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Staying in the Room With Difference
Three ways to have generous, hospitable conversations with people outside your belief system.
In 2007 David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity...and Why It Matters. Based on Barna Group research, the book uncovered negative perceptions young people have of Christianity. In 2010, moved by reading unChristian, two friends and I published The Outsider Interviews, putting faces to the facts and stories to the stats.
In this snippet from our book, a young lady named Sarah speaks:
I think it’s harder for us as Christians to express our beliefs on tough issues because society has put a stigma on anyone who isn’t tolerant or accepting of certain lifestyles and choices that don’t match up with the Bible. Christians have been labeled as narrow-minded, intolerant people.
…Where I really struggle is having the courage to express my own beliefs in a respectful, tactful way. I think the best way to connect with someone with different beliefs is to listen to them, respect what they are saying and to be honest about my own beliefs. The most important thing is to stay in their life and continue to show them that I love them no matter what.
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In the early church, similar issues came up about how to deal with Gentiles who were outsiders to Jewish history, tradition and faith. On one occasion, James, speaking for the elders of the church, said:
Here is my decision: We’re not going to unnecessarily burden non-Jewish people who turn to the Master. We’ll write them a letter and tell them, ‘Be careful to not get involved in activities connected with idols, to guard the morality of sex and marriage, to not serve food offensive to Jewish Christians—blood, for instance.’ This is basic wisdom from Moses, preached and honored for centuries now in city after city as we have met and kept the Sabbath. (Acts 15, MSG)
As we can see in this passage, one of the main issues causing tension between the Jews and Gentiles was sex and marriage. To this day, the Church and those outside the Church typically disagree on this issue. While sex and marriage are not the most important moral or spiritual issues, Jesus-followers believe they are crucial elements of what it means to be human in the image of God.
For those outside the Church, however, this quote from 1966 captures the spirit and mood of our day: It should be up to every individual, of any sexuality, to choose the lifestyle that is right for them. Even within the Church, some people believe that the best thing for each individual is to be and do what they feel is right. In their minds, acknowledging and obeying one’s sexual desires is the best, most authentic way to be human.
But what if there is a way that things are outside of our perception of it, outside of what we feel is right, outside of our desires? This is what the best of the Judeo-Christian tradition gets right. Trusting in a God who created out of love and wisdom, purpose and intentionality, the Church believes there is indeed a way that things are designed to be.
The Hebrew (and later Christian) worldview asks:
Who is the God who is there?
What are his purposes?
What does it mean to be an embodied human in the image of God?
What are the basics, the bare necessities of following God?
On the other hand, atheists and agnostics wonder if there is a God. That question often creates the space for people’s desires and the drive to fulfill them to take center stage.
Sexuality is clearly important to both those in the Church and those outside the Church, so how might we converse about sex and marriage (and other issues) in a way that meets the criteria Sarah desired: to both listen and express?
Here are a few guiding principles.
1. Move away from bashing differences with “clobber texts.”
Being committed to the Bible, I think scripture—both as a whole and as individual passages—has important meaning to convey. But I am empathetic with the desire of many people to move away from using scripture to bludgeon others. We can listen to people’s honest cries. We don’t have to shut down expression. For me, the conversation simply shifts to something more fundamental than sex and marriage: The One True Creator God and his intention for the universe and the Church—which, of course, includes sex and marriage.
2. Hold listening and expression together as an integrated whole.
Sadly, much like ancient Israel (Jeremiah 2:13), today’s Church, not being able to hold these two things together, often commits a compound sin:
Forsaking God…walking out on God…who is the spring of living water…and rather digging our own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water…rather they leak like sieves…
I get that it’s hard. I feel the tension of staying in the room with people who believe differently. I’ve learned over decades to deal with conflict, but I don’t relish it. I often wonder: How do I appropriately preserve and hold to the traditions articulated by James and the other biblical authors? How do I participate in such conversations while simultaneously doing what it takes to be generous, big-hearted, hospitable, and welcoming to people outside my belief system? One basic way I’ve learned to do this is to reject hostility in faith conversations, no matter what justification is given.
3. Allow the Holy Spirit to form the Jesus-life in you.
The biblical narrative reveals that one overflow of the Jesus-life is an authentic, natural love for those outside the Church, outside of faith, outside of one’s biblical convictions. As Sarah put it, The most important thing is to stay in [the person’s] life and continue to show them that I love them no matter what.
The challenge of having winsome conversations with people outside the Church has resulted in me having a constant prayer—maybe it will inspire you too:
Holy Spirit, create the Jesus-life in me.
Give me Jesus’ relaxed ease around people with different views on important issues.
Fill me with his love.
Create in me his steadfastness to you and your purposes
while simultaneously staying connected with people outside the Church with generosity of heart.