As part of our efforts for A Passion for Life we’re launching a spring term of ‘manufactured‘ supper parties. Dinner Parties or the ‘DP’, as I like to call them, are all the rage in our neck of the woods! Not everyone has a house in which they can do this, but many have. And where we haven’t, we can be creative assuming, of course, that we like the concept.
What on earth is a dialogue dinner?
Obviously, it’s a dinner party with dialogue. But most dinner parties involve dialogue, don’t they? Not necessarily, you may be unfortunate to come to one of ours whilst I ride one of my favourite hobby horses. Then it’s all monologue! But the dialogue dinner is the name I give to a deliberately dialogical (!) dinner party at which some thought is given to the subject under discussion. The idea is that someone hosts a supper party at which someone else gives a brief talk from which discussion and debate might follow. For example, Rosslyn and I could host a supper party at which we ask Anne Atkins to come and talk about the place of religion in public broadcasting. That’d be fun. Anne’s a riot. She’s a draw in herself. And the subject is one that’s likely to provoke some healthy debate! But it doesn’t need to be quite so highbrow. You could have a Kentucky Fried Chicken basket, a handful of mates and ask someone to speak on the subject of ‘why’s God so hung up on sex?’
How could you do it?
1. Decide on a date. Friday or Saturday nights are best. But there’s no reason why you couldn’t do it on a week day evening if people are free and their weekends are chocker.
2. Decide on a venue. You need to work out who’s going to cook and where it’s going to be. Someone’s house is the best option. Cafes, pubs and restaurants are expensive to hire and lack the privacy necessary to encourage a comfortable exchange of views.
3. Decide on the guest list. You need to work out which friends you’d like to invite. You’ll need to let them know what they’re coming to. It’s just not fair to make them the target of a covert evangelistic hit.
4. Decide on a topic. You could go for a common objection like ‘how do we know that God exists?’ Or you could go for a current issue like ‘what responsibility do we have towards the environment?’ You could be bold and go for something more immediately connected to the gospel and deal with a question like ‘what is it that Christians really believe?’
5. Decide on a speaker. Brief them so that they know what you’re expecting and who you’re expecting. Give them some time to give the issue some thought and write a short; say 10-15 minute talk. They say something intended to stimulate discussion and then they manage the ensuing debate.
Why are you so positive about them?
I just think that they work really well in our context.
There’s a great dynamic. If people have chatted, shared a meal and enjoyed a drink together there’s already a positive atmosphere. If people have engaged with one another, laughed at the same things and genuinely shown interest in the other guests, then the environment is a good one in which to shift the subject onto more serious issues.
The seating arrangements work. If we’re all sat down around a table and so the shape of the gathering is good for interaction. I wouldn’t make the speaker should stand and I’d encourage them not to use notes. The normal kitchen table is usually the right size and a group of say six or more people can work really well.
The speaker is usually in a minority. As long as you don’t invite too many Christians, the speaker is usually heavily outnumbered by people who don’t share his view! That’s a good thing. He’ll cope. It means that the non-Christian doesn’t feel bullied or belittled. It encourages them to put him on the spot and defend his position. It draws out their questions and issues because they’re more likely to feel in the majority.
What are the key things to remember?
Prime the Christians to keep quiet. If you invite a few Christians then make sure that you’ve briefed them to keep quiet. They may know the answer to the question that’s been raised. They may be able to answer it better than the guest speaker. Live with it. Usually if the Christians start getting involved in the discussion it stifles the contributions from the non-Christians. And especially from the non-Christians that are genuinely interested in asking questions not just those interested in having an argument! I once spoke at a similar evening at which the Christians started tackling me on my views of Genesis 1. They were six day literal creationists. I’m not. It got ugly. And it was completely counter-productive for the non-Christians who were there. But I couldn’t keep the Christians quiet.
Prepare the host with a gift question. If after 10 seconds there’s been no question ‘from the floor’ then the host can ask a question designed to get ‘the ball rolling’.
Plan an end to proceedings. There needs to be a tension breaking activity. It could be cheese and biscuits, port and chocolate or simply coffee. But there needs to be something that signals the end of managed debate. If people are like a dog with a bone and want to carry on, then they can. If people want to listen in to others whilst they chew things over, then they can. And if others simply prefer to talk about anything other than Christianity, then they can do so without feeling condemned.
So where does that leave us?
Why not prayerfully consider the answer to these questions.
Where could you hold one?
Who could you co-host with?
Who could you invite?
What issue would interest them?
When will you do it?