How to win a Christian argument

Have you ever found yourself passionately believing something to be true, but unable to convince others of your truth?  Frustrating, isn’t it?  I have found that the frustration level dramatically increases when talking about faith issues. Faith convictions and beliefs tend to be sacred.  Changing or adjusting these beliefs is often seen as back-sliding or drifting from the truth.  Encountering people of faith who hold different positions while at the same time claiming to be “Christian” can be stressful.  Why can’t they read the bible correctly?

Right now the denomination I am part of is in a fierce debate about ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  There are entire churches and conferences talking about leaving the denomination.  From their perspective a clearly discernable line of sin has been crossed.  There is scripture to back this all up.

Equally as fascinating is the other side.  The church is finally figuring out that all people should be included in the full life of the church.  For them a clear line has also been crossed.  Interestingly it is in the exact opposite direction, the church is moving from sin to righteousness.  Like the other side they have scripture to back up their position.

What I have discovered in the various debates, discussions, and arguments I have been part of is the first person to say something like “Scripture clearly says…” wins the debate. To my embarrassment I need to own that I have used this tactic myself.

I think we use this tactic because as people of faith we desperately want Scripture to speak clearly to the big issues of the day.  I am just old enough to remember when people of faith were convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was Satan’s music, or when drums in church, drinking, and smoking.  I live in Colorado; currently there is a whole lot of conversation about marijuana.  Believe it or not Jesus never addressed the subject of legal pot.  What was he thinking?

Framing theological arguments in such a way that those who don’t agree with us are wrong is probably something people of faith need to avoid.  It embarrasses me that church leaders so quickly move to absolute positions.

Learning to live with difference, even when that difference is seen as sin by some, might just be a sign of Christian maturity.

The Table

Note:  This is an article I wrote for “Zing,” the monthly newsletter of Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC).  This is the group that holds my ordination credentials.  Recently MSMC licensed an openly gay pastor.  As you might imagine this decision resulted in a tremendous amount of controversy.  Letters have been written in support, in opposition and calling for more conversation.  While at the same time some churches are contemplating what it means to leave the conference.  The goal of this article is to suggest that there is a way for us to stay to together without having to surrender biblical convictions.  Your thoughts and feedback will be much appreciated! On September 11, 2011 I did something I never thought I would do, I got ordained.  For almost 20 years I avoided this decision.  There were good reasons for not taking this step.  In general my reasons boiled down to not feeling that I would be fully accepted.  I grew up Mennonite Brethren, so I tended to hold a conservative understanding of Scripture.  In 1994 I started working for a program on the Westside of Denver called Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR).  This ministry experience has consistently challenged every one of my deeply held convictions, except one.  I believe that Scripture is God’s message to us and must be taken seriously.

This tension has put me in a strange place.  My conservative friends think I have gone over to the “other side” and my liberal friends don’t always know what to do with my conservative leanings.  These tensions left me in a space of never feeling like I could belong or be accepted.  That is until I met Herm Weaver, our conference minister.  Over the years he has been slowly introducing me to the people of Mountain States Mennonite Conference.  It is in this conference that I saw things I didn’t think were possible- conservative and liberal churches participating as co-laborers and equals.  MSMC is living in tensions that would split most conferences.

What I have come to understand is that being at the table together trumps any of the reasons that would cause us to leave the table.  This isn’t always easy because sometimes our differences are significant.  2014 is going to test us.  Talking about leadership and sexual orientation is not easy or comfortable. There are many voices that will tell us that the prudent thing to do is separate.  For some it even feels like a litmus test; that unless you agree with my position we are going to have to leave the conference.  When I speak with people both for and against the ordination of gay and lesbian persons this issue quickly becomes an all or nothing faith matter.  In situations like this it is tempting to assume a “my way or the highway” stance.

In Matthew 22:34-39 Jesus is questioned about his understanding of the law. In short he says love God, love people.  I have a friend to takes this statement one step farther by adding “nothing else matters.”  The call to love God and love people seems to be the lens Jesus calls us to use when dealing with difficult issues.  When we choose to leave a conversation or sever a relationship are we not ignoring this imperative?

I would like to suggest that leaving, or expelling, is the sin that should concern us the most.  The primary call of the people of God and the church is to relationships that include reconciliation, redemption, and restoration.  If any of us leaves the table we are in essence saying that this is no longer possible.  My friends, that is a decision only God can make.

Staying at the table demonstrates to those outside the church that we are not afraid to engage the difficult issues of the day.  As members of Mennonite Church USA the decision of one worshipping body does not dictate the convictions or beliefs of another worshipping body.  Staying together even in the midst of great difference does demonstrate to the world one of our core convictions – all people are made in the very image and likeness of God and for that reason we chose together instead of separate.

The Sanitized Mission trip

DOOR began hosting short-term mission/service groups in 1986. We were one of the first programs in the country to do so. Since that time the annual mission trip has become part of the life cycle of many if not most churches. Programs have sprung up all over the USA and around the world dedicated to filling this growing desire to participate in the annual short-term trip. When I think back to the early days of this movement I am sometimes embarrassed by all the things we did wrong. More often than not we came into communities of need “knowing” how to fix all the problems. The good that was accomplished was often overshadowed by the paternalistic, racist and arrogant attitudes people came with.

