727 Tony Campolo, conflict management and community with lessons from Jean-Paul Sartre and Jon Stewart

Interview with Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling
on “Connecting Like Jesus,” Part 1

THIS WEEK, we’re bringing you fresh ideas about church growth from popular Christian teacher Tony Campolo and communication expert Mary Albert Darling. We provide easy-navigation links to this entire series—and to Tony’s and Mary’s websites—at the end of today’s interview.

DAVID: Tony, how do you describe yourself these days? In your own website, you call yourself “The Positive Prophet of Red Letter Christianity.” You’re also known as an author, a preacher, a teacher. What words do you use to describe your work in simple terms?

TONY: When it’s all said and done I’m a Christian activist. I’m somebody who—whatever I’m doing, whether I’m preaching, teaching or organizing—I’m trying to facilitate changes in the world. I’m trying to play my small part in transforming society.

DAVID: Most preachers aren’t sociologists, though. What do those years of sociological research contribute to your work?

TONY: I became a sociologist because I wanted to understand how people think, what their values are, what their needs are, what their beliefs are. I wanted to analyze groups. If we’re going to connect like Jesus, which this new book is all about, then it takes a pretty good sense of who is out there waiting to hear from you.

DAVID: Mary, how do you describe yourself?

MARY: Professionally I am a teacher, spiritual director, speaker and writer. I teach at a Christian university in the communication department and I also teach in our masters program in spiritual formation and leadership. These two areas are near and dear to my heart. One of the classes I teach is called spiritual formation and justice. I like the idea of helping students to make connections like that. I want to help raise the question: What does it mean to follow Jesus on a daily basis?

DAVID: I would describe your new book as “a primer for preachers, teachers and anyone in ministry,” but overall I’d say the book aimed at encouraging people to “connect authentically with people through ministry.” Does that sound right to you?

TONY: Exactly! People are hungry to connect. We live in a world of extreme alienation. People are cut off from their own family members. They can’t relate with any degree of intensity. The word “connect” has great meaning because so much of what goes on in the name of communication in society is people talking at each other—rather than entering into the personhood of the other person. There’s a lot in this book about how to overcome our separateness.

MARY: David, you said the book is about encouraging people to connect authentically through ministry. I think we could drop the words “through ministry.” This book is about connecting authentically with people, period. In our first book, Tony and I wrote about the importance of intimacy and action in a community. The problem is: That can’t take place if we don’t trust the community. As a Christian community, we’re supposed to love one another and get along with one another. We’re supposed to do ministry, work on evangelism and do justice. But, if there’s so much infighting that we can’t get along with each other, then it brings the ministry of Jesus to a screeching halt.


DAVID: I’ve also described your book as a “toolbox” and I use that word because you’ve got a very practical approach to what you’re teaching people in these chapters.

MARY: Yes, there are rules we can follow, practices we can learn. There are rules for discourse: How do I learn to treat you well in conversation? How do we actually speak the truth in love to another person? In congregations, people sometimes treat each other in mean-spirited ways and we need to realize that there’s something terribly wrong if we think we can get away with behaving like that. Or, even worse, if we do that and feel self righteous in our meanness.

We’ve got a whole list of Bible passages at the end of our book about how we are to treat “one another.” I’m fascinated with the “one another” verses. They’re a good guide for living in a community. Can we go down this list and say that this truly is the way we’re treating one another?

DAVID: Well, you start off with “Show hospitality to one another,” then “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.”

MARY: Right. These “one another” verses want us to do everything without arguing or complaining. How do we live that out on a daily basis with one another? Does that sound like your community?

Start reading these “one another” verses and you’ll see the challenges: Bear one another’s burdens, show hospitality to one another, be kind to one another, bear with one another in love, live in harmony with one another, outdo one another in showing honor. It’s so easy to say: Oh, yeah, we believe in what the Bible says, but then we get involved in daily life with other believers and what do we find? Backbiting and conflict. We forget all about “one another.”

DAVID: Your book addresses that very issue head on.

CONFLICT MANAGEMENT 101 and “The Daily Show”

MARY: Yes, I teach conflict management. And Conflict Management 101 begins with this truth: We’ll always have conflict in life. You can’t live in a conflict-free environment. So, we know conflict will come. The question is: How do we deal with it? We devote two chapters to dealing with conflict. That’s what I believe we could call the real guts of this book.

