Scripture gives great significance to our words:
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37)
“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29)
“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6)
As men and women created in the image of a speaking God, our words have great capacity to build up or tear down. What we say or don’t say matters. But that raises a question. If, as Jesus says, we will give an account for every careless word; and if, as Paul says, all our speech is to be gracious and good for building others up – is it a sin to small talk? Is conversation about the weather or sports or any other insignificant topic an absolute waste of time?
I know – this might sound like hyper-spirituality. But as apparently small an area of life as it is, our view of small talk is significant. Because it’s the most mundane area of our conversation it reveals much about how we think about all conversation. Or, to put it another way, it’s the place where we’re most likely to have our guard down, and therefore the one that shows what we really think about our words. We can boil it down to one question: does your small talk build walls or bridges?
The difference is not so much in what’s said, but why it’s said. Building walls is when your conversation about the latest sports news or the weather is just a means of keeping someone at arm’s length. It might be because you don’t really care about them – at the precise moment of your conversation, baseball is more important to you than what’s going on in your neighbor’s life. It might be because you’re afraid of what will happen if the conversation gets serious – better keep it on the weather or you’re going to end up on a subject you’re not prepared to handle! But the end result is that you use your small talk to build a wall. And that is ultimately wall-building is a failure of love.
But the exact same conversation – “How about that game?” or “Starting to feel like fall, isn’t it?” – can be a means of building a bridge towards someone. Maybe you don’t have an established relationship. Casual conversation is a first step towards turning a stranger into a friend. Maybe you do have a solid friendship, and sharing sports news is one of the things you enjoy together. A conversation that touches nothing deeper than Peyton Manning’s latest game can still be a way of moving towards your friend, strengthening and reinforcing your relationship. The bridge is there, even if you don’t walk all the way across it in this conversation.
So is it a sin for Christians to engage in small talk? No, not at all – provided it isn’t used to build a wall separating you from a person God’s called you to love. Use your words to tear down walls and build bridges – because that’s what God for you.
“In the beginning was the Word…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
 I’m indebted to David Powlison in his counseling class “Dynamics of Biblical Change” for this question and image.
Photo by Bert Kaufmann