I am glad to report that DOOR has learned from its past. We understand that God is already in the city. Before we can talk about bringing God into a community we first must understand where God already is. When it comes to differences we have learned that different is just different. People worship differently, eat differently, look different, come to faith differently, and express themselves differently. All of this is OK and a demonstration of the breadth and depth of the kingdom of God. When it comes to service, mission, and ministry, if it isn’t mutual then it probably isn’t something God is calling us to. This journey has been mind-blowing and faith-expanding.

There is a new trend that has me worried. I call it the sanitized mission trip. The desire to serve is alive and well. There is a recognition that ministry must be mutual. This is good. The problem is that we want mission and service to happen in a Disneyland type of atmosphere. We want an experience as long as it is safe and sanitized. Here is the rub. Experiencing different neighborhoods, cultures and people can be intimidating and even unpredictable. This does not always feel safe.

In 1992 I took a youth group to South Central Los Angeles 45 days after the riots. Just before we left on that trip I met with the parents. All of them were nervous. Many thought we should cancel the trip; some even pulled their children out of the trip. In spite of this a smaller group of us still went on the trip. Was it safe? Certainly not by “Disneyland” standards, but it was transformational. During this trip we discovered that the news media got some things right, for example a riot occurred. At the same time it got many things wrong. We discovered a South Central LA that was full of parents who wanted a good life for their children, street venders who could produce meals that five star restaurants would have trouble competing with, homeless people who wanted to talk, and merchants who wanted customers.

Was our trip safe? In one sense the answer is yes. No one had to go to the hospital. In another sense it was a very dangerous trip. We all walked away from South Central with a new pessimism for how the media reports the news, especially in urban communities. In addition our understanding of the kingdom of God was forever changed. At a personal level I came back to Denver and joined the board of a program called “DOOR.” A few years later I became the City Director for Denver and a few years after that our family moved from the suburbs to the city. Because of that trip, everything changed for me and my family.

If we ask safety questions to avoid silly and irresponsible behavior then I am all for asking the questions. Otherwise I am not sure that “safety” and “mission/service trip” belong in the same sentence. The call to deny ourselves and pick up the cross simply doesn’t create space for a sanitized mission trip.

Lines of Division

One of the fun things we do at DOOR is take board meetings on the road. The other week in Atlanta we met at Mercy Church. Before the meeting officially started Chad, the pastor, shared his vision for ministry. Near the end of his talk he pointed over to the lunch counter, a counter from which many DOOR participants have helped to serve meals. Chad made a statement that has stuck with me, “too often that counter has acted as a line of segregation.” He was right. Every week people with means and privilege come to serve a meal and everyone’s status is determined by which side of the counter they are standing on. Chad went on to say that his goal is to remove the counter.

Removing the counter may not be an easy thing to do.

Many of us who come from privilege live with interesting tensions. We want to serve and we want to maintain our status. We affirm statements which call us to deny ourselves and pick up our cross but we want to do it in a safe atmosphere. We want to follow Christ’s call to be servants but we don’t want to get too dirty in the process. We want our children to follow Christ and we want them to live safe secure lives. We want to take the gospel seriously and we want to maintain our privilege. In other words we want the counter.

Removing the counter, especially for Christians, has a terrifying quality to it. The counter and other lines of division create distance and distance allows us to do two things: serve and maintain our stereotypes. Removing the counter reduces distance and challenges stereotypes. When we find the courage to move past the counter all kinds of new possibilities emerge. Those who we hold at a distance become people, friends and co-workers.

Be warned, removing the counter changes everything.

Wait

“Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.”

These were the first words that Patricia said to me after we had been introduced. It happened during my first week at DOOR. Larry, my predecessor, was taking me around Denver and introducing me to the various agency coordinators and leaders I would be working with in my new role as the DOOR director.

Patricia was the administrative assistant to the director of the Denver Inner City Parish. It would be fair to say that she was a person of strong convictions. To her, I was the latest in a series of white men who had come to Denver’s west side to try to do some good.

Her words were hard to hear, because I did want to make a difference. Being told to hang around for 10 years seemed like a waste of time.

After all, I had been to seminary, was well-read on urban issues, and I had a natural inclination to fix things. I wanted to work for justice and be a voice for the voiceless. It didn’t make any sense to waste away my abilities for 10 years.

Patricia’s words have been ringing in the back of my mind ever since that first day. I have come to understand this advice as being challenging and good.

I give leadership to a program that promotes short-term experiences. People come to our DOOR for anywhere from a day to a year. One of the biggest battles we face is with participants who—like me—want to make a difference. After all, they have taken time out of busy schedules to take part in DOOR. They don’t want their time or money to be wasted. I understand and respect this.

There are times when short-term volunteers can make a huge difference. Those who went to the Gulf Coast to rebuild following Katrina come to mind.

But for the most part, authentic ministry takes time—lots of time.

One of my closest friends is the pastor of the Denver Inner City Parish. He has been a part of Denver’s west side since 1965. He came to Denver from Elgin, Ill.; working on the family dairy farm was not in his blood. As an 18-year-old he escaped to Denver to attend college. It was during his first semester at Denver University that he began to develop an interest in the west side. Before long, he found himself on the organizing committee for the parish.

44 years later, this kid from a dairy farm in Illinois has become the people’s pastor on the west side. He stuck around and earned the right to speak into the lives of Denver’s westsiders

Every