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Posts Tagged ‘born-again’

Reflections on the Dialogue: LGBTQ Issues and the Christian Church

Hello, my friends. It’s so nice to be back with you.

A few weeks ago, I told you about an upcoming dialogue to which I’d been invited—a conversation with a dozen evangelical Christians about LGBTQ issues and the Church. As you may know, the words evangelical, LGBTQ, and dialogue do not often appear together in the public square, so this gathering promised to be extraordinary.

It was all that, and then some.

I don’t think I can describe it any better than I have in this Huffington Post piece on the dialogue. The article includes some questions that the dialogue raised in my mind: new (to me) possibilities about the way we might think about not only LGBTQ issues, but the future of the Church itself. The comments on the article, on the whole, have been more thoughtful than one sometimes sees online, so you may want to check them out—and add your response. I’d love to hear your thoughts, there or here.

Between the Girlfriend and the Quakers

When I was in high school, I dated a young woman who had big plans for my future. At one point she sensed that God was calling me to be a great evangelist; at another time, a pastor of my own church. She somehow saw in me the raw material for the “godly man” she wanted to marry.

Looking back, I wonder if she ever really knew me. (It wasn’t her fault: I didn’t know me back then either.)

During one of our many phone calls, we fell to talking about some situation that flew right in the face of my limitations. I just couldn’t find my way through the obstacle at hand. She would have none of it. Instead, she quoted to me—loudly—St. Paul’s observation to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

“I don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m more complex than you think—“

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” she boomed.

There’s that talking at again.

In my own rudimentary way, I was in the same space as the people from last week’s post. By saying “I’m more complex than you think,” I was trying to speak from my own perspective, my own experience.

But Girlfriend was speaking at. She was presuming to know my capabilities better than I did. That might have been valid if she’d spoken from a deep knowledge of me. But she didn’t. Instead, she spoke from an external standard, applying it in a way that it was probably never meant to be applied.

Contrast Girlfriend’s approach with a practice from the Quakers. For hundreds of years, they have used a method called the Clearness Committee to discern the voice of their “inner teacher” in the face of life transitions and quandaries. A person assembles five or six trusted people to hear her story and ask her honest, open questions, with no hint of leading or giving advice. The goal is to clear away the person’s mental clutter and thus allow her to hear the inner voice that will guide her toward a resolution.

Totally opposite from talking at. It even goes beyond talking with. It’s listening with. If we aim to dialogue with our “adversaries,” we would do well to listen with—entering their mindsets, thinking as they think, and asking respectful questions. 

When was the last time you were talked at? Have you ever responded well to it? How’d you manage that? When was the last time you were talked with? How was it? Share your experiences in the Comments section below.

Why Sign THIS Civility Pledge?

Do you have “channel markers” in your life? I’m referring to those people whose deep insights and good example command your attention. Wherever you are in life, you keep half an eye on them (as you would a channel marker when you’re sailing) to see what they’re thinking, writing, or doing. A glance at their words and actions helps you chart a straight course.  

Jim Wallis of Sojourners is one of my channel markers. He’s a born-again Christian with a deep concern for peace and justice issues—so he confounds the conventional wisdom that religious always means conservative (and that liberal always means godless). His prolific writing has found expression in three books, a popular daily blog, and the magazine where he serves as editor-in-chief.

Yesterday, he asked me to sign a civility pledge.

Not just me, of course, but anyone and everyone. Like me (and probably you, since you’re reading this), Wallis is deeply concerned about the climate of polarization that pervades U.S. culture. Like me, he believes people of faith have a unique role to play in nudging us toward dialogue. So he’s asking said people of faith to sign his Covenant of Civility as a critical step.

I’m skeptical of pledge signing in general: it’s too easy to pledge and too hard to deliver. (Think New Year’s resolutions.) But this may be different. According to the site, “church leaders from diverse theological and political beliefs” have already signed on. Just as important, Jim Wallis is a “channel marker” for a wide swath of the faith community—including, I believe, people in very high places—so anything he produces has more clout than the average effort.

Civility, as I’ve mentioned before, is only the first step, a precondition for the dialogue that draws us close to one another across all manner of divides. But it is an absolutely necessary first step, because you can’t talk—or, more important, listen—until you’ve stopped shouting. I encourage you to visit the site and sign the pledge.

Paying Attention to the Dissonant Voice

Here’s the sort of thing that gets my attention: 

You see the common thread here? All these statements strike a dissonant chord. They make us think, “How can those people take that position when they also believe this?”

