Monday, November 02, 2015

Improving Our Faith Conversations (Clinical Evangelical Education)

Would you like to share your faith more confidently while also respecting the faith of your neighbor? Are you interested in critically analyzing the way we actually speak about our faith with others, with the goal of improving? Join us on November the 10th at 7 p.m. CST at for a clinic on faith conversations.

Please note, you might want to visit Blab prior to the session to familiarize yourself with the platform, create a Twitter handle if you don't already have one, etc. Drop in on some ongoing conversations and perhaps even join one. You might end up having a conversation that interests you enough to write a verbatim about it. Here's the link:

At this November 10th blab, we will analyze some pre-written verbatims in order to gain facility in conversation around sample texts. A link to the sample verbatims will be posted the evening of the session. Beginning December 8th, we will host periodic gatherings to discuss actual verbatims participants bring. Additionally, because of the social nature of blab, we hope this first session will inspire participants to begin hosting their own blab conversations, in particular conversations that function as clinics for evangelical/faith conversation.

Resources: Below find an article on how to write a verbatim, as well as three sample verbatims that we'll use as the basis for our conversation.

How to Write a Verbatim

A verbatim is a written record of an evangelical conversation in any real life setting that you can use to analyze and improve upon future conversations.

When writing a verbatim, include the following five sections: introduction, verbatim script, personal awareness, theological analysis, and learning goals.

1. Introduction

Give the date this experience took place. Provide the reader with a sense of the factual information you had prior to this experience.
Note: the experience should be your own, current, and personal.

2. Verbatim Script

Sit down as soon as possible after this experience and jot down a stream of key words that will help you remember the sequence of the conversation. Take time to recall your feelings during and after this exchange with as much detail as possible.

Enter only direct quotations when you begin to type up the encounter. Use a separate paragraph for each speech, identified by the initials of the person speaking. Place all non-verbal communications in brackets as well as significant thoughts and feelings of which you are aware. Note periods of silence and places where you cannot remember the exact words spoken.

Pastor/Dad: Hey, great day for a game, eh?
Mom: Yeah. Finally some sun.
Pastor: Argh. Just realized I forgot our water bottles. Oh well.
Pastor: So I saw that you brought the kids for worship a few weeks ago.
Mom: We did.
Pastor: How has that been going for you?
Mom: We've enjoyed the times we've come.

Do Don’t
Use first names or initials Use full names
Use stream of consciousness Over-edit

Note: Only provide the most critical aspect of the conversation under reflection. It is understood that you will not be able to remember a conversation word for word, but try to restate what you remember, as best you can. What you remember is significant regardless of whether it is literally what was said or done.

3. Personal Awareness

What was on your mind before this interaction? Were you aware of any anxiety or excitement? Was there anything that was unrelated to the experience that may have affected your behavior during this experience? Are there socio-cultural or other factors that may have influenced how you process this verbatim (differences in language, economic status, race/ethnicity, age, education, etc.?) What motivated your responses in this particular situation?

4. Theological Analysis

(Use these as they are useful, or create your own theological analysis.)
Use this section to reflect theologically on your ministry encounter. To do this exhaustively would take many pages, so focus on what you think offers the most insight or perplexes you the most. The group discussion will respond and fill in from there.

Embedded Theology: What “embedded theology” seems to be operating in the situation, i.e. with what theological issues is this person concerned (issues of trust, hope, illness, despair, etc.)? Did the individual speak openly of God and, if so, how would you describe the God they worship? Were fear, love, and other qualities associated with their God-talk? Does your embedded theology differ from that of the other persons in the situation? How do those differences affect your words and actions?

Deliberative Theology: Move now to think more deeply about the theological issues presented here: What is the call of the Gospel in this context? What would salvation look like here? Was any aspect of divine activity revealed in this experience for you?

What does the encounter reveal about the human condition? Sin? Structural evil? Grace? What does this encounter say about vocation? What course of action is fitting following this situation? What aspects of your own faith were explored, challenged, or reaffirmed? Now that you have reentered this experience, what faith response is called for by you or by the others involved? What have you learned from this experience? What might you be able to do to help this person grow socially, emotionally, or spiritually? How did you or will you follow up on this situation?

5. Learning Goals

What do you hope to learn from having your classmates discuss this experience?

