In some ways, technology has made it easier than ever for humans to connect. Yet despite their apparent connectedness, a growing share of American adults — 40 percent — describe themselves as lonely, and studies show this lack of true connection is taking a significant toll on their mental and physical well-being, as detailed in a 2016 New York Times article titled “How Social Isolation is Killing Us.”
So what does it look like to truly connect? How can we build deeper relationships that make us healthier people? One way, says Biola University professor Joanne Jung, is through intentional spiritual conversations — a practice she details in her new book, The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans (Zondervan, June 2018).
To learn more about how to satisfy the hunger we have for human connection and community, Biola Magazine recently talked to Jung about her book and what she learned from a forgotten Puritan practice.
In your book, we learn that English Puritans practiced more than just casual conversation — they regularly engaged in the practice of “conference.” Could you share more about this practice and how it differs from what we’d call “discussion”?
The English Puritans held a high view of Scripture and this translated into how they would converse with one another. They had meaningful intentional spiritual conversations where biblical literacy and soul care blended in their formal and informal conversations. This differs from discussions in the attentiveness extended to one another’s souls and the need for life experiences to be seen in light of who God is and what he might be doing.
There has been a growing number of books, articles and talks on how to become a better listener and communicator. Is this just one more way of becoming a more skilled listener or communicator, or would you say this is a practice that Christians really need today?
There are many helpful books, articles, blogs and talks on how to become a better listener and communicator. Few, though, help us assess our own spiritual conversations. We’ve become more dependent on our phones and mobile devices and less comfortable in face-to-face encounters and conversations. Our modern inventions and devices can squeeze the quantity and quality of time spent with God and each other. At the same time, our biblical literacy has been in decline. These two factors impact our ability to comfortably engage in conversations that enrich spiritual growth.
In the book, you talk about how the practice of conference can be applied in various life contexts — in small groups, with your family or spouse, with pastors. How has the practice of conference impacted or changed your personal relationships?
I’ve told many friends that I must have a bit of an English Puritan heart. They cared for others deeply and their conversations were a means to promote godly transformation. Conference not only helped avoid spiritual isolation but cultivate a growing knowledge of God’s Word, strengthened intimacy with God and deepened relationships with others in community, all of which contributed to spiritual transformation. I’ve applied conference in conversations with my 4-year-old grandson and incorporated conference into curriculum for a Bible study group. Conference has taught me how to be more present with people and with God, to offer well-framed questions for fostering deeper conversations, and to be more patient in hearing responses.
How do we “conference” in our personal or corporate study of God’s Word?
The Puritans referred to biblical meditation as conference with ourselves. We can conference in our personal study of God’s Word as we ask questions, seek answers and allow the truth of the Scriptures to sink deeply into our hearts. In our corporate study of God’s Word, conference furthers the connection between the Scriptures and our life experiences. Well-framed prompts and questions help guide participants beyond the easy, pat answers that do little to address real-life challenges and moves our conversations toward honest and transparent needs, struggles, challenges, victories and sustained growth in godliness. As one studies, understands, meditates and applies the truths found in the Bible, the need for engaging with others is critical. This engagement helps to avoid misinterpretation and misapplying scriptural truths while improving biblical literacy, building a more trusting and transparent relationship with God and others and increasing in grace.
Have you ever given your students spiritual formation assignments that involved the practice of conference? With a generation of students who are digital natives and so used to having conversations via social media, text messages or FaceTime, how have students responded to this practice?
A colleague and I incorporate conference in our class and class assignments. Here are a few responses from students to this practice:
“Conference groups gave me the opportunity to be an encouragement to others concerning their walks with the Lord as well as receive encouragement from them. I think it a great blessing to be able to be in a classroom setting, learning about a specific subject, but at the same time being able to experience spiritual growth. Opportunities like these are rare. Conference groups always left me with an uplifting feeling.”
“I have found a lot of comfort in talking about God and praying with other believers. A lot of times they bring different views that I have not looked at before. They are also the ones who have come to me when they think that I’m not doing right in an area in my life. It is hard to hear sometimes, but I am thankful, because they are looking after my soul with me.”
“Corporately, the idea of conference should be applied more. We live in a very individualistic society, so much so that we never ask how our brother is doing spiritually. …Christians are not tapping the potential this powerful tool offers. ... I realized the need for conferencing in my own life. It is very easy to deny, or simply forget, the role of Christian experience and growth.”
Physical presence seems essential to conference, yet one of your chapters focuses on “distance conferencing.” How do we conference in an increasingly digital environment?
The Puritans provided opportunities to be recalibrated and refreshed in and with the ways of God. Neither the lack of physical presence nor the distance separating them deterred the Puritans from caring for one another’s souls. As the digitally adept navigate their world, they are given unique opportunities — as with the Puritans through their letter writing — to conference. Here’s an example of a letter from Joseph Alleine, a Puritan pastor:
I have no great felicity under God, than to serve the good of souls. Brethren beloved, How fares it with your souls? are they in health? do they prosper? I wish your temporal prosperity. It is a joy to hear when your trade doth flourish: But these are but very little things if we look into eternity. Brethren, my ambition for you is, that you should be cedars among the shrubs, that from you should sound out the Word of the Lord, and that in every place your Faith to God-ward should be spread abroad.
One hears the deep concern for the spiritual welfare of others. Alleine leads them to discern the state of their souls and challenges them to know God and his Word even more, and for the manifestation of that knowledge to be evident in how they live their lives. We can do the same in our digitized world. The next time you grab your phone, consider texting someone God has placed on your heart, whether close or distanced, geographically or relationally, to “give one another’s souls a visit,” or to “Speak one to another of your Souls: enquire whether they are in health” letting it display “the genius and temper of true Saints, they speak often one to another; their Lips drop as a Honey-comb.”
ABOUT THE EXPERT
Joanne J. Jung (M.A. ’01) is an associate professor of biblical and theological studies and associate dean of online education and faculty development at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. She has a Ph.D. in theology from Fuller Seminary and is interested in hermeneutics and spiritual formation. She is passionate about seeing her students grow in their knowledge of the Bible and seeing that knowledge impact their spiritual transformation.