This summer has been busy, but good. Between writings gigs, speaking opportunities, school stuff, and podcast conversations I have talked with some great people, read some fascinating books, and had hours of time to reflect.
I’ve had the privilege to work on some lighter topics such as self-development but I’ve also engaged with various authors and friends on topics that range from LGBTQ matters, the role of women in ministry, poverty and social justice, war, sex and relationships, traumatic loss, politics, vaccines, immigration, and the racial divisions in Canada and the US. It’s been heavy and some days overwhelming.
Part of this comes down to being a willing glutton for punishment. When I write or take on a project, I like to get involved. I want to hear directly from those most affected by these conversations – whether they be social workers, military leaders, women in leadership, counselors, and minority leaders in the south.
Unfortunately, because these conversations are controversial, they create a lot of splinters in relationships. This past year, it has not been uncommon for entire church congregations to experience 30-50% turnover as members leave and transition churches around one or more of these topics.
More than once, I have looked at this mess of division within the church and wonder what I can do to help. How can The Monday Christian play a small role in bringing people together? Social media can be discouraging. But through this all, I feel like there are some winds of change and I have found a whole new circle of friends committed to having the tough conversations. They aren’t committed to agreement, but they are willing to move through the discomfort and interact with those who think differently from themselves.
They have inspired me. And it is from this inspiration I offer a few tips of advice I have resolved to apply to my life.
9 Resolutions for Controversial Topics
1. I will show up for the conversation.
It’s intimidating when I speak with someone who thinks differently and challenges my beliefs. Sometimes, these conversations make me feel like my ego has taken a punch to the gut. But rather than retreat, I am committed to showing up for these conversations. I will continue to follow people on social media who make me feel uncomfortable. I will intentionally bring people into my life who challenge my viewpoint. I will bring people on the podcast who do not always share my ideology.
2. I will recognize my issue is not the only one that matters.
Every week, Dave and I bring on people who are “experts” on a certain topic. Almost all of them are terrific. But sometimes, we run into people who view their topic as the center of the universe. It is what they have built their entire ministry or organization around. Because they are knowledgeable in their field, they struggle with others who do not keep up and can be uncharitable to pastors and church leaders who fail to see their point of view.
3. I will do my homework before declaring my position.
Before I begin a writing project with a client, I always ask them to make a list of some of the similar books in their space. Sometimes they say, “Ezra, there are no other books on this topic! That’s why we need to write one!” And that’s when I smile and pull up Amazon. Usually, a quick search reveals several dozen books that are suspiciously similar in message.
In life, it’s easy to view ourselves as an authority on a subject when we have not done our homework. We KNOW our position on gender equality when we have done little to study non-strawman arguments for an opposing viewpoint.
4. I will make decisions in community.
This one is big. Several weeks ago, I spoke with a client who has pastored in white and black congregations. He mentioned that one of the challenges white Christians have is they tend to place a high emphasis on personal piety and less emphasis on community. It’s more individualistic and “personal devotions centered.” Black congregations tend to be different. They mourn when their community suffers loss and celebrate when those they love succeed. Community is part of their worship and it influences how they make decisions. It’s not about “me and God.” It’s about “us and God.”
5. I will show more than I tell.
Whenever I finish writing an article or chapter with a client, I like to run my writing through an editing software called Pro Writing Aid. Often, a message pops up that says, “Show, don’t tell.” Skilled writers do not need to say, “John was angry.” They show it through their character development. It’s why the movie series Band of Brothers is so powerful. Many of its greatest scenes were when few words were spoken. “All you need is a little bit of Mozart.” Thank you, Ron Livingston.
From my perspective, many of the weaker arguments I’ve seen on social media boil down to poor delivery. They might come from someone I like, but the argument is based on “telling.” They use a quick Tweet of sarcasm when they should have appealed to facts and story. This is why I love long-form podcasting.