I’ve been working on these issues for years and the good news is this: I really do believe that we don’t have to accomplish this on our own. I believe that we’re supposed to yield to the Holy Spirit to give us the power to relate to one another in love.

DAVID: “Relating to one another in love.” That’s a great goal, but you’re also pointing out in this new book that, long before we reach the love part, most people aren’t even willing to relate to each other in a constructive way, right? We seem to be talking past each other. Too often, we’re cut off from any sense of how other people see the world around us.

TONY: Here’s an example: Pew research finds that people between the ages of 15 and 35 get most of their news from things like “The Daily Show” and the “Colbert Report.” I find that very few people in the preaching business watch those shows. That alone illustrates these very serious questions we’re raising. How can you expect to be an effective communicator today if you don’t know what is going on in the lives of people under 35?

I talk to young people all the time and, every day, they’re talking about what they just heard from Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. I’m spending more time, today, studying what’s happening around us than I did when I was back in graduate school. We’re in the middle of a knowledge explosion and we have to learn constantly. The world is changing so rapidly that, if I’m connecting in ways that I connected yesterday, then I’m not connecting with the world in which people live today.

DAVID: How do you keep up, Tony? Any tips?

TONY: One of the things I do whenever I meet someone who is on the cutting edge is, I ask them: What are you reading these days? Give me the names of two or three things that are most helpful to read right now. I jot them down and I try to look them up myself.

I’m amazed at how many people think they are good communicators, but they’re only reading a new book now and then. If they’re not out there constantly reading and talking to people and learning, then they’re not up to date. We need to be constantly collecting new material.


DAVID: One reason I’m so drawn to your book is that ReadTheSpirit is involved in a major new project this year, www.FriendshipAndFaith.com, with the motto: Making peace 1 friend at a time. Your book rests on the same assumption. While it might sound simple, it’s a profound affirmation: As humans, we are made for connection. There’s spiritual power in connecting, one person to another.

TONY: It’s not enough just to say the right words. We’re talking about something that’s largely missing in today’s society: spiritual oneness. In this book, we’re telling readers about spiritual disciplines we can exercise to enter into real communion with other people. We’re directly addressing the question: How do we achieve a kindred spirit? How do we create a community where we’re not just lonely members of a crowd?

DAVID: It’s a radical affirmation to talk about spiritual connection as our goal. So many of our spiritual movements today are individualistic.


TONY: Sartre wrote, “Hell is other people.” What he was referring to is that it’s possible to be surrounded with other people and yet never connect in any deep or meaningful way. If it is impossible to connect with others, then the presence of other people around us becomes ultimately so painful that you want to flee. That’s what’s going on in our society right now. I hope that through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we can develop ways to connect with people in powerful and positive ways.

DAVID: In another passage in your book, you actually say: We want to prove Sartre wrong.

TONY: That’s right. Look at 20th century philosophers like Sartre and you’ll find them describing this terrible state of alienation, this distance between our lives and other people. They all see this as the great malady of our time. But as Christians we know that Jesus overcame this. We know that we can develop communication that draws effectively on storytelling style, illustration, structure, pronunciation—all the good skills of communication—and yet recognizes that through the Spirit we can feel our way into each other’s hearts and minds and souls.

The Jesuit theologian Teilhard de Chardin taught that there is something within every living creature—and that’s not just human beings—that drives toward connection with others. This is true throughout our environment. We can enter into an intimacy with nature itself. Jesus was able to do this. The winds and waves could hear him.

We are calling for relationships in life built on real empathy. These are the relationships that truly make us human. Jesus came into the world not only to get us into heaven when we die but also to connect us with each other and nature and the whole world around us.


Care to read more about Tony Campolo, Church Growth
and “Connecting Like Jesus” with Mary Albert Darling?

ENJOY OUR ENTIRE GREAT SUMMER READING AND VIEWING SERIES: (Our series so far: “Crown of Aleppo,” “Science Vs. Religion,” “Belief,” “Apparition,” “Burma VJ,” “Facets World Cup,” “Mary Mae and the Gospel Truth” “The Lonely Polygamist,” “Rise and Shine,” “Saints,” “Beaches of Agnes,” “Mystically Wired,” “Creative Aging,” “Twelve by Twelve” and “Eyewitness 4.”)

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