How to have healthy conversations about hard topics in your church.

Conversations are a cornerstone for social interaction and communication. In the context of a church family on a Sunday morning, conversations are how we learn about and share the events of our lives as we greet one another. We talk about the weather, the game, the weekend, and our children. We make small talk as we move through the coffee and donuts line. We share basic information as we meet new people. We share our thoughts and experiences as we discuss a Bible story. Sometimes, when we get the courage, and just the right person asks, we dig deeper and reveal the struggles in our lives. In return, we offer our prayers, encouragement, and support.

Every one of these points of conversations is good and necessary for being a healthy church family, and for the most part, we know how to navigate these different situations well. However, there are other conversations that we do not handle with ease. In fact, when it comes to difficult issues in the life of our church, conversation fails. We run to the corners of division and debate and forget how to talk to one another. Rather than risk conflict and engage in open and honest dialogue, we huddle in like-minded groups and affirm our positions. Uncomfortable with the tension, we choose sides and practice selective fellowship.

Years ago at congregational meeting about a charged topic which I cannot recall, church members strategically separated according to their preferences as a way of managing the tension in the room. Like-minded people found each other and sat in sections under imaginary signs that said “If you think this, sit here.”

Here’s the truth. We must learn to have healthy conversations about hard topics if we want be a healthy church family. Here are two ways to get started.

Create an expectation for dealing with hard topics

If your church tends to avoid difficult conversations, the first one will feel like you are causing trouble. Start with a hard topic that is not a core issue for your church. It is easier to talk about something “over there” than to kick the ant bed next to your feet. Use part of a lesson in a normal Bible class series to address a sticky issue. “Regular” conversations before and after the sticky discussion provide a buffer. After a few weeks, insert another issue—maybe even as a whole lesson. At some point, you will be ready to introduce hard topics in short 2-3 week series. Tuck these session in between longer, more comfortable Bible study topics to give time for people to soak in the experience. Doing this, you will lower the surprise factor over time.

Like starting an exercise regimen, at the beginning you will experience soreness, shortness of breath, and a low level of endurance. Push through the pain. Perseverance and regular intervals of engagement will slowly develop those underused conversation muscles.

Develop guidelines to encourage and to manage conversation

Several years ago I developed a few conversation guidelines to help manage tension in a hard topic. The nature of the guidelines also helped us acknowledge that everyone in the conversation brings something of value. Here are the guidelines:

#1 – We are a church family and we desire to act and speak with love and respect (without judgment, accusation, or condescending tone).

Emotions threaten to get the best of us and keep us from communicating clearly. Thus, the first guideline is an obvious declaration, but an easy one to forget when we disagree. I am surprised at how accessible my defensive posture is when faced with a differing opinion. This reminder requires me to engage the “one anothers” of Scripture and urges me to be self-aware about my body language and tone of voice as I listen and speak.

#2 – Your perspective, experience, and interpretation matters.

When we gather for a Bible class, I want each person to believe they matter. The second guideline affirms this truth. Each of us has a history that forms and informs our point of view—family, church background, cultural events, etc. We encourage everyone to approach the conversation with the things that make us who we are.

#3 – Not everyone shares your perspective, experience, or interpretation.

When we gather for a Bible class, I want each person to look across the table or beside them and believe these people matter. The third guideline always provokes a chuckle, but it encourages us to pay attention to and honor our conversation partners. As important as it is for me to speak, to listen is even more critical. Good questions help draw out what is behind someone else’s viewpoint.

#4 – Everyone here believes in taking the Bible seriously.

Many years ago in a conversation about a topic on which we disagreed, my conversation partner closed the conversation with the comment that he was just trying to take the Bible seriously. Taken aback, I had no response. Though it was the first time I heard this statement, I have experienced the sentiment many times since. The fourth guideline reminds us that taking the Bible seriously doesn’t automatically produce uniform opinions. What is more, the claim that one’s view comes from taking the Bible seriously, unintentionally or not, condescends the other conversation partner (see the first guideline), as if he or she has little or no regard for Scripture.

My values

In many ways, the hard topic on the table for discussion is not my ultimate focus. Rather, what’s more important to me is the ability of a church family to have an open conversation about a difficult church issue and still be a church family. Here are my primary values:

  • Open Conversation: My church tradition grew up thriving on debate. Today, debate typically generates an unhealthy posture of attack and defense. Debate encourages hammering away at why we are right. Open conversations invite a different posture—one that is willing to being wrong—and provide a better environment for developing authentic relationships. There is no need to have all the answers or define a position. In fact, if we can learn to listen, we can learn from one another.
  • Respecting Differences: Most churches are comprised of people with different opinions on many issues. Healthy and open conversations lead to a respect for others—for their perspectives, experiences, and interpretations that are different than ours. We need to listen to the story of others.
  • Self-awareness: As practices become ingrained through the generations, we often forget how we got where we are. Knowing our history and doing the hard work of understanding ourselves, why we do the things we do, and believe the things we believe leads to a better self-understanding. Doing so helps us listen to others.
  • Reading the Bible with an Open Mind: We often differ from others in the way we read and interpret the Bible. Understanding these differences, being honest about our inconsistencies, and refraining from insisting that we are the ones who are right can diffuse tension and resolve conflict. In this way we can begin to appreciate each other instead of argue.

Conclusion

Getting it right on every hard topic, or even any hard topic, is not the goal for a church family. The greatest testimony any church family has is genuine love for one another, the very environment in which open conversations thrive. I find that when I approach people without the need to insist on my position or opinion on a topic and choose to engage with a posture of listening, I can learn a lot—about other people and about myself.

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