A friend recounted the day when the senior pastor of her church took a certain tack in responding to her question about the sudden firing of a favorite associate pastor. "He said, 'I prayed about it and felt that this is what the Lord wanted.'" She shot back, "You leave Jesus out of this." As a priest and an organizational psychologist, I have some ideas about why the pastor's response was so ineffective. But first, a little background.
Those of us who are his followers believe that the Gospels are the place to go if you want to know what Jesus said and did when he walked the roads of Galilee, Samaria and Judea. Jesus in the flesh, we can imagine might have a lot to say about any number of things if he was here today. In general, it is not Jesus who is unclear. We, his followers, on the other hand, have been spending the intervening centuries casting his words and actions in a variety of ways and are, sad to say, increasingly losing our place at the table in the context and communities where we are present.
Just as the language used to pass along Jesus words has changed from Greek to Latin to almost every other language in the world; the context for speaking of Jesus has changed. We have more web, scholarly and global resources to interpret Jesus' words. We have many and brilliant preachers and teachers. What we also have is less resonance with our larger communities and so we become indecipherable outside of our small group, congregation and specific Christian tradition. Unless you are an insider, words like God, salvation, sin, forgiveness and grace have more fluid meanings. The problem is not one of discipleship, but of relationship. We have become bad conversational partners.
Let's consider this from a different angle. My consulting work has me involved with people using practices like "engagement," "alignment," "dialogue" and "collaboration." People generally like to be a part of something that engages them. This leads me to ask, what might it look like to for contemporary Jesus followers to engage others, in generative and constructive ways? To do this I recommend these four simple questions as we think about how we approach others:
Are we making a declaration? Karl Barth's claim that the Gospel is to be "thrown like a stone" is antiquated and makes for bad relational practices. Stephen, the New Testament figure most clearly associated with hurled stones responding by praying for the rock throwers and then dying. Declaring is the stance of privileged Christian apologists. Now declarers are to be avoided. In my experience, no one outside of the church comes in because of brilliant and forceful declarations, especially when made from a position of "I know and you don't." Or worse yet, "You are flawed it and I am not." So let's take a break on declarations.
Are we starting a debate? Ok, so maybe I am not hurling stones at you, but am I itching for a fight? Is my approach assuming that through the rough and tumble of debate we will produce a winner and a loser. The recent spates of atheist vs Christian smack downs show more commercial and theatrical energy than insight or connection. The dwindling interest in Presidential debates and the hardening of ideological bubbles show a similar diminished effectiveness. Debating under certain circumstances may be useful, but most people's disconnect with church is not because of a lack of right knowledge. Things are more contextual not ideological, relational not rhetorical. Debates maybe. But only when invited.
Is this dialogue? Dialogue, from dia- "across" + legein "speak," to speak across. Dialogue is a kind of hospitality that welcomes and embraces. In recent times this has meant Jesus followers speaking across boundaries of creed, but also race, geography, musical idioms, gender constructs and technological advances. In the mid-Twentieth century Christians talked about being ecumenical and meant sharing conversations across denominations. Now we can, and should have dialogue across boundaries and definitions beyond mere religion. And we should be listening across them as well. Dialogue? Yes and how about on topics picked by others.
Are we entering into discovery? Is the conversation coming from a place of curiosity, collaboration and wonder? I have come to believe that one of the most promising relational practices is the practice of inquiry, and especially two forms of inquiry; appreciative inquiry and humble inquiry. Beginning with inquiry means that I am in sync with what philosopher Soren Kierkegaard meant when he said, "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced." Appreciative Inquiry is a way to do this with groups. Humble inquiry has personal and organizational applications. Appreciating one another and being humble in our relationships turns out to be valuable for our own authentic development and generative for relational life with others. Who knows what we might discover, together.
So 4D's: declaration?, debate?, dialogue?, or discovery? 4 questions worth contemplating.
Leaving Jesus out of our conversations may not be the way forward for us as followers of Jesus.
Having conversations that are rich in discovery and dialogue, surely is.