A pastor came up to me with a devilish grin on his face. “Have you seen this?” he asked, shoving a copy of an email under my nose. It seems I irritated a prominent, high profile pastor of one of our premiere large membership congregations with my thoughts on the “emergent/emerging” church. Though written as a personal email, it somehow found its way onto a list-serve and into the hands of the pastor before me. It said, in part:
Dan Dick is a jerk. If he knew what he was talking about (the General Board of) Discipleship never would have fired him. Those who can’t do are always criticizing those who can. He thinks he’s smarter than people who do this for a living. If you notice, he says things that nobody else is saying. Do you know why? Because he’s wrong. Don’t listen to him.
First off, I think this is great. This is the kind of energy and passion that a blog should generate. It is an example of the free exchange of opinions, ideas and feelings that make our church so amazing. My blog is intended to be an open forum for the free flow of multiple perspectives. It is a place to air opinions — and it is important to keep in mind that’s what it is: opinions. I try not only to present my own, but also the opinions of others on all sides of an issue and I welcome and encourage people to offer their own opinions in response. My only disappointment is that this person chose not to post his feelings on the blog. It always makes me a little sad when people don’t engage on the blog site — rich dialogue, discourse and dissent are critical components of learning and growth.
Second, ‘jerk,’ like ‘beauty,’ is in the eye of the beholder. I am sure I am a jerk, in many people’s minds. But I also know that some people find me insightful, and a few even prophetic. There is no way that one voice can speak a message that will please everyone — and I don’t even try. I write what I believe, and attempt to offer evidence and information to stimulate thinking, challenge conventional wisdom, and provoke a response. It doesn’t do me (or anyone else) any good to simply parrot what others have already said. I apply the best critical thinking and research skills I know to analyze popular ideas and offer alternative interpretations. It is never a matter of knowing more than others, but giving a different point of view or simply raising questions.
Third, just because “everyone knows” something doesn’t make it true. I have learned that there are multiple ways of looking at almost every issue. Rarely does one answer, perspective or model apply equally to all situations. Diversity of thinking and respect for multiple points of view make us stronger… and smarter. So much of the advice on “how to do church” is extremely subjective and limited by context. The more ways we offer to people to live into the future, the better.
Last, my only real problem with the email is the final instruction: “Don’t listen to him.” Even if I am totally wrong, this is still a troubling sentiment in the church. Not listening to those who challenge conventional wisdom and say unpopular things simply isn’t an option for those who claim Christ as Savior and Lord. Safe, respectful, honest, inclusive, and open forums for discourse and disagreement should be a hallmark of any church claiming “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” In fact, we should listen especially well to those who challenge us to think more deeply.
So, I use this personal experience as a springboard to offer yet one more opinion — this time on the importance of rich and provocative dialogue throughout our connectional church. Here are 10 Facets of Faithful Conversation:
- Everyone is right… to some degree — no one intentionally holds a wrong, evil, or stupid opinion. We defend that which we believe to be true. There is always a kernal of validity to any opinion. If we assume everyone is at least 1% right, then we need to seek to understand where they are coming from in order to truly communicate.
- Everyone is wrong… to some degree — no one holds a total and absolute 100% true opinion. Human thinking, feeling, logic, intuition, and belief is incomplete and deeply flawed. None of us know everything. To allow that we might be a little wrong, or that we are at least not totally right, opens up some significant grace-space for dialogue and connection.
- Everyone has the right to be wrong — having a minority opinion doesn’t make me stupid, evil, an enemy, or a clown. Each person has a right to their opinion, no matter how irrational it may be. And by extension, every person has a right to disagree and to refuse to accept another’s opinion. None of this gives anyone the right to be mean-spirited, spiteful, hateful, or violent. Disagreeing is a normal part of life, and if we claim to value diversity, it must include diversity of opinion as well.
- Honesty is more important than political correctness — if we make it unsafe for people to be honest, we make it impossible to form real, lasting community. Just hiding feelings, censoring unpleasant speech, or adopting less volatile labels doesn’t change anything… except to make things worse. Hypocrisy is no solution to a system where people feel they cannot speak honestly.
- Truth is not defined by majority rule (see Jesus of Nazareth, New Testament, early 1st century)
- Opinion is nothing more (or less) than subjective truth — learning to say, “I feel…,” or “this is true for me…,” or “in my opinion…,” is a huge step toward speaking the truth in love. We believe what we believe because we think it is true. While it would be nice for us to discover and agree on absolute truth, the best we have to work with is a collective assemblage of personal and subjective truths.
- Disagreement is only threatening to the uncertain — when I hold deep convictions about my beliefs, I find it very easy to disagree with others. It is only when I feel fear, lack of conviction, or doubt that I have to get defensive, loud, angry, and unpleasant. A dissenting opinion or alternative worldview has little power to undermine the faith or beliefs of those truly believe. Assurance can indeed be blessed, and leads to peace, calmness, and compassion not argument, battle and debate.
- Information is a terrible approach to change someone else’s mind — if we actually thought with our heads instead of feeling passionately with our hearts and guts, information would be the sensible course. Talking people out of their opinions is a loser’s game. People need experiences and encounters that contradict and challenge their limiting opinions. Conflict over race, gender, nation, lifestyle, and myriad other issues ends not by “proving” it is wrong, but by allowing people to experience for themselves all the flaws in their feelings and thinking. Winning a person’s heart is a lot easier than winning an argument based in facts, figures, and reason.
- No single answer is the answer — there are always exceptions. What works for one person, may not work for others. What makes sense in one context, loses all meaning in another. Looking for “the right” answer is seldom as valuable as seeking a “good” answer. We tend to polarize people into making “either/or” decisions. An old, reliable planning tool used to help resolve conflict is to make people work together until they discover six workable solutions to any single problem. Once they do this a few times, it helps move people from thinking in rigid and narrow terms, to thinking in terms of many “right” possibilities.
- People who won’t stay in the conversation are a bigger problem than those with whom we disagree — there is no hope of transformation for those who withdraw and refuse to “stay at the table.” Shutting the door on further conversation means that the person is giving up on not only finding a solution, but on the relationship as well. People to withdraw want to be right — to win — more than they want reconciliation and community.
Dan Dick is a jerk. I know him really well. But I also know he can be a nice guy, too, once you get to know him.