Earlier this year a young woman from western Asia had been visiting our church in east Asia. A fairly new believer, she’d completed our membership class and was requesting a meeting with me to discuss a troubling issue before moving forward.
This is a common occurrence for any pastor. I was prepared to be peppered with questions of theological nuance. But her difficulty wasn’t with doctrine.
It was conversation.
She had gone out to a post-church lunch with a group of people for several weeks, and she was frustrated that the conversation didn’t turn more frequently toward spiritual health, sermon application, and spurring one another on toward godliness. Christian people were talking, but, as she rightly noted, that’s not the same thing as good Christian conversation.
This is the burden of Joanne Jung’s new book, The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans:
Over the centuries, our conversations have suffered a decline in meaningful dialogue, intentional engagement, and selfless attentive listening, especially in matters of a spiritual nature. We have settled for quick exchanges when the selfless presence, attentive listening, and thought-filled words of a sustained conversation would better meet the needs of the soul. We are in need of a recovery. (18)
Indeed we are. To assist the recovery, Jung—associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University and chair of the Talbot School of Theology committee for online learning—points us to the 16th- and 17th-century English Puritans and their concept of conference, a coming together for intentional, meaningful, transformative spiritual conversation.
She divides her work in three parts. Part 1 establishes the type of conversations our souls need and how the Puritans addressed this need. Part 2 focuses on specific contexts where the Puritan idea of conference can be lived out: church, family, marriage, pastoral relationships, and so on. Part 3 provides seven Bible studies as examples of how to conference with others around God’s Word.
In The Lost Discipline of Conversation, spiritual formation professor and author Joanne Jung walks readers through the Puritan practice of “conference,” or focused, spiritual conversations intended to promote ongoing transformation. An antidote to privatized faith, conference calls believers to biblical literacy and soul care in a context of transparency and accountability.
Recovering a Lost Discipline
Jung serves the church by simply by bringing this topic to our attention. She goes deeper as the book goes along, but the awareness generated by the first couple chapters is sufficient to jumpstart a search for more spiritual depth.
Jung’s work gives a name and historical credibility to what we all desire to encourage in our churches:
[Conference] will not be found on any contemporary list of spiritual disciplines, but it is found on some lists that are almost four-and-a-half centuries old. . . . A number of treatises written by Puritan ministers include exhortations to their congregants to pray, meditate, be watchful, and to exercise conference. (32)
Pastors today often make pleas for prayer and Bible study followed by an encouragement for something else—something communally experienced that we don’t have a good one-word descriptor for. Perhaps it’s “engage in Christian fellowship” or “enjoy Christian community.” Jung reminds us that “conference” is the old word we’re looking for.
The diversity of contexts in which conference ought to occur broadens Jung’s material to unexpected areas of practical application. My guess is that most Christians—once they get the idea of Puritan conference—would readily apply it to one-to-one discipleship and small-group interactions. But Jung shows that the Puritans experienced conference in many other areas. Consider:
- Conference in the Family. William Perkins (1558–1602), speaking of family conference, wrote: “Use meditation and conference about heavenly things; assemble thy family together; confer with them what they have learned at the sermon; instruct and catechize them, read, or cause to be read somewhat of the Bible, or some other godly book unto them” (84).
- Conference in Marriage. Nehemiah Wellington’s (1598–1658) private prayer was followed by “much sweetness and profit in reading and praying with my family: and these meditations and conference I had with my wife, I had in residue of the day” (104).
- Conference in Pastoral Ministry. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) taught: “You know we cannot speak so familiarly, and come so close to everyone’s case in a common sermon as we may do by conference . . . and therefore I entreated you to allow me now and then an hour’s set and sober talk with you, when all other matters might for that time be laid by” (118).
- Conference for Pastoral Development. Baxter, again: “Study, and pray, and confer, and practice; for in these four ways your abilities must be increased” (130).
The reader gains a vision for just how extensively helpful the idea of conference can be for personal use and church life.
Hindered from a Full Recovery
My main critique is that The Lost Discipline of Conversation doesn’t deliver on its promise. I don’t think we end up with a recovery of the discipline of conversation. Here are four reasons why.
First, the book’s structure doesn’t drive toward a definite goal. The topic is intriguing and the author qualified, but something seems missing. Part 1 is fairly introductory, and then we’re invited to skip to whatever future chapters appear most interesting. It doesn’t feel like we’re being thoroughly convinced of an argument, so the book comes off as being a little short on substance.
Second, the Puritans are underutilized. True, they’re quoted a lot, but I still wanted to know more, especially about their practical implementation of conference. At times it felt like their quotes were used as mere springboards into topics, rather than the backbone of the book. Some of Jung’s students, friends, and family are quoted more extensively than many of the Puritans.
Third, the book’s creativity sometimes impedes clarity of thought. For example, each chapter in Part 2 is subdivided under the same alliterated headings: Soul-to-Soul Purpose, Soul-to-Soul Perspective, Soul-to-Soul Perks, Soul-to-Soul Paucity, and so on. Such alliteration made the chapters bleed together. Throughout, the reader would’ve been helped with less creative and more self-evident descriptors.
Fourth, the practical encouragements seem too basic to lead to a recovery of Puritan conference. To be fair, the book’s title claims to recover the lost discipline of conversation, not the lost discipline of Puritan conference. But it becomes clear early on that the goal isn’t just to produce interesting conversationalists. The goal is to arm Christians with a field guide for deep, soul-stirring, Puritan-conference-type conversations.
How can my run-of-the-mill family dinner conversations look more like Puritan family conference? How can our church lobby chitchat make Richard Baxter proud?
What we need from this book, then, is a practical answer to the question of how to transition from normal conversations to these types of conversations. How can my run-of-the-mill family-dinner conversations look more like Puritan family conference? How can our church-lobby chitchat make Richard Baxter proud?
Jung’s “Soul-to-Soul Prompts” at the end of each chapter in part 2 are provided to lead the way toward such dialogue. These questions progress along three stages (informational, transitional, and transformational) meant to take us from the surface to the soul. But do they take us there?
Here’s a glimpse: “If you are with an Uber/Lyft driver: How long have you been a driver for Uber/Lyft? How did you decide to be one?” That was the informational prompt. Here’s the transitional: “Do you have a family? How is your family impacted by your driving for Uber/Lyft?” Finally, transformational: “Note a quality about your driver and affirm their value to you and to God” (62–63). This would certainly make for a nice car ride, but will it help us recover Puritan conference?
The Lost Discipline of Conversation raises an important discussion about a largely forgotten practice. It strikes a chord that will resonate with many Christians about the need for deeper, more meaningful conversations, and it points us in a helpful historical direction.
Yet it will be up to each reader whether or not Jung’s work will lead to a full recovery of conversation. For many, it will probably just be one helpful resource along the way.