Other People’s Thoughts: from debate to dialogue

Over the past week, I’ve read three different posts all advocating for a shift in the way the church engages potentially contentious conversations. Essentially, the authors are calling for a shift from debate to dialogue. In many ways, I think each of their articles are presenting a perspective on how the church can embody our apologetic through the character of our conversations, rather than just with the verbal content of our faith.

I’ve linked the articles below with a short summary. I’d love to hear your thoughts and reactions to these articles. How do we make these transitions well? Does one of these articles resonate with you more than the others?

Setting the Table for a Good Debate (on TheBanner)

The gathering of churches in which I am rooted (Christian Reformed Church in North America) has had a history of some pretty significant and divisive debates along the way. This is not the only thread or even a primary thread in our storyline, but unfortunately it is one that we have often characterized ourselves with because of how contentious we have been around a few issues. Mike VanBoom writes a thoughtful invitation on The Banner’s website, urging our churches not to be threatened by healthy conversations around topics that we may have considered settled: sexuality, evolution, etc. Rather than feel threatened by these ideas, VanBoom proposes that we give attention to the character or “manners” in which our dialogue (and at times debates) might unfold.

Shibboleths (on ThinkChristian)

Writing from his experiences as a university campus minister, Shiao Chong calls for end to our litmus test approach to North American Christianity: “You can’t be a Christian and …” Pointing to how these extra-biblical standards tie into our desire to determine who is “one of us,” Chong calls us to see how these measurements “predispose us to prejudge people”. As we accumulate and refine our Shibboleths, we develop a quick grid for not even starting conversations with others. In the end, Chong calls for us to drop the litmus test approach to our faith, except for one Shibboleth – our acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ.

Pub Theology is a Waste of Time (on HuffingtonPost)

Finally, Bryan Berghoef suggests one potential way a healthier approach to dialogue could look like. His post is a brief overview of the underlying theology/philosophy that has given shape to the Pub Theology movement – of which Bryan is a primary instigator. The basic premise is that there is a Christian discipline of listening to others that assumes a posture of seeking to understand others rather than to persuade them through argument. His gentle invitation through this post is create room to share a beer…and allow the deeper conversations to unfold through careful and appreciative listening to the other person. His examples clearly point to how this discipline allows not only for health conversation between self-identifying Christians, but also between people of different faith traditions or who don’t identify with any faith tradition at all.

As you read these articles,

  • What catches your attention?
  • How would you respond to them?
  • What do you think the church can learn from these approaches? Is there anything we need to be careful of in embracing the perspective of these authors?
  • How might a greater emphasis on listening to each other and others allow the Church to be more faithful in carrying out its mission?


Filed under missional church, Other People's Thoughts

6 responses to “Other People’s Thoughts: from debate to dialogue

  1. I appreciate this, Chris. For a long time the Christian approach was the message — Just hand out tracks, striking up conversation with a complete stranger and handing out tracts with the four spiritual laws. Even Jesus never approached anyone by the pharisees and Jewish leaders with the message first. He always drew people to him by who he was and how he lived. Then he spoke the gospel. And that gospel is offensive to many. The gospel isn’t the gospel unless it is embodied by those who believe it.

    • That’s part of what has been catching me as well, Allen. The “gospel embodied” by the community of Jesus’ followers is more than simply authenticating a verbal message. John Stackhouse wrote about “humble apologetics” a few years ago with an emphasis on how important the character of apologists/evangelists is in expressing the gospel. I think that what these three authors are suggesting gets us closer to Newbigin’s idea that the church is the hermeneutic of the gospel. In other words, the gospel is only made known as it is lived out in community.

  2. Rob Groen

    Agreed, the gospel does need to be shared, but first there must be an invitation to who we are, what we do, etc… Relationship building is at the core of ‘evangelism’. If we live with this kind of love, people will inevitably be drawn to us, (or rather, the Christ in us) and then there’s room for healthy dialogue and questions.

    • I hear you, Rob. And would agree with the idea of relationship building being central to evangelism. Bryan’s proposal for Pub Theology opens the door for relationship building between strangers through healthy dialogue. In other words, dialogue becomes a vehicle for relationship, rather than an overflow of an established relationship.

  3. John Zylstra

    How we dialogue is important, yes. A practical thing would be in every case, to make an acknowledgement of something positive that the other person has written or spoken. This should be possible 98% of the time. But I would also say that a profitable dialogue is not one in which everyone is only nodding heads to everyone else. New ideas will not be examined, nor adopted, if that is the case.
    Dialogue should happen with non-christians, while charitable listening debate happens between Christians. We use Christ as a model for speaking about God, but it does not seem that He had a good relationship with the pharisees even though he originally spoke with them at age of 12, and even went to dinner with some of them. Yet he had to speak truth. Paul spoke to the Athenians before establishing a relationship, although he attempted to relate to their worship practices.
    I believe establishing relationships is very important, but have not found it an automatic avenue to peace and understanding. Sometimes the relationship is strained or ignored when difficult truths are confronted. God’s truth must come out, and building relationships sometimes becomes an excuse for denying or ignoring God’s truth. It is God who works in us and through us, and not we ourselves. So we need to trust God more, and He will fulfill His purposes.

    • John, I would agree that we cannot control how others will respond to us…so in that sense, yes, “sometimes the relationship is strained or ignored when difficult truths are confronted.” Dialogue depends on extending the freedom to the other person to react to the conversation in a way that seems fitting to them, even if that means ending the conversation or the relationship. Yet, I believe there is much more we can do in order to facilitate dialogue and healthy relationship than we are currently doing.

      Too often, we’ve drawn lines for the other person – political affiliation, a particular stand on the current hot topic: women in office, homosexuality, immigration, etc. – without ever entering into dialogue with them. We’re adversarial from the start of the conversation. It’s rather comical now, but after preaching a sermon as part of calling process to pastor a church, I had someone ask me “Where do you stand on the organ?” with a very clear priority that I should be in favor of the organ and traditional hymns as the proper music for church worship. The litmus test had been set in front of me without any opportunity for dialogue. More recently, I had someone ask me “Are you egalitarian or complementarian?” The person really did not want to know me or about how I understand gender roles in relationship to Christian scripture. They simply wanted an answer to THE question that was important to them and according to the ONLY possible answers they would consider. There was no room for dialogue. If we are to have healthy dialogue – or even “charitable listening debate” (nice phrase by the way) – I think we (as a broader community of Christians) would do well to move away from starting conversations that reinforce preformed categories for dismissing others because they haven’t arrived at the same conclusion as we have.

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