Three Sample Verbatims

Verbatim #1: Sidelines at a sporting event

Pastor/Dad: Hey, great day for a game, eh?
Mom: Yeah. Finally some sun.
Pastor: Argh. Just realized I forgot our water bottles. Oh well.
Pastor: So I saw that you brought the kids for worship a few weeks ago.
Mom: We did.
Pastor: How has that been going for you?
Mom: We've enjoyed the times we've come.
Pastor: I saw you were with us a few weeks in a row, then wondered about more recently how it was going.
Mom: To be honest, it's nothing about church, but it's just really hard to change our Sunday morning patterns. We're interested, we're just hard to stir on Sunday mornings.
Pastor: I get that. Routine is hard to change.
Mom: I fear we'll always be a little spotty on attendance. Forgive us that.
Pastor: No worries. Just know you are welcome and invited.
Mom: I know. I know. We're absolute heathens [with a smile]. We don't do routine well, but we thrive when we do.
Pastor: You're not heathens. There are a lot families want to do together on the weekend. Lots of good options.
Mom: Yes. We'll give it a try again. Thanks for asking.
Me: No problem.
[things get started with the game and we drift away]

Analysis: This sideline conversation is probably the most common evangelical conversation this pastor has: well-intentioned families wishing they could establish a new worship routine, but not actually able to get in the new groove. It also happens to be the conversation with which he is the most dissatisfied. He has a variety of discomforts. First, he hopes to be evangelical rather than proselytizing or even mercenary. He wants the conversation to be good news. So, the hint in this conversation, "We don't do routine well, but we thrive when we do," is the kind of thing he latches on to. He would love to name Jesus more in the conversation, but he doesn't know how to do it well. Some initial questions that come to mind: Might his own life be a model for the connection between Christian faith and routine? If it is, would there be a way to present it in this conversation that would be friendly and not condescending? Or should I have asked, "What does it mean to you to thrive?" He also worries inordinately either that a) the conversation causes the mom guilt, or b) that he has the wrong motivations for the conversation. All of that being said, he would indeed like the conversation to be effective, and his definition of effective in this conversation would be expressing the gospel in relation to worship attendance in a way that inspires the mom to engage her family more regularly in participation in worship (at his congregation).

Verbatim #2: Is any of this for real?

A newly baptized Christian: It was such a high moment, but now through the summer, I've just been feeling kind of low. I've started to have a lot of doubts.
Pastor: It's not unnatural for people of faith to have doubts. I kind of think doubt is actually part of faith, intrinsic to it.
NC: I guess so. But it's like, I wonder, is any of it for real? Sometimes I don't even know what I believe, or if I believe it.
Pastor: What would help?
NC: That's the thing. I wish I knew. I mean, it's all so complicated. And then the fact that a lot of people around me either don't believe it, or are puzzled by my decision...
Pastor: Who else do you have that you can talk to about this kind of thing?
NC: Well, my sponsor. But I don't know if they would get it. We don't share the same experience exactly.
Pastor: Lately I've been reading this amazing book. I think it's the best thing I've ever read about the relationship between faith and doubt. My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. Have you seen it?
NC: No.
Pastor: He's a poet. He wrote it out of his own struggles with terminal cancer. He expresses his faith much better than I can do in summary, but basically I think his doubts and struggles were the forge in which his faith was formed.
NC: Yeah, I could see that. I'd like to read it.
Pastor: You know, it strikes me, you are kind of doing this alone a little bit. I mean, you and I are talking, but I wonder, would it help to talk with someone else who is also a new Christian?
NC: I guess it might.
Pastor: I guess I didn't think of this before, but I should get you together with Sally. Both of you have been on a similar journey. You might be able to support each other. Are you open to me connecting the two of you?
NC: Sure. It couldn't hurt.
Pastor: Great.

Analysis: It didn't occur to this pastor until she had this conversation how important evangelical conversations are after conversion or adult baptism. We focus so much on preparing adults for baptism, but once we are living the life of faith, that's actually where new and really difficult challenges crop up. So first of all, the conversation caught her by surprise, at least to a degree. Not only did she need to be better prepared for this conversation, she was called by the conversation to put more systems in place to strengthen the post-baptismal catechesis of adults in her context. She can also see herself going to some standby responses in the conversation, and wonders why. She recommended a book (in this case, not all bad, because her interlocutor is also a reader). She tried to lessen the concern and doubt rather than really listen well (a CPE fail). What is it in this conversation that made her uncomfortable? Did she feel like she had failed the newly baptized person somehow? Did guilt motivate her responses? On the other hand, connecting this person with someone with a shared experience was kind of a revelation. There is likely a reason Christian communities throughout the centuries have offered catechumenal preparation for groups of catechumens. There is strength in being baptized with a community with whom you can then share the common struggle of the life of faith. She plans to keep this in mind as a go-to method in other evangelical conversations. Be a bridge-builder. Bridge-building is evangelical.