I find these voices terribly important.

To understand why, first consider the voices we usually hear. Spend any time with the news media, and you’ll find yourself hearing, on any given issue, the same things from the same people—over and over and over. If a news segment covers abortion, for instance, it will most likely feature a pro-choice advocate touting a “woman’s right to choose” and a pro-lifer promoting “the rights of the unborn.”

Now the positions behind those sound bites may have merit. But the endless repetition of the same catchphrases by the same people obscures whatever nuance these positions may have. “Of course he’d say that,” we think. “He’s a [insert political party or special interest group here].”

But then someone zags when we expect her to zig. Or she holds two positions that we’ve been led to believe are contradictory. There’s your dissonant voice.

These are important, I think, for two reasons. First, when people express a belief contrary to their historical position or perceived self-interest, it implies that they find the belief itself compelling. I don’t think it’s a slam-dunk that a hospital CEO would support a single-payer system. So when James Barba of Albany Medical Center does, it’s an opportunity for us to see single-payer differently. If he’s for it, the thinking goes, maybe it’s worth another look.

Second, these dissonant voices can explode our stereotypes. Over the years, I’ve been guilty of painting the born-again Christian community with too broad a brush. Like many people, I could see them as uniformly literalist, creationist, and overly focused on abortion and gay marriage. So when a priest’s wife touts the beauty of evolution as the means of God’s creation, or I see born-agains advocating for the environment and social justice, it forces me to rethink my image. More accurately, it forces me to discard the image—and listen to each unique person with his own unique voice.

Dissonant voices can point out areas of truth. Dissonant voices can help us see our “opponents” more clearly—and thus treat them more respectfully. See how many of these voices you can hear in the public square.

Q&A: Jeffrey Johnson on Evangelism

Our guest is here, and he’s talking evangelism—or, rather, an entirely new and refreshing take on evangelism. (Why are we talking evangelism here? See my last post for background.)

Jeffrey Johnson has written Got Style? Personality-based Evangelism to help Christians share their faith in a way that fits the way they’re wired. The book moves readers away from the one-size-fits-all, passing-out-tracts version of Christian outreach into something that, in some versions, feels very much like dialogue. For this post, he answered a few of my questions, and I present excerpts from his answers below.

Before we get started, a few definitions. Johnson lays out six basic personality styles, and he refers to some of them in our interview. To vastly oversimplify, Assertive refers to the usual stereotype of an evangelist: a direct, verbal salesperson/preacher. Relational, as the name implies, is oriented toward relationships; the evangelizer is more of a counselor or teacher by nature. Incarnational focuses on sharing the gospel (“Good News”) by serving others.

OK. Enough preliminaries. Here we go:

Many outside the Christian faith take offense at traditional evangelism: they see it as an attempt to impose one’s beliefs on others. What would you say to put these people at ease with your approach?

From the outset, evangelism is not about convicting, convincing, or converting the non-Christian. That is the work of God in a person’s heart and mind. As Christians, we ought to share the Good News with passion and purpose, but not with manipulation or maneuvering. Moreover, if evangelism is not done in complement to one’s personality, it is at least forced and at worst faked—often done out of guilt and not love for God or the individual. My book presents personality styles with which people normally engage the world and suggests how they can use these styles to share their faith with that one and the same world, as Christ’s final words directed us to do.

Only a very small percentage (2-3%) of people are wired to “evangelize” using what you call “traditional evangelism”—large-scale crusades, door-to-door calling, street preaching, tract distribution, etc.—and to be honest they are statistically the least effective. The vast majority of people are dominant in Relational and Incarnational styles; they seek first and foremost a genuine relationship with the other person (because that is how they engage the world) before trying to introduce them to a personal relationship with Christ. In the Incarnational style, evangelism will occur over an extended period of time where both respect and rapport are established, so what is shared by the evangelizer is easily received by the evangelized because of the authenticity of the relationship and the knowledge that one only seeks the best for the other.

Let’s dwell on that for a moment. In your book, you say that while many Christians are best suited to evangelize by befriending or serving others, ultimately this should lead to sharing the faith verbally. Those being evangelized, however, sometimes perceive this as an ulterior motive and feel “used.” How does the Got Style? framework circumvent this to create a genuine engagement with the other person?