6. I will weep with those who weep.
The interview Dave and I conducted with Mark Vroegop on Monday was powerful. Mark talks about the power of lament and mourning with those who are in pain. To be candid, this does not come naturally for me. Janan is a better empathizer than I am. But it’s something I work on. If someone I know is hurting, I want my first response to be empathy. The common thread that binds every controversial topic together is pain. Someone is experiencing hurt. Behind every news flash of Marines killed in Afghanistan is a grieving mother, with every Covid death is a family that hurts, and behind every black person killed is a community that mourns. In these moments, we must not allow our 30,000 ft. political viewpoints to cloud Jesus’ words in Matthew 5.
7. I will learn more than I teach.
Whenever our output exceeds our input, we fall into trouble. It’s the whole two ears one mouth philosophy. Whenever we engage someone who holds a position that counters our current understanding it’s always a good idea to start with listening. Hear their perspective. Even if you think you know what they’re about to say and can see the perilous illogical road they’re heading down, stop. Listen.
Listening, as Judah Smith points out, is doing more than waiting your chance to talk. It’s listening with the heart of a student and the desire to allow God to change your heart, soul, and mind through someone you might think is a poor messenger.
8. I will allow my positions to evolve.
My friend Phil Brown often points out his current understanding of Scripture is always subject to revision based on further understanding. I love this.
Sometimes I’ve heard pastors make statements like “The person you see standing on this stage today is the same person you will see in twenty years!” My internal response is, I sure hope not! In twenty years, I expect to think differently than I do today. I expect to look back and see points of immaturity, blindspots, and areas of pride I cannot see today. Sometimes this thought is discouraging, but then I come back to these comforting words in 1 Timothy 4.
“So that your progress may be evident to all.” This means that my growth and development as a person is an opportunity for others to see God at work in my life. This flips what I see as a negative into a tremendous positive. It’s not about me locking into a certain position and holding the fort for the rest of my life. It’s about getting as close to Jesus as I can and allowing his character to transform my behavior.
If through my change in position others think less of me and more of God’s goodness, that’s a win!
9. I will extend grace to those in leadership.
Being a pastor or ministry leader is tough. I think it’s natural for “everyday Christians” such as myself to take this for granted. It’s easy to think “Oh, they won’t miss me” if I transition to another church or offer the silent treatment.
But the truth is that any leader worth their salt cares deeply about the flock they lead. Like the shepherd who wonders about the one sheep that is missing, they care. If one of these topics has caused you to pull back from your church or avoid certain Christian leaders, do not assume your absence means nothing.
Leadership is tough and the global nature of our interactions makes it impossible for local ministry leaders to subscribe to every one of the topics we view important. So instead of casting judgment, offer grace. Don’t meditate on that one thing your leader does wrong. Focus on the dozens of ways they are doing what is right.
The Grocery Store Test
The wonder of the Christian life is that it calls us to an impossible love. When we feel the gap between our ability to extend grace and compassion to someone is too great, this is a sure sign we need to lean into the grace of God. It’s easy to love those with whom we agree. Jesus had something to say about this. But it’s a lot tougher to love those with whom we differ. This is where this impossible love points us to an impossible God.
Personally, I have adapted what I call the “Grocery Store” test. By this, I mean there is not one relationship in my life where I would intentionally avoid another person (abusive individuals being an exception). I’m not ducking into a cereal aisle or hiding behind the potatoes to keep out of eyesight. I’m not giving a friend the silent treatment because they didn’t see eye to eye with me on something “important.”
Yes, there are boundaries, but I see nowhere in Scripture where the love Christ gives us is off-limits for select people. I say this because sometimes I am shocked when I speak with a Christian who has a private shun list. “Oh, that person. Well, I don’t talk to them anymore because they believe in X.” Nothing about this is good.
Boundaries are great, but barriers are wrong.
If you struggle with some of these topics, such as I do, my challenge to you today is to think of one person with whom you disagree and take one step towards understanding. A kind text, a friendly phone call, an invitation to dinner. Do something to lean into the impossible grace of God. And as you do this, you might experience more than a restored relationship. It could be you experience a fresh taste of the love of God.
He has done so much. So let your grace for others be an extension of the grace He has offered to you.