Verbatim #3: Parishioner inviting someone to church

Note: a lunch meeting with a new friend she hadn’t met face-to-face yet. After a long conversation about other things:

Friend: Soooooooooo, do you believe in God?
Parishioner: Yes, bu…
Friend: (laughing) Uh oh. This friendship might not work. I had questions about my belief in God in the past and it ruined a long-term relationship that was headed for marriage.
P: Yeah, I’ve known that to happen. For some, not sharing religious conviction is a deal-breaker. My husband isn’t big into going to church, and I wasn’t either for a long time. Sorry that happened to you. But what I was going to say about my belief in God is that my record is a bit spotty. My faith has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. I also can’t imagine that two people have the same exact definition of God. So, this could turn into a really long conversation. Too bad our lunch hour is almost up!
F: (laughing again) Agreed. So, you’re a scientist and you also believe in God.
P: Yep, and I’ve found a really cool church with a pastor that encourages deep and careful consideration and dialogue on the intersection of science and faith. I needed a place where my questions are respected. The judgment I used to fear when I avoided church doesn’t seem to exist there. And my kid totally digs going. She often asks if we can go to church every day!
F: I’ve been thinking I should take my son to church but I don’t want to go back to the churches I’ve been in the past. I just didn’t feel comfortable.
P: I’d love it if you came to church with us sometime. I could introduce your son to my daughter. They have a rocking Sunday school program too.  The Pastor is super cool and super smart. And if it turns out it isn’t your thing, that’s cool. I won’t dump you like your last lady friend even if you don’t want to come back to church with me.
F: Ok. We’ll give it a shot this Sunday!
P: Sweet! We go to the second service usually.

Analysis: This is a really straightforward invitational conversation. Rather than communicating Jesus or the gospel directly, it responds to questions in a simple way about being a scientist and being a Christian, and the gospel is an invitation to experience church and Christian community. It would be interesting to know how the conversation would have proceeded differently if the parishioner had communicated what they believed about the gospel or Jesus. On the other hand, the conversation as it proceeds seems very natural and heartfelt, and the gospel is implicit in the conversation if not explicit. Are there ways to navigate people's past hurt by the church even more successfully? What would the parishioner have done or said if the invitation to church were rebuffed? Also, this parishioner is really energized to share her story, and invite people to church. Has she given sufficient thought to what motivates her? Has she explored in prayer what enlivens her and her faith? Has she set aside time to intentionally pray for people she anticipates conversations with? She can evaluate this conversation as a growing edge in her life of faith but also as an example of what a passionate evangelist she already is.

These are, I hope, relatively familiar situations many pastors and parishioners encounter on a weekly basis. They are evangelical encounters that require few of the cross-cultural challenges many missionaries undergo to reach those culturally different from themselves. The interlocutors did not need to learn another language, or travel to a distant land. The conversations occurred in familiar contexts, and on rather common topics.

Are you, like me, wrestling with the how-to of evangelism as a mainline Protestant leader? These everyday conversations are surprisingly difficult to navigate faithfully. In many ways, it is easier to be ready to preach a twelve minute sermon than to participate in a thirty second evangelical conversation.

Imagine more direct evangelical encounters, especially ones where we are asked not simply to invite others to church, or help the newly baptized establish deeper Christian community. Imagine being asked, very directly, to articulate at length the core of the Christian faith.

One pastor, a good friend, had such an opportunity with his 17-year-old son recently. On a long drive home, his son asked him to explain what the cross means in the Christian faith. My friend, untypically, shared a theological and existentially rich discourse on the cross with his son. For example, at one point, after his son turned off the radio to listen more closely, he concluded, "Knowing that in Jesus God loves us without limit, even at our worst, frees us from our self-preoccupation. It frees us to give ourselves to others. Trusting in this way is a kind of dying, and so Christian faith involves dying in two senses. Figuratively, we die to our self-preoccupation and rise to a new life of loving others; and literally when we die, we trust God’s promise to raise us to new life."

This is not how many of us speak to our children, even those who are pastors. The experience was profound enough that he needed to workshop it afterwards, and shared this:

"The difference between the approach I took and those that I didn’t is precisely what I have felt unsettled about since the beginning of my seminary education — the relationship between speaking and listening; between taking initiative and following the lead of my conversation partner; between speaking explicitly of Jesus in religious language and speaking more specifically about my conversation partner’s religious or faith experience; etc. I’ve come to accept that being forced to find the value in “client-centered” listening, etc. has been salutary in my development. At the same time, I’ve not found much help in integrating that value with an unabashed kerygmatic ministry that I see in the New Testament and believe is consistent with the evangelical theology of the Lutheran tradition."

I believe forming intentional clinical contexts in which faith leaders, and especially pastors, could workshop verbatims of evangelical conversations, could open up an entirely new way of doing practical theology together. We rehearse the Christian faith for preaching, for teaching, for writing blogs and church newsletter articles, but much less often do we "clinic" our evangelical conversations. As my friend recognizes, client-centered listening is indeed salutary for our development, but if it is exercised at the expense of the kerygma, it may be time for us to implement patterns like CEE that provide balance, bringing the rehearsal of evangelical conversations once again more centrally into the formation of pastors.

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