Church people talk.
They talk about all kinds of things: the pastor, her sermon, how many people used to be in worship, and what we ought to be doing but haven’t yet.
This kind of talk can be threatening to a pastor, but it doesn’t have to be.
Having people care enough about what’s happening at church to talk about it is a good thing. Conversation creates culture. It’s the path toward vitality and growth.
Effective church leaders must learn that the surest way out of an unhealthy climate is by changing the narrative, by reframing how “people talk.” This process is nuanced, but the gospels help.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all began as conversations. These writing evangelists stood in a long line of communicators, stringing together stories told and retold, heard and recounted.
They gathered the best and wrote them down so parents could recite them to their children, teachers to their students and neighbors to their neighbors. Before long, friends from remote places were also talking about Jesus as the Son of God.
The political talking heads tried to spurn Jesus’ story by mocking him and killing him for blasphemy. But those who had been near him had gotten word to those now far off that he was so much more.
They re-authored the culture surrounding Jesus’ story all because church people decided to talk.
Conversations can be powerful.
If you think about it, not one of us would have ever come to faith apart from someone having said something to us. Words as simple as “Hey, why don’t you come to church with me?” Maybe it was “I’ll pray for you” or “God bless.”
Whatever it may have been, the fact is someone at one time or another said something that touched us, “spoke” to us or maybe challenged or even angered us. It whetted our appetites or made us curious enough to take a step toward God.
This is how church has worked for two millennia now. It thrives on people talking to one another. This is how a carpenter’s son from Nazareth becomes known all over the world.
People talk and word travels. People talk and lives transform. People talk and churches are established. People talk and systems get established like hospitals and nonprofits to help the poor, the sick and the broken mend.
Just think what churches have accomplished, are accomplishing and still can accomplish by how they focus their talk.
But beware: Having people care enough about what’s happening to talk about it can also be bad.
Unhealthy conversations that go unchecked damage culture. It leads down a path of dissension and decline.
Too often, we underestimate the effects of how people talk. Serious matters treated too casually or electronically reduced to 140-word tweets or diminished to emoticons or scrolled across the bottom of television monitors threaten the culture being shaped.
Talk is seldom cheap. What we say, when and how we say it, counts. It matters in every realm – political, relational and spiritual.
When political leaders articulate with moral clarity our highest values, citizens rally to form a more perfect union.
When friends surround one another during times of crisis, words of comfort and concern give strength and peace.
When a neighbor tells the truth in love to one who has asked for it, when a spouse ends a quarrel with forgiveness, when a teacher bends to encourage a student to use her voice because every child matters – it makes a difference.
Pastors should never underestimate the power of conversation, whether in the hallways, around the table or from the pulpit. It all matters.
It’s easy to settle for tepid, empty words – to exchange pleasantries, to bless the status quo, to comment on the weather or exchange sports scores.
Don’t be duped. While everyday banter can help build rapport and establish trust, left alone or left unshaped is not pastoral leadership.
Good pastors articulate a consistent, clear vision of a God-sized future; communities of faith respond.
Effective pastors are able to spread the message: “Here’s the picture; this is what we’re doing; here’s why we’re doing it; if things go right, here’s what the picture will look like a year from now.”
The really good pastors are able to use their pulpits to offer a prophetic call to congregations to follow the narrative of Jesus without feeling threatened by a low trust culture.
The best pastors are able to get their ministerial staff to be collaborative leaders shaping the new narrative while they lead teams.
When this occurs, specific steps of implementation follow and real ministry takes root shaping the church’s culture, spilling over into the life of the community.
I, along with my colleagues at the Center for Healthy Churches, work to help church leaders and churches identify processes that enable such a shift in narrative building.
Healthy churches and pastors know how to establish a high trust culture that focuses attention on what and how people talk. Churches that put a premium on healthy, intentional conversations thrive.
People are going to talk. Why not make it a healthy conversation?
Bill Owen is the south central consultant at the Center for Healthy Churches. He served previously as pastor of Mount Carmel Church in Cross Plains, Tennessee, before retiring after 32 years of ministry. A version of this article first appeared on the CHC blog website and is used with permission. His writings can also be found on his blog, and you can follow him on Twitter @owenrevbill.