God at Church: Seven Gifts of a Good Conversation

In an earlier post, I noted seven unique gifts that can be given to your co-workers as you seek to create conversations that can safely explore religious questions. One of the primary reasons that I wrote the post was that the American workplace is largely secularized, and it requires a bit of thoughtful care to cultivate conversations about God that are safe.

Yet the workplace isn’t the only context in which safe and healthy conversations should take place. In a very important sense, the church should be safe as well – even in the midst of disagreement. In my own experience, good conversations in the church don’t simply happen by accident. They require deliberate patience and care. Following is a list of seven gifts that you can give to other Christians – even in the midst of disagreement.

Give them the gift of knowing their travels:

This involves knowing the life of your fellow believer well enough, that you’re aware how far they travelled to be here today. It’s quite easy to lament that our brother or sister is not yet cruising around in a theological Ferrari; yet if we discovered that our brother or sister had started their life with God by riding a theological skateboard, we might more readily delight, that by God’s grace, they’re already rolling around in a theological Civic. Who wants to shame someone who hasn’t fully digested a TULIP (a flower that I actually enjoy), only to discover that their entire family had abandoned them when they came to Christ?

Give them the gift of freedom from contempt:

One of the principle ways that this gift can be given is by simply being aware of how you talk about those whose theological views differ from your own. Do you take time to note the good things that they believe – or perhaps the good longings that might be inherent in an otherwise mistaken position? Have you represented their position with care? Do you take the time to long for their good without being condescending or patronizing?

When you give the freedom from contempt, what you are really saying is, “Even though I might deeply disagree with you, I still welcome you as a person, and believe that you still possess good, God-given longings that I value and respect.”

When this gift is continually missing in the conversations of the church, those who aren’t even familiar with your theological values can often sense that they are welcome in your community only to the extent that they know and embrace X position.

For example, notice how Rosaria Butterfield narrates one of her visits to a new church. As you are reading this, keep in mind that she had just left Syracuse University and her tenured professorship (where she bore courageous witness to the gospel) in order to more faithfully serve Christ:

“The new academic year was about to begin, and all the before-church-service-buzz was Geneva College Shop Talk. People re-hashed the humanities curriculum, building plan, lack of raises, concerns with the administration’s handling of this and of that. The sharp edge of the conversation was different than I had expected. Because we are such a small denomination, I expected that we all got along! Silly me! The talk here was local, personal, and sometimes conspiratorial: the conservatives have taken over the seminary! The Truly Reformed were alienating Christians from other denominations! Some presbytery thought that it owned the college and was trying to impose adherence to a literal 24-hour-six-day creation standard that violated the academic freedom of both Reformed and non-Reformed faculty! I had been on faculty, as a graduate student, non-tenured professor, and tenured professor for over a decade and I had never heard faculty talk like this. I could not have been more confused if these folks started talking Telugu. I felt a slow panic bleed through me. I knew how to be a professor. I knew (barely) how to be a Christian. But if understanding the lingua franca buzzing around me was necessary to function here as a Christian professor, then I was dead in the water.”[1]

In speaking about this gift of freedom from contempt, please don’t respond by suppressing thoughtful and passionate engagement with your fellow believers! In giving this gift, we are not seeking to suppress disagreement or dissent, but to express charity in the midst of dissent.

Give them the gift of patient listening:

One of the great benefits of patiently listening to one another is that in carefully listening, you’ll get a better sense of where they’re coming from. John Stott captured this gift well when he said:

“When we stay apart, and our only contact is to lob hand grenades at one another across a demilitarized zone, a caricature of one’s ‘opponent’ develops in one’s mind, complete with horns, hooves and tail! But when we meet, and sit together, and begin to listen, not only does it become evident that our opponents are not after all demons, but actually normal human beings, and even sisters and brothers in Christ, the possibility of mutual understanding and respect grows. More than this: when we listen not only to what others are saying, but to what lies behind what they are saying, and in particular what it is they are so anxious to safeguard, we often find that we want to safeguard the same thing ourselves. I am not claiming that this discipline is easy. Far from it. Listening with patient integrity to both sides of an argument can cause acute mental pain. For it involves the interiorizing of the debate until one not only grasps but feels the strength of both positions.[2] [italics mine]

