Some Concrete, Practical Suggestions for Churches Wishing to Discuss Contentious Issues

The following Musing presents an adaptation of the highlights of chapter 8 on my “Let’s Talk” book, titled “Followers of Jesus Creating Inclusive Conversations Within Churches.”

What follows is informed by both my successes and colossal failures in my attempts for more than a decade to orchestrate loving and respectful conversations among persons who have strong disagreements about some contentious issues.

I will focus on possible conversations in Christian churches. My recommendations can be adapted to other organizations, Christian or otherwise.


Every church that I am familiar with has some type of mission statement that defines its purpose and ministry. Starting with such a statement, each church should critically examine itself to identify the main obstacles that hinder the full accomplishment of that mission. They should also seek to identify anything hindering full expression of a strong view of the Christian values of acceptance (viewing all members as belonging because they are beloved by God) and peace (collective flourishing).

After this initial stage of self-examination, each church should identify the issues that have emerged about which there is significant disagreement among members, placing these issues in priority order. The church should then start with the top priority issue. What follows are four recommendations on how to then proceed 


It is unwise to initiate a conversation about a contentious issue by inviting all members of a relatively large church to participate in a church-wide conversation.

There are two reasons why this is a bad place to start. First, a large-group conversation is not conducive to building the personal relationships of mutual understanding and trust that are foundational for eventually laying bare and sorting through disagreements.

Secondly, an open invitation to all members of a relatively large church may lead to an unbalanced cohort of those who accept the invitation that does not reflect the diversity in belief about the issue at hand that may exist within the church membership. If this happens, the ensuing conversation can deteriorate into an echo chamber where most attendees are exposed only to beliefs they already hold.


An appropriate leader in the church who knows its members well should identify two other community members to be co-planners. These should be members who are known to have significant disagreements about the issue at hand but who also have exemplified that rare combination of commitment and openness that is an indispensable pre-condition for having a respectful conversation.

Each of these two co-planners should first recruit an appropriate number of other church members who they know generally share their respective beliefs about the issue at hand and who also have exemplified the requisite combination of commitment and openness. (For example, for a small group of eight conversation partners, each collaborator should recruit three other conversation partners).

There are two indispensable requirements when recruiting conversation partners. First, each of the co-planners should be sure to include members of the church whose lives are most affected by the issue at hand (e.g., a conversation about human sexuality should include gay Christians and a conversation about immigration should include immigrants, both documented and undocumented).

A second requirement when recruiting conversation partners is that the group should include persons who have proven expertise relative to the issue to be discussed. For example, a conversation about human sexuality should include persons who are conversant with the findings of scholars in various academic disciplines regarding same-sex attraction and sexual orientation. If the church has no such members, someone outside of the church membership should be invited to present such findings.

After recruiting conversation partners, the co-planners should choose a moderator for the upcoming small-group conversation, preferably a member of the given church. One criterion for selecting this moderator should be that while he or she may have particular set of beliefs about the issue at hand, he or she is willing to hold those beliefs in abeyance during the conversation. He or she must take care to provide a safe and welcoming space for all points of view to gain a respectful hearing on an even playing field. Another criterion is that the moderator must be a good listener who has proven skills for being able to create safe and welcoming spaces for those who have strong disagreements to express and talk respectfully about those disagreements.

But it is legitimate to now ask how the results of just one such small group conversation will have a significant impact on a large Christian organization. My recommendation is that the initial small group conversation be replicated in additional small groups within the large organization.


The purpose of the conversation should NOT be to win an argument. Such an unworkable purpose will only serve to reinforce the rampant, tribalistic us-versus them mentality that thrives on peddling fear and demeaning and demonizing those who disagree with you.

Rather, all conversation partners must agree up-front on the following statement of purpose for the conversation: To understand the positions taken by all participants and the reasons given for holding those positions toward the goal of uncovering some common ground.

After stipulating the purpose of the conversation, the moderator should stipulate that throughout the subsequent conversation, each conversation partner will be expected to abide by the following “Guidelines for Respectful Conversation.”

  • I will try to listen well, providing each person with a welcoming space to express her perspective on the issue at hand.
  • I will seek to empathetically understand the reasons another person has for her perspective.
  • I will express my perspective and my reasons for holding that perspective with clarity and I conviction, but with a non-coercive style that invites conversation with a person who disagrees with me.
  • In my conversation with a person who disagrees with me, I will explore whether we can find some common ground by critically examining my own view in light of her contrary view and the reasons she has for her view.
  • Guided by the underlying values of humility, courage, patience, and love, when we cannot find common ground, I will always engage the person who disagrees with me in a way that demonstrates respect and concern for her well-being and does not foreclose the possibility of future conversations.

Note carefully that the fourth guideline above requires going beyond politeness. In some of my early ventures into orchestrating respectful conversations, I only asked for politeness by requesting that each conversation partner not interrupt another participant when she was talking. All my participants complied with my request. But I had the distinct impression that as a given participant was politely not interrupting, she was mostly thinking about what she would say when it was her turn to speak. In sharp contrast to such “soft listening,” the fourth guideline above requires “strong listening,” wherein each participant “critically examines” her views in light of what she hears the other participant to be saying. The result of such critical examination could actually lead to strengthening one’s own views. But it could also lead to refining or correcting one’s views.


My experiences, both good and bad, in trying to orchestrate conversations among Christians having strong disagreements suggests that it is a big mistake to prematurely jump into laying bare the disagreements. A better strategy has been suggested by Richard Mouw, President Emeritus of Fuller Theological in Pasadena.

Mouw reports that he used to start a conversation with a person who disagreed with him by blurting out “you are wrong.” This only led to defensiveness, with the other person likely saying “one of us is indeed wrong, but it isn’t me.”

Mouw learned the hard way that a better starting point was to say the following to the other person: “Help me to understand what it is you believe about the contentious issue before us, and the reasons you have for holding to your beliefs.”

In my words, Mouw was creating a safe and welcoming space for the other person to speak his/her mind.

Imagine the strong possibility that this opening statement from Mouw would lead the other person to think: “Wow! Richard gave me a safe and welcoming space to present my beliefs and my reasons for my beliefs. Maybe I should reciprocate by providing Richard with such a safe and welcoming space.”

If you focus in your second session together on attaining such reciprocity, you will have laid the foundation of mutual trust and understanding that will enable your third session together, and all subsequent sessions, to make significant progress toward the goal of uncovering some common ground.


It is my hope and prayer that numerous Christian churches will seriously consider my presentations in this series of eleven Musings toward the overarching goal of modeling a “Christian way” to lovingly and respectfully engage those who have strong disagreements about some contemporary contentious issues.

Readers interested in the content of actual respectful conversations that I have hosted as electronic conversations (eCircles) on this website can find these conversations on this site . In addition, if one clicks onto the “Published Books” menu item under the “publications” icon at the top of my Home Page, one will access information regarding some of the books I have previously published that are closely related to the substance of these eleven musings, including links to Amazon for those interested in purchasing one or more of these books. The most notable books are a 2016 memoir titled Learning To Listen, Ready to Talk: A Pilgrimage Toward Peacemaking, and the following  books that present a coherent synthesis of two of the  eCircles I have hosted: Reforming American Politics: A Christian Perspective on Moving Past Conflict to Conversation, and Respectful LGBT Conversations: Seeking Truth, Giving Love, and Modeling Christian Unity.


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