Being the church in an era of deep political divide has become extremely difficult.
From pastors in “purple” churches keeping silent on politicized moral issues to the clarion call to always address every political issue from the pulpit, it seems that pastors like myself are always going to fall short one way or another trying to speak truth to moral issues that have become part of politicized talking points.
Similarly, church members face the very real issue that by avoiding topics of moral importance that have become politicized, we as Christians have forgotten how to speak with one another well about these issues.
“Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding of politics and religion.” I’m not sure where that quote comes from, but it’s a good observation.
So, how can we be disciples of Jesus and still tread carefully and wisely through conversations about moral issues? How can we step away from our culture’s divide and seek another way to communicate?
As part of my doctor of ministry project, I researched what it might look like for a church to engage in a covenantal ethical dialogue process, one that figured out how to both discern God’s will and relearn how to speak to one another.
I wanted to see church leaders find ways to learn to dialogue well about these issues, creating greater clarity and understanding about complex moral issues that are often politicized to seem much less complex than they are.
Realistically, churches are not going to often take up a politicized issue as a large group first and be successful.
Instead, most of the deeper conversation and learning begins in small groups.
And, to create space for the whole church to eventually learn to speak to one another in more formative and productive ways, church leadership should form the first small groups.
In my own research, I found that a small group of lay leaders could gather to learn to better dialogue and discern, and then each could then use some of the tools in their own small groups.
My process involved a learning retreat in which the participants could learn about the tools of successful dialogue and the Christian spiritual practice of discernment.
The retreat also ended with a shared covenant, in which all participants were able to agree on best practices for dialogue and discernment, promising to their fellow group members to follow the rules set forth.
Following the initial retreat, the participants gathered for discerning dialogue sessions to practice these tools while discussing a politicized issue of moral importance.
The most successful parts of my research were:
- Developing skills for productive dialogue, which were taught using Annette Simmons’ “A Safe Place for Dangerous Truths.”
Some of the most important points in her text were to bring about truth in dialogue by being aware of our poor dialogue habits, such as fight/flight, pairing/dependency, reductionism/distancing and others.
Simply by being more aware of these pitfalls (along with being aware of each person’s own means of processing and sharing information) made the group’s dialogue less prone to fall into these traps.
- Learning the Christian spiritual practice of discernment as a spiritual way of unlearning our bad conversation habits, using Danny Morris and Charles Olsen’s “Discerning God’s Will Together.”
The most important (and tough) step in Christian discernment is laying aside one’s ego and preconceived notions in order to have full freedom to discern what leads toward God in a given situation.
It is very countercultural to set aside our partisan politics to hear the voice of God, but it is essential if we are to be good disciples of Christ as we speak to one another.
Ultimately, small groups in churches must learn how to have good conversations about these issues, first as Christians and second as political party members.
Without this major shift of perspective, we will only continue to show up in our suits and ties dressed with the same divisive discord as the rest of the country, rather than showing up as disciples of Jesus seeking a better way.
And, following small group successes in discerning dialogue, the hope is that when the church is faced with a politicized moral issue, they will be better equipped to discern God’s will, rather than simply repeating talking points.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week focused on Christian ethics education. The previous articles are:
Why Your Congregation Needs Christian Ethics Education | Bill Tillman
Why the Church Must Recover the Gospel’s Political Claims | Curtis Ramsey-Lucas
Why Biblical Ethics Isn’t as Easy as Choosing Proof Texts | Myles Werntz
So You’re ‘Not Racist’? Here’s Why That’s Not Good Enough | Michael Cheuk
Libby Grammer is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Martinsville, Virginia, and the author of “Privilege, Risk, and Solidarity: Understanding Undocumented Immigration through Feminist Christian Ethics.”