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Leading Courageous Conversations about tough issues in our Churches

November 3, 2015

How do we help our churches become safe and courageous places to engage harmoniously with tough issues about which we disagree? Neither of the two common options is working:

  1. Avoid tough issues entirely. This may make our churches “safe,” but they don’t help us reflect together on the tough issues of justice facing our society. As a result, our members get their convictions about these issues from their favorite media source, rather than from careful biblical and theological reflection; or
  2. Choose our churches by their positions on tough issues. Increasingly the church is adding on top of our divisions over ethnicity, socio-economics, worship style, and points of doctrine—divisions over positions on ethical and justice issues. Congregations are splintering, and people are changing churches over ethics, and not just ethnicity, economics, ethos, and theology.

We are experiencing through the Micah Groups Movement at the Ogilvie Institute of Fuller Theological Seminary a third way (see www.micahgroups.org). There are several keys to effective communication that are integral to this (and that require a bit of retraining for some of us):

  1. Keep asking the “who” questions before we get to questions of “what.” We’ll divide if we begin by discussing what we believe is the right position on a particular issue. First, we begin by asking “Who is God?” What is God’s nature and character? What is God doing in response to the pressing needs in society? Second, we ask the “who” questions pertaining to ourselves. “Who are we?” We recognize our frailty. We accept our essential humility. We discern ways in which our own life experience and social location shape our attitudes and even our ethics. We also receive the gift of our own belovedness in Christ. Third, we ask “Who are our neighbors? Who has God called us to love? Who are the people we exclude from that circle?” In asking who is our neighbor, we then include the same responses to others as we do in understanding ourselves.
  1. Guard our curiosity, rather than defend our convictions. When people voice perspectives that differ from our own, we cultivate the discipline of diving in, rather than either backing off or building defenses (responses 1 and 2 above). Rather than seeking to convince someone of the error of their point of view and the rightness of our own, our first response is to seek to understand. We ask questions such as: “Can you tell me more?” “What is about your life experience, and about your social location that have led you to this position?” “Describe how your reading of Scripture and understanding of God, God’s will, and God’s ways leads you to this point of view?” “What are the implications of your position for how you treat others who hold different values?”
  1. Ask the most important “what” questions first. Rather than focusing on what we believe, or what we are supposed to do—the most important “what” questions are: “What are you doing in this situation God?” “What are you saying to us?” and  “What is your will for our participation in your purposes?”
  1. Invite issues of justice naturally into our worship. Rather than only providing classes or forums to discuss sensitive and divisive issues, include them in our normal conversation with God in worship. In worship we have the opportunity to bring the needs of the world before the heart of God. When we pray personal prayers and petitions, it’s natural to include structural and systemic prayers. As we pray for someone’s health—pray for the health care system, someone’s job—pray for our economy and for the debates about wages and income inequality, someone’s housing—pray also for the homeless and the immigration debates, someone’s relational difficulties—pray for the church to embody God’s reconciliation of our lives in Christ.

This isn’t to politicize worship.

It’s to guide our congregations more fully into the heart of God who is at work to make life right.

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