WINAMAC, Ind. – There is so much hope in our congregations and our denomination. It’s true! It’s really there! Too often though, the dominant conversations in church centers on the decline of Christianity and the United Methodist Church, the fear of our future as a denomination, and the challenges our nation and churches face with many social and political issues. The truth is that the church can be the place to find hope in challenging times. If we would sit at the table of grace with each other and talk, hear each other’s stories and fears, we would find that hope is waiting for us to find after all.
There are many issues facing our nation and world today. How are we to respond to immigration, human sexuality and marriage, environmental issues, partisan politics, the fear of terrorism and Ebola? Perhaps the church can offer the world a safe table to sit down and have conversations with each other on these issues. We could approach these topics not in a way that tries to convince the other, but where we simply meet, talk, share our stories, our fears, our joys, and our experiences.
In my congregation, in rural Indiana, I recognize that there are people who are all over the theological and political spectrum, yet I remind them that we are united in Christ above all else. We have had conversations in Sunday school and other small group settings on the topics of immigration, sexuality and marriage, and even politics. Many shared their experiences and some respectfully listened, while I encouraged all to remain grounded in the grace of allowing everyone to share. We centered our conversations around the words of James 1:19, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”
Every congregation should facilitate conversations on the social issues in our nation today. To be a relevant church, we must provide safe spaces to talk about the topics that are being thought about and talked about, but in places other than the church. Too often the church has pushed these issues out the door along with others who want to find safe places to engage on these topics. The church can model what civil discussion can look like, which is conversation wrapped in Christian love and respect for one another.
As I have shared with my congregation, it doesn’t mean we will agree on everything or even understand each other completely, but that’s alright. Jesus prayed in the Gospel of John that all would be one. It doesn’t mean we’ll always think alike or vote the same way, but it does mean when we sit down at the table, we’ll find that Jesus is in our midst. It’s also important to recognize that if someone disagrees with your thought, that doesn’t make them a bad person or less of a Christian. In this sort of conversation, there’s no need to demean the other, instead let us pray that we will be able to see Jesus’ face in each other rather than seeing others as enemies.
During our small group conversations at my congregation, we sat at round tables and talked. We were committed to learning from each other and listening to the experiences each person brought. We are also united at another table as well. When we gather around the table of Holy Communion, we are united with Christ and with each other. While we may have differences, at this table we find that we are one in Christ Jesus. My congregation has been offering Holy Communion twice per month and for every important church event over the last few years. I believe it has transformed not only our worship, but our conversations as well.
Having Conversations in Your Church
Your congregation can have these conversations too. Center the conversations on prayer, mutual respect, and love for one another as brothers and sisters of Christ. Maybe you could offer Holy Communion before or after your conversations as well. Offer a Sunday school class or a small group during the week and simply invite people to engage in the social issues of our day. You will find that it can be a great opportunity for people to get to know each other better and learn from each other’s experiences. Keep the conversation grounded in listening, respect and love.
I have heard from many pastors and congregations as the Chairperson of the Social Advocacy Team, that they cannot have conversations on these topics. Many believe that people will become angry and leave. Be not afraid. If you keep the conversations grounded in listening, respect and love, then you will be fine. There will be some who will not feel comfortable. That’s fine too, again, offer them grace. For those who do want to talk, remind them that we gather not to push our own agendas or belief, but to learn from each other’s experiences. You might be surprised by who in your congregation and community have desired a safe place to come and engage.
My hope is that as we receive the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we will be able to look around the table and find hope. Let’s find hope in those who disagree with us, those who have different stories than us, those who don’t understand us or whom we don’t understand either. Let’s find hope in the Christ who called us to be one at the table of conversation, the table of bread and wine, the table of love.