What if we grow more divided?

By Scott Hughes

“But what if we hold a Courageous Conversations event and we grow more divided?” This is a common fear I hear from church members about their hesitation to hold a Courageous Conversation-styled event. They fear the possibility of creating further division within their church. While my first instinct is often to dismiss this response, I have to acknowledge that further division is a possibility. If a church holds the conversation without prayer and proper planning, it could result in highlighting and furthering division within the congregation. People are tired of the partisanship and division that exists in our culture. The thought of their worshiping community being further divided feels like an invasion of sacred and safe space. Not to mention, if the conversations look or feel like anything we observe in places like television news, then, yes, we should all go into such conversations with fear and trembling.

However, I do not believe the fear of creating further division within the church should hinder us from having the courage to hold important and difficult conversations. If this fear is keeping your church from engaging in a Courageous Conversation-styled event, consider the following ways to temper the fears and to motivate attendance.

The first way to assuage the fears is to name them. If your congregation is willing to hold a Courageous Conversation-styled event, don’t be afraid to name the fears that exist in the community. Name the fears and explain that the planning group or design team is strategically planning for the conversation. That group will take steps to ensure that proper guidelines and other measures (such as having trained facilitators) will be in place so that conversations will be about learning from one another and will not turn into shouting matches. Taking the time and effort of having a planning team gives the conversation more credibility by showing that intention and thoughtfulness have been put into the event. This should allay much of the fear that the event will cause further rifts in the community.

An additional strategy is to acknowledge that division already exists. Each and every Sunday, worshiping communities celebrate God’s presence, remember their story, and are called into mission together despite disagreeing on a number of social issues: gun control, abortion, gambling, climate change, and more. Rarely do our differences on these issues cause major rifts. As Henry Knight and Don Saliers point out in their book, The Conversation Matters: Why Methodists Should Talk with One Another, “To deny the necessity of speaking about Christian doctrine because the very conversation is divisive is like the denying of marital problems” (17). We disagree on a range of issues currently. That’s not a new reality for the people of God. It was true in the apostle Paul’s day, and it is true today. We are held together by our baptismal vows and doctrinal beliefs, and that should give us ground to disagree, even as we learn to love one another through our disagreements. Again, as Knight and Saliers observe, “It is not only that these doctrinal conflicts will not simply disappear if ignored, but that the ongoing discussion of doctrine is vital to faithful discipleship, Christian maturity, and integrity in mission” (13).

The final strategy that I have highlighted elsewhere is to focus the event’s purpose on learning. When learning is the goal, adults are more likely to be motivated to attend with proper expectations. When they know the goals and expectations, adults are more willing to try something, even if they are not completely invested in it. My experience with Courageous Conversations has taught me that once adults have learned the skills of listening and taking a posture of curiosity, participating in events where everyone agrees is anticlimactic. These groups end up wishing more people with different perspectives had attended. Courageous Conversation-styled events are more enriching to the participants when people of various perspectives participate because growth occurs in perspective and in empathy and compassion.

It is my hope that the strategies outlined here and in other articles and blogs on the Courageous Conversations website will inspire your congregation to be courageous enough to hold conversations that will result in more faithful discipleship.

Questions for Reflection:

What other fears does your congregation have regarding Courageous Conversation-styled events?

What would be gained by holding a Courageous Conversation-styled event before the Special Called General Conference in 2019?

Tools for Courageous Conversations:

Courageous Conversations Website

The Commission on a Way Forward Website