Church leaders have a new role: leading conversations about divisive cultural issues. Here’s how to do that well.
Over the last two and a half years, pastors and church leaders have had to grow in a specific skill: How to talk about divisive cultural issues.
We’ve had to engage conversations about masks and vaccines, racial reconciliation, politics, LGBT+ topics, abortion and more. None of these conversations have been easy to engage in. Also, the conversations in our culture aren’t exactly gracious.
How do we as church leaders talk about these topics? How do we teach our congregations to engage these conversations, knowing that not everyone—even within your own congregation–agrees on these topics?
I’ve been developing four guiding principles for engaging in these conversations. I thought they might be helpful. Just an FYI–I’m not going to tell you what I think you should believe. I’m simply offering a few principles on how we might engage these topics in the church.
In the past, my church didn’t talk about divisive cultural topics from the stage. We are a politically diverse congregation and we preferred to have these kinds of conversations over coffee and in small groups. Those days are gone.
I believe we are in a space where engaging in these conversations is necessary. Why? Because people need guidance. The biblical foundation that was present in our nation’s past is no longer there. Our society has changed and in many ways, we are living in a post-Christian era. People need guidance.
Recently a leader of an adult small group came to our staff for guidance because every couple in their small group has a child who in some way identifies as LGBT. They were looking for guidance on how to appropriately respond to their kids.
We can’t avoid the challenging and divisive cultural conversations. We have to engage. So…how do we do that?
I think that having a framework for how to engage cultural issues is important. For every conversation I enter into, I try to remember two things: the image of God and the grace of God.
First, the image of God: People I engage with in conversation are created in the image of God. They have immense value to Him. I find this particularly helpful in engaging with people I disagree with.
Let’s talk about abortion for example. I happen to believe that unborn babies are created in the image of God. But, a mom who is navigating a crisis pregnancy is also created in the image of God.
The man who helped create this baby is also created in the image of God. The politicians who are debating the issue are created in the image of God…even the ones I disagree with.
Every person involved in the debate is created in the image of God. It’s not as much an argument to be won or lost, but about engaging with people through the lens of God.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what is true and right. Far from it. But, the image of God governs how I engage people on this and other challenging topics.
This brings me to the grace of God. How can I take on the posture of Jesus, who was able to graciously make people feel incredibly loved and valued, while saying, “Go and sin no more”? I try to remind myself that God died for His enemies, of which I was one.
My framework for engaging any difficult cultural issue is the image of God and the grace of God. This framework helps me engage appropriately.
Perhaps the most important facet of this conversation is tone. We must teach and model how to engage divisive conversations with the right tone.
I don’t know if your church is experiencing the same challenge that we are, but we are finding that cultural issues are tearing apart small groups. Arguments and debates about cultural topics lead to relational tension and fractured groups.
Something the Apostle Peter said in a letter to early Christians should guide our tone in difficult conversations.
“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)
Gentleness and respect capture a gracious tone. We have an incredible opportunity here because civility is pretty much gone from our society. As Jesus followers, we have an opportunity to demonstrate the way of Jesus and lead the way in our culture.
Something I have found to be incredibly helpful on a personal level is to engage in learning conversations with people who are different than me and hold different positions on cultural issues than I do.
In my opinion, we shouldn’t speak out on a cultural issue unless we have a relationship with someone holding the opposite perspective. Why? Because it’s difficult to maintain the image of grace and the grace of God perspective without a relationship. It just becomes “us” vs. “them.”
We found this practice to be particularly helpful for our congregation when the racial reconciliation conversation was forefront in our culture a few summers ago.
We filmed a few learning conversations between me and people of color in our church and community. I learned a ton, and it was a great opportunity to model how to engage in a learning conversation.
My point is that your people will follow your leadership. If you are modeling learning conversations, they will likely follow suit.
This is a challenging time to be a church leader. Our culture is more divided and antagonistic than ever and our people need help understanding how to follow Jesus through the minefield of cultural issues. We have a unique opportunity to provide guidance. Let’s lean into this opportunity.
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