Creating a Culture of Conversation
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.”
– 1 John 4:18 (CEB)
Might one of your congregation members say something like this?
I don’t know what the church thinks about that–my pastor/campus minister never talks about it.
This response is fraught with difficulty for me. From the comfort of my blogging chair, it makes me sad. It is the sign of pastors who are not connecting faith with everyday issues (note: I am setting aside the trend that average church attendance frequency is going down and perhaps this person was just gone the week you talked about it).
From the memory of my weekly preacher/pastor’s chair, it makes me squirm. There are plenty of topics about which my college students and congregation members could have said this.
I would imagine there is at least one topic like this for you. What is it? Sex, sexuality, race, gender, politics, science, addiction, other religions, something else? Every one of these is in the cultural current on a regular basis.
And that’s the challenge. Everyone is talking about this stuff–except for the church. The conversations are being had on the news, on TV/film, online/social media, at the local coffee shop, and in the workplace. If they are not being had in the church, we are out of touch.
This does not mean that we allow culture to dictate what we say. But it also means we need to stop allowing fear to dictate what we don’t say. I can’t speak for you, but when I avoided my personal hot topics, it was out of fear.
How will people react? What will they think of me? Will it hurt my ability to be their pastor? Will they leave the church if they disagree? Will it shut off the potential for conversation in the future? I have learned that the only thing guaranteed to shut off conversation in the future is the decision not to have conversation.
Does this mean we need to take off the gloves and start swinging? Of course not. Here are some thoughts on creating a culture of discussion:
- Drive out fear. Scripture verses telling someone not to fear occur over 100 times. It is hard to find a leadership or business book that doesn’t cover letting go of fear. The urge to pause and discern is wise, while fear is paralyzing. Driving out fear allows us to regain control of our thoughts and emotions. The same goes for embarrassment. For too long some things (read: sex) were not discussed at church because it was impolite and uncomfortable. The questions are being asked, the conversations are being had, and the internet is being searched. We need to get over whatever is keeping us from being a venue for dialogue.
- Start with love. 1 John 4:18 says that perfect love drives out fear. Fear worries about punishment, while love focuses on grace. If our first thought when approaching a topic is “people will leave the church/not like me” and not “people will better know God and God’s love” — that’s a good sign that we are still in the mode of fear and not love. If we start from a place of love and make our goal sharing where God’s presence, activity, and love can be found, we are much more likely to approach it from an angle that encourages discussion. Also, if people sense that we are truly coming from a place of love, they are much more likely to stick around even if they disagree with where we stand.
- Be specific when possible. It had become the custom in the world of Harry Potter to refer to Voldemort as “He Who Must Not Be Named.” Yet, Dumbledore encouraged Harry to use Voldemort’s name, as fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself. If our congregations can tell we fear a topic, it can breed that same fear in them too. Naming hard issues demonstrates that we recognize their existence. Even if all we can say for now is that we find them difficult and uncomfortable to discuss, we show we’re living in the real world where doubt, uncertainty, and a need for God’s grace and wisdom exist.
- Be general when helpful. While Jesus did not shy away from difficult issues in his day, he also did not directly speak to specific issues of today–which is in part why there can be so much disagreement. When we seek to follow Christ in modern issues, we often rely on Jesus’ teachings about God and human nature. Teaching people to look for the underlying principles and to think theologically about those issues could lead to our congregation members saying something like, “My pastor hasn’t addressed that specifically, but she did teach us that Jesus viewed <human nature issue> as a stumbling block in our relationship with God and one another.”
- Consider the context. One of the joys and challenges of ministry is that there are so many different contexts in which we get to operate. Earlier this summer while preaching at a camp, I had a Q&A with a couple hundred high school campers and was asked if God hated gay people. Last year, I had a congregation member with tear-filled eyes ask me if God hated gay people. The high schoolers wanted to know how to approach a question they were asked at school. The congregation member wanted to know whether or not God hated their gay child. The heart of what I said to each was the same. The way I said it was vastly different.
- Model humility and openness. Saying “I don’t know” or “I struggle with this as well” encourages others to lower their guards. If the “expert” who studies the Bible for a living has questions, it is ok for anyone to have questions. Asking others what they think and actually listening to them, whether we agree with them or not, shows that our churches and we as pastors are resources for exploring difficult issues.
- Protect safety and dignity. All that being said, there is a difference between open dialogue and abuse. Create, verbalize, and model expectations for the kinds of speech that is and is not acceptable and the way in which the safety and dignity of all involved will be protected. Disagreements are going to happen but personal attacks and loaded or offensive language is counter to the way of Jesus.
What spurred these thoughts is the fact that this week is one of only two occurrences of Song of Solomon in the lectionary (and it is the same passage both times!). If you are a lectionary preacher and you skip this one, you only have one other opportunity in the next three years. If you are not a lectionary preacher, how frequently do you address the topics of attraction, intimacy, and sexuality? Are you intentionally avoiding these topics in order to avoid the inevitable questions that will crop up around them? How could you use a week like this to open up lines of dialogue?
How have you and/or your church worked (or not worked) to create spaces for fruitful dialogue? What has been effective? What hasn’t worked so well? What are the topics you are most uncomfortable addressing?