How Can Christians Practice a Better Way of Having Conversations That Does Not Devolve into Suspicion and Attacks?

I have had awful times talking about justice with my family and friends who do not agree with my perspective. I love them, but my approach is not working. Any advice?

You are not alone. The conversations around many dinner tables, church fellowship spaces, and coffeehouses have turned into shouting matches and resulted in hurt feelings and further polarization about issues including immigration, poverty, the role of denominational ministries, and refugees. How can Christians practice a better way of having conversations that does not devolve into suspicion and attacks?

First, listen with empathy. It easy to argue our perspective as the right and righteous answer to any issue. But people are more than their arguments and opinions; they are human beings with emotions and experiences that matter to them. When we give undivided attention to perspectives that differ from our own, we practice Christian hospitality and choose to humanize people who hold those perspectives as image bearers of God. By listening empathically, we are willing to put ourselves into their shoes.

Next, be curious. Jesus was genuinely curious about people he met along the way. His curiosity about people’s lives made him ask questions instead of mounting debates. He asked questions of a Samaritan woman who had a tough time with relationships and religion. He asked questions of fearful Pharisees who defended their stature and position as Jewish experts. Asking questions reframes the conversation, shifting from the goal of winning and losing to understanding the other person’s life without judgment.

Finally, stay connected. It is difficult to remain connected to people who disagree with us. The current cultural context insists we walk away, find our own echo chambers, and demolish our opponents on social media. Our Lord has called us to a greater responsibility. Staying in relationship means finding other ways of connecting when debating is not going anywhere. Keep talking. Keep open lines of communication. Keep trying.

Above all, pray. Only the Lord can change people—including ourselves. Celebrate small, gradual agreement as signs of the Holy Spirit and further opportunities to work together against injustice.

About the Author

Reginald Smith is director of race relations and social justice for the Christian Reformed Church. He attends Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.

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Comments

Thanks for your thoughts and work Reggie. Let’s learn to treat people like people. If we would like to be listed to, rather than talked at, we should probably start listening in order to understand. 

I appreciate this reflection and agree with everything Reggie says in it. Listen with empathy and curiousity. Stay connected. Ask what we might learn even from those with whom we disagree. What a wonderful way for Christians to act.

One could wish that OSJ, the agency Reggie directs, followed that advice rather than deleting and permanently banning comments on the OSJ Facebook page from those who have expressed concerns about their positions.

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