The Ministry of Small Talk

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If you know me, you know that I hate small talk. It is the bane of my existence. There is literally nothing worse than jibber-jabbing the day away like a couple of birds on a wire. (If you know me, you also know that I NEVER exaggerate.) The triviality of it is nauseating. Discussing weather trends, what you had for lunch, or–worst of all–retelling the previous night’s dream is a mortal sin, for in partaking you become an accomplice to murder. The victim? Time. I have held this conviction firmly for quite some time now. That is, until I encountered the pastors’ pastor, Eugene Peterson, on the issue. In his book, The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson has a chapter entitled 'The Ministry of Small Talk.’ After relaying his shared aversion to exchanges of niceties, cliches, and empty platitudes, Peterson imparts his epiphany: he had an impatience with the ordinary. He recounts, “Given a choice between heated discussion on theories of the Atonement and casual banter over the prospects of the coming Little League season, I didn’t hesitate. It was the Atonement every time.” You're preaching to the choir, Eugene!

I mean, the way I see it, the latter centers around pre-pubescent boys attempting to funnel their pent up energy into a game that consists of them waiting 9 innings for the pizza party that follows every outing, win or lose. The former is concerned with the scope, intention, and effect of God’s redeeming work through his Son. As a professional community group leader, I assume my job is to corral the small talk and find a way to manipulate it into big talk. When given the option, the answer is always Jesus, right?

Despite my hyperbolizing, if my sentiments resonate with you–even just a little–perhaps Eugene’s words may be a balm for you, as they were for me.

He writes:

If we bully people into talking on our terms, if we manipulate them into responding to our agenda, we do not take them seriously where they are in the ordinary and the everyday. Nor are we likely to become aware of the tiny shoots of green grace that the Lord is allowing to grow in the back yards of their lives. If we avoid small talk, we abandon the very field in which we have been assigned to work. Most of people’s lives is not spent in crisis, not lived at the cutting edge of crucial issues…If pastors belittle it, we belittle what most people are doing most of the time, and the gospel is misrepresented…Humility means staying close to the ground (humus), to people, to everyday life, to what is happening with all its down-to-earthness.

We mount our Sinai pulpits week by week and proclaim the gospel in what we hope is the persuasive authority of “artful thunder” (Emerson’s phrase). When we descend to the people on the plain, a different artfulness is required, the art of small talk.

Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, Reprint edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), 114-6.