How Church Talk Turns Toxic

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Istock _000019735460smallSit down. Shut up. Listen.
Agree or leave.

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Sadly, that’s the message many take away from church. And,
sadly, they leave. And they don’t return.

And too often, what’s left is an ethos of intimidation or
“timidation”-the fear to talk about the touchy, but important,
stuff of life and faith.

In our book, 
Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore
, we advocate “fearless
conversation”-an openness to dialog and a willingness to tackle
tough topics. We suggest, to fuel participation and spiritual
growth, that churches replace some one-way lecture time with actual
two-way conversation, and be courageous enough to encourage
differing viewpoints. Some church leaders have resonated with our
suggestions. But others have pushed back.

Here’s a typical comment: “The challenge is that the more
controversial (fearless) the conversation becomes the greater the
possibility that someone won’t like an expressed opinion. We’ve had
people leave in the middle of the hour and tell the pastor later
that it was a horrible experience for them. They felt that people
who were in disagreement couldn’t possibly love each other. Or they
simply couldn’t tolerate listening to ideas with which they
disagreed.”

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That’s an unhealthy environment. But it’s fixable. Let me
suggest a couple of ways.

Construct a safe climate. After spending
the last several years tackling tough life topics at
Lifetree Cafes
 across the country, we’ve learned  to
be intentional about welcoming differences. We announce before and
during discussions that “your thoughts are welcome; your doubts are
welcome.” We inform people that we can differ in our viewpoints
while we maintain respect and love for one another.

We live in an age of sharp political division and rude talk-show
brawling. So, we need to explain that people, especially people
gathered around God, can exchange views without exchanging blows.
This is the opportunity to intentionally practice the fruit of the
spirit. Let’s show the world how love, joy,
peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness and self-control can build a healthy Body.

Start on the inside. By this, I mean
within the staff. I’ve seen way too many churches that struggle to
be healthy-because their staff relations are unhealthy. If the
staff environment reeks of intimidation or “timidation,” there’s
little hope that members will sense a safe climate.

Unfortunately, most theological schools spend little time
training their students how to lead people, how to build teams, how
to encourage healthy participation, how to relate directly and
tactfully, and how to navigate conflict. So, many of today’s church
leaders create toxic staff environments. If staff people do not
engage in healthy “fearless conversation” among themselves, it’s
not likely to happen among the members.

The essential ingredient for fearless conversation is, quite
simply, love. Love for one another. This kind of love, exhibited
even when we disagree, is what Jesus called us to pursue: “Love
each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.
 Your love for one another will prove to the world that you
are my disciples.”

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About Author

Thom Schultz

Thom Schultz is an eclectic author and the founder of Group Publishing and Lifetree Café. Holy Soup offers innovative approaches to ministry, and challenges the status quo of today’s church.

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