Give them the gift of the God’s sufficiency in the past, present, and future

In giving someone else a gift of the past, you are taking the time to locate and state the good things that God has done in the history of the one with whom you disagree. This can be done by identifying an area of shared concern that you have with them while commending them for believing or doing something that is genuinely good. Paul does something similar to this in 1 Corinthians. Before Paul even begins to confront the Corinthian believers over their divisions (1:10-17; 3:1-9), or distorted views of knowledge (2:1-5), he locates and states the good things that God had already been doing in their past:

4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 1 Cor. 1:4-6

The gift of the present can be expressed in a number of ways. First, like the gift of the past, you can take the time to locate and state what God is doing in the life of your fellow believer right now. Again, Paul does this in 1 Cor. 1:7 when he says to the Corinthians that: “…you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

The second way that you can give the gift of the present is by simply being personally present with your fellow believer right now. Sometimes God expresses his own sufficiency through the willingness of his people to be present with one another – even in the midst of real and deep disagreement.

Finally, the gift of the future can be given by expressing your confidence in the good promises that God has given regarding the future of his people. In 1 Cor. 1:8–9, Paul completes this gift of the past, present, and future when he says that God “…will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s important to stress that in giving the gift of the future, you’re not simply making up a future that God has never promised to provide. Rather, you are encouraging your fellow believer with the different ways that God has already committed to provide for the future of his people.

Catching our breath with the gift of blunt

It’s important to note at this point, that when the truth of the Gospel is being undermined or jeopardized, Paul is a bit more straightforward and unapologetically blunt (Gal. 1:6-10; 2:11-14). This passion for the purity of the Gospel is also a real gift – even if it is blunt. Prayerful reflection and wisdom will help you discern which approach is appropriate; and a refusal to unnecessarily exaggerate the implications of your opponents position(s) will make your contending for the truth of the Gospel far more credible.

Give them freedom from shame

When you give a fellow believer freedom from shame you are creating the relational space that is necessary for them to grow and change without being badgered or shamed. One of the greatest dignities that you can extend to a fellow believer with whom you disagree is to patiently travel with them through the process of growth without seeking to shame them for their failure.

Shame can be generated in a number of ways. One of the (often unnoticed) ways that you can subtly shame a fellow believer is by refusing to re-entrust them with a sphere of service in which they have previously failed. This can happen in a number of spoken or unspoken ways. For example: “You know what? The class that Jim taught was pretty boring. Let’s not invite him to teach that class again.” Or, better yet (in your own mind) “Dude, that class was boring. Next time Jim teaches that class, I’m either not going to show up or I’ll just check out.” Each of these responses to the failures of another is a way of refusing to offer the gift of freedom from shame.

Give them the gift of time

Because theological realities are so thoroughly interconnected, it can take a while for a person to sort through the various ways in which any given theological change will affect the rest of their lives. Consequently, giving someone the time to digest the implications of the change can be a genuine blessing.

Additional Resources:

“God in the Dark: Receiving & Reflecting the Goodness of God in the Midst of Conflict” Genesis 3:1-15 – Sermon by Hans Stout (MP3 download)

The Blogs, The Battles, and The Gospel” by Tim Challies (An excellent article on gospel polemics)

______________________________________________________________

[1] Butterfield, Rosaria (2012-09-06). The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Kindle Locations 1388-1397). Crown & Covenant Publications. Kindle Edition.

[2] John Stott, The Contemporary Christian: Applying God’s Word to Today’s World (Downers Grove, IL: Inner Varsity Press, 1992),108-109.

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About pastoralpensees

I have been happily married to my wife since 2000 and have two young sons. In 2012, I graduated from Covenant Theological Seminary with an MDiv,, and I would like to engage in pastoral ministry in a local church.
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