My Dream for a New Respectful Conversation Beginning at my Church

After eight years of splendid ministry at the church I attend, American Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa, our co-pastors, Mike and Elizabeth Hardeman, resigned to accept a call at another RCA church in Pella, Iowa. Verlyn Boone was then appointed as a transitional pastor, charged with the task of shepherding our congregation toward the appointment of a new pastor or pastoral team. To inform that search, Verlyn asked members of our congregation to envision “new beginnings” at our church. What follows is my dream for a new beginning, which I shared with the congregation on October 1, 2023

Pastor Verlyn has encouraged members of our church to envision possible “new beginnings” for our congregation. I have a really big dream for one such new beginning; a dream that some would say is impossible to realize.

My dream is that all of us at our church learn how to disagree lovingly and respectfully about our strong disagreements about some contentious issues, such as political affiliation and same-sex marriage; two issues about which I know we have some strong disagreements.

A major obstacle to the realization of my dream is to think that the purpose of talking to someone who disagrees with you is to WIN AN ARGUMENT. 

That is all wrong because it immediately leads to combat; a verbal fight, guided by the false idea that for me to win, you have to lose.

In stark contrast, the best starting point is to is to acknowledge that we all believe we have good reasons for our beliefs about a contentious issue; reasons that generally reflect our personal experiences; our “personal life stories.” 

Therefore, the purpose of talking to someone who disagrees with you should be to understand the contrary position taken by the other person and the reasons he/she has for holding to that position, as a starting point for seeking some common ground. 

So, rather than prematurely deciding that the other person is “all wrong,” you should be willing to carefully listen. A good way to do that is to start with the following question:

John (or Mary), please help me to understand your position on this issue, and the reasons you have for your position.

The key word here is “understand” because a major shortcoming in our current polarized culture is lack of understanding of the other, which is aggravated by an almost complete absence of interest in understanding the other.

If you dare to ask that initial question, you may well find that the other person will return your gracious invitation, thinking something like “WOW! Harold really wants to understand my position and my reasons for holding my position. I should seek to better understand Harold’s position and his reasons for holding to his position.” You have then together taken the first step toward finding some common ground. This may be a marvelous example of the teaching in Proverbs 15:1 that “A soft answer turns away wrath,” but “A harsh word stirs up anger.” 

Starting with that shared commitment to adequately understanding the opposing point of view is a Christian way of engaging someone who disagrees with you because God has called all his followers to love others and to give a person a SAFE AND WELCOMING SPACE to disagree with you is a deep expression of love.


2 replies
  1. David Thom
    David Thom says:

    Harold, I love you and your vision. Question: what do you do when the destination is thought to be more important than the journey? (A decision about who is right vs withholding a final decision.) Do we come out and TELL “the destination people” that “Maturity is in experiencing one’s journey and respecting the journey of others?” Or do we keep that to ourselves? It’ll be said that you have to land the bird one day. But do you really? Isn’t it possible to be a congregation with multiple views on the negotiable issues? Thing is some think some issues are non-negotiable. I’d say let the two churches live together or split. The truth is it’ll be like two churches under one roof. But so what? Be open & honest about it in love, rather than hide it and snarl.

    • Harold Heie
      Harold Heie says:

      Hello Dave:
      Thank you for your thoughtful response to my Musing and for your good questions. Here is my response.
      When two persons have a strong disagreement about a contentious issue, both the “destination” and the “journey” toward that destination are important. But the desired “destination” should not be to “win an argument.” Rather the destination should be to arrive at some common ground as to a more full-orbed understanding of the truth about the issue that incorporates the partial glimpses of that truth held by each person; each glimpse being “partial” because each person’s glimpse reflects the unique set of experiences that comprise a unique “life-story.”
      But to eventually arrive at this destination, it is necessary for the two persons to talk lovingly and respectfully with each other about their disagreement; starting with a mutual attempt to adequately understand the position the other person is taking and the reasons he/she has for holding to that position (my suggestion for how to start such a conversation). Therefore, to answer one of your questions, we do need to tell the “destination people” that, as you put it so well, “Maturity is in experiencing one’s journey AND respecting the journey of others.” It is both/and, not either/or.
      Let me now respond to your second question about whether “it is possible to be a congregation with multiple views on the negotiable issues?” Yes, that is certainly possible (even highly likely) and needs to be navigated well. I believe that the key to such good navigation is to avoid the common error of equating “having a weak argument” with being a “weak Christian.” Let me explain, drawing on some of the results (both the beautiful and the ugly) of my previous attempts to orchestrate loving and respectful conversations about contentious issues.
      In some of the conversations I have orchestrated, I have concluded that an argument presented by one of the conversation partners s very weak on “substance.” But when I was willing to carefully listen to the reasons they had for their beliefs about the issue, it became obvious to me that they were “deeply committed Christians” (not “weak Christians”).
      Therefore, I can envision numerous congregations that appear to be “two churches under one roof,” but are actually beautiful exemplifications of a body of brothers and sisters in Christ who deeply love one another in the midst of significant disagreements about some contentious issues. At least that is my hope and prayer.
      With thanks for your friendship and your own exemplary work orchestrating loving and respectful conversations among persons having strong disagreements, Harold


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