Something I quickly discovered about myself when I became part of my Mennonite fellowship is what a blathering loudmouth I am.
Friends have responded to this observation mostly with a heartfelt: “Duh.” So, yeah, as an adult I’ve had to periodically face the fact that my own opinions are not golden coins showering from heaven on grateful fellow humans (marriage also has a way of bringing this into clear detail).
But previously, I never considered facing this fact to be an act of discipleship.
Mennonites try to be really good at conversation. Careful listening is critical to spiritual growth and community life. Lots of time at church is spent listening to each other. We’re encouraged to keep our mouths shut if someone else has something to say. We’re encouraged to not do that thing that people do – that I’ve developed as a practiced skill – to listen at half-attention while preparing my next statement for whenever I can make an interruption.
This revelation may seem like simple manners, but growing up in the church this had never been presented to me as part of the Christian life. “Letting others speak” and “being respectful of other points of view” were far down the list of Christian virtues, far behind “making sure you have the right answer” and “making sure everyone knows it.”
PROCLAIMING THE TRUTH was our highest call in communicating, and I remember many people cut off for the sake of God’s supposed need for Christians to be constantly proclaiming stuff and never listening. I was rewarded for that kind of behavior – until I became the one asking the wrong questions, and being shut out of conversation.
So I’ve been enjoying cruising the archives of Scot McKnight’s blog Jesus Creed. I’ve revisited last January’s posts about “Conversation” (part 1, part 2, part 3). He explains why emerging Christians value genuinely open and listening conversation in exploring faith, as opposed to the one-way didacticism many of us are familiar with.
But the “art” of conversation can’t be learned in such a context when everything is dominated by right vs. wrong or when it becomes whoever knows the most becomes the teacher. This isn’t conversation; this is lecture or information exchange.
I believe that the emerging movement wants “conversation,” and I believe evangelicals by and large are nervous about it because it has not learned to converse.
I see this as another intersection between the way of life in the Mennonite church and the kind of spiritual life many emerging Christians are looking for.
The Mennonites are not particularly fond of “committees.” But one committee structure involved in difficult community decisions is the “listening committee.” These committees are not engaged in controversy to debate opinions, but to pay careful attention to what people on all sides are saying. Then before the conversation moves toward resolution, everyone turns to the listening committee for their report: they simply report what they heard.
They tackle the most controversial issues in this way. There are listening committees for homosexual concerns, immigration issues, Catholic-Mennonite relationships, congregational diversity, or any kind of topical exploration dealing with multiple perspectives.