Before we can really expect people to listen to the Inspired Word, we must validate their Inherent Worth. Even if a person rejects what I have to say, that does not diminish the blessing they can be to me or I can be to them, just as friends. Spending time with people, regardless of the outcomes, should never be viewed as a waste of time. Never. Jesus hung out with people who chose not to follow Him. Christmas is literally about Jesus showing up to spend time with us. He had a reason for coming here—to establish a relationship with us so in turn we might have a relationship with Him. That’s not an ulterior motive; it is the ultimate motive.

To what extent does the Got Style? framework allow evangelism to become a genuinely two-way street, in which each person can share her beliefs, respond in a sensitive manner, and learn from the other’s perspective? To what extent does the evangelizer’s ultimate goal of sharing the gospel allow for this “two-way” perspective?

Got Style? helps people see their own style and better understand other people’s styles, so truly it is not about one-way communication. For the vast majority of people in the Relational, Incarnational, and similar styles, conversations are rooted more in free-flowing, back-and-forth relating of personal experiences than in predetermined scripts. Evangelism occurs over time and with the involvement of multiple people. Therefore it is not a strategy of show up and speak up, but rather show up and listen. The focus is on others, and off of me.

Let’s say, after numerous discussions to get to know the other person, the evangelizer realizes that his friend’s relationship with God might blossom in a Catholic church or Quaker meeting. What would you advise the person to do?

It needs to be understood that evangelism does not seek to introduce a person to a particular expression of the Christian Faith, but rather to Christ Himself. Therefore, once a person has been introduced to Christ and they make a faith commitment, the determination must be made as to where and how to best mature them in their newfound faith, which using your examples could be liturgical and formal or contemplative and informal, or really any expression between those two.

Like so many groups, born-again Christians are often misunderstood and stereotyped. What would you like people to know about born-again Christians that they don’t know now? What stereotypes would you like to clear up?

I think the stereotypes you mention apply to those categorized as Assertives, those who are out there on the fringe, partly because of their outspokenness. Remember, the early church was birthed through the means of the Assertive style, but by midway in the Book of Acts, the style changes dramatically from proclamation to presence evangelism. Paul would put down stakes and stay in a town for an extended period of time, even working a secular job so he could mix and mingle with people outside the Christian faith on their turf and in their terms.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with likely readers of The Dialogue Venture blog?

Personality is very personal. For each of us, it is unique. It defines who we are and directs how we interact with others. Yet people are saying they haven’t found a way to do evangelism naturally, as a part of how they are “wired.” Because evangelism has become associated with something unnatural or forced, it feels “bad.” I never understood why sharing something so good made so many feel so bad—until I realized most people are doing evangelism in a way contrary to the way God made them. We are called to do evangelism out of grace, not guilt. It can be enjoyable, not just an endurable, experience.

Dialogue vs. What We Think We Know

When the born-again pastor’s wife said she might be OK with evolution, I could feel my eyes widen.

Here’s why. Born-again Christians—sometimes called evangelicals, the Religious Right, etc.—take the Bible literally. As one bumper sticker puts it, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Holding to this doctrine means believing that God literally created the world in six days, as written in Genesis 1.

At least that’s what I thought I knew about born-again Christianity. And I thought I had a good reason for knowing it. I spent my teens and twenties in the born-again culture. Even now, I attend the annual convention of an Episcopal diocese that is dominated by born-again folks.

As it turns out, though, I don’t know much. It took a two-hour conversation with the pastor’s wife—a dialogue—to show me that.

This isn’t the only time a dialogue has opened my eyes to my own misperceptions. After a born-again relative read an early draft of my book, she called me out on a passage that criticized her brand of faith for rigid thinking. As we exchanged views via email, she pointed out that many groups exhibit this thinking. More important, her comments—made gently and civilly—embodied a distinct lack of the rigid thinking that I had attributed to her group.

What I’m learning through these experiences is that we broad-brush any group at our peril. Labeling people as born-again, or liberal, or Southern, or Latino—and failing to go beyond the label—leaves us unable to see them as unique individuals. Instead, we perceive each person as a unit of a monolithic culture, and we respond to what we think we know about that culture. Our perceptions stay the same, and we do not grow.

When we dialogue with an individual in that group, everything changes. Suddenly the subtle variations come to the fore. We have to hold our preconceptions about the group more lightly. We see the essential humanity behind the stereotype. And our perspective expands so that, the next time, we can approach the other with less presupposition and more openness.

Yes, sometimes we don’t know what we think we know. But there’s a great way to learn: one dialogue at a time.