at its most simple Christians meeting together to talk about the state of their souls in the light of God’s word, and help each other to grow in the grace of Christ. “Conferences” are “meaningful, care-inducing, empathy-raising conversations [that] connect knowledge with experience”, and refresh souls (p52). According to Jung, “conference is informal conversation, a casual yet genuine exchange of thoughts focused on spiritual matters. It incorporates an attentiveness to one another’s words, thoughts, and lives, and has its purpose in connecting biblical truths with live experiences. In this way, participants are strengthened and encouraged and better able to recognize God’s work in their lives” (p54). Jung makes the interesting point that John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress was converted after he overheard two women engaged in such a conversation (p73).
As Jung describes them, such conversations best take place in groups of two ten people, where there can be both “honesty and transparency” (p56). Through carefully prepared questions, and the willingness to listen to one another, she sees such conversations progressing through three levels: the informational, the transitional, and the transformational (p61). All of this is contained in one basic question: “How is your soul?”
Conferencing in home groups.
A typical situation in which conferencing might take place for the Puritans was on a Sunday. Members of churches were encouraged to take notes of sermons, and then to talk about them afterwards. Often this would take place in homes, with husbands, wives, and children talking together, and repeating the “heads of the sermon”- its outline and main points (p38-39). Jonathan Edwards, the great Puritan preacher and theologian of 18th century New England, established special groups for this purpose in his church at Northampton, Massachusetts, including a group for young people. In the second half of her book, Jung gives examples of various situations in which conferencing could be done today: within families, between husband and wife, between a pastor and church member one-to-one, and between pastors in minister’s meetings. But one situation that stands out is that to which she dedicates chapter six: small groups. These go by different names in different churches: home groups, house groups, growth groups, vine groups, discipleship groups, and so on. Whatever they are called, many churches have found them invaluable in building relationships and encouraging growth in discipleship. But many churches have also found them to be a problem: they can become too inward-looking and comfortable, and do not contribute to the life of, or support the ministry of, the local church. They can become simply book groups where the book that is read happens to be the Bible, (for more on this see the appendix to The Vine Project by Tony Payne and Colin Marshall). This is where I believe that Joanne Jung’s approach is very helpful.
Jung writes that Christians have a responsibility for one another’s spiritual growth, and that thus small groups need to move away from a “culture of niceness” towards a focus on growth in Christlikeness (p68-69), and to both engage with God’s word and care for one another’s souls (p70-71). Without for one moment losing the focus on the Bible, her call is for groups to aim at a high level of commitment and a high quality of relationship, in which people constantly ask “how is your soul?”- and listen quietly, gently, and attentively to the latter.
In our home groups at Christ Church Düsseldorf, we already do some of this. I have long been convinced that home groups are not the best place for “Bible study”, if by this is meant “trying to understand what the passage means”. This puts the Bible study leader in a difficult position. Either he allows a free-for-all, where everyone says what they think about a passage without coming to a conclusion, or he asks a series of leading questions designed to lead people to a pre-determined position. But this feels manipulative, and does encourage people to read the Bible for themselves. This is why I strongly encourage home groups to read the Bible passage that was preached on the previous Sunday. In this way a group do not come to a passage cold, but instead they come with some understanding already in place. This allows them to spend more time on applying the passage to their lives, and in praying about it. Home groups may not be the best place for Bible study, but they are brilliant places for building on a sermon, and going deeper into the word, thinking and talking about how we will live the Bible, and supporting and encouraging one another to do that. In this way, sermons and home groups reinforce one another. Home groups then are the place for conferencing the word, for having deep, searching conversations about what it is doing to our souls.
Chapter 11 of The Lost Discipline is eerily prophetic. Here Jung talks about the growth in online communication and relationships, and the accompanying decline in the quality of communication and the depth of relationships. But she also talks about how technology can be used to foster relationships between people separated by distance, and touches on the livestreaming of church services, and the use of Zoom. For Jung, digital meetings do have a part to play, as a way of sustaining relationships between face-to-face meetings. The situation when the book was published, and all the more now, is one of both danger and opportunity: electronic devices are addictive and therefore have “caused people to be uncomfortable around each other and incapable of meaningful conversation”. But also they have “created a need to more intentionally invest time and energy into building relationships with those we care for or are given charge to oversee in the integration of life and spiritual growth”.
This may be the most important lesson for churches as we grope our way out of the Covid-19 crisis: to be intentional about building these relationships, whether they are online or face-to-face. Thus we need to restore the discipline of conferencing about the state of our souls, as a means of grace. I’ve have mentioned small groups as one very important place to do this; another place is in the family, as we restore the practice of daily worship in families. As we try to do this, I recommend Joanne Jung The Lost Practice of Spiritual Discipline as a much-needed stimulus.
They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. But when so many books are garish eyesores, Zondervan are to be praised for publishing a paperback with a cover that is gentle and beautiful: a watercolour of three people walking along a road engaged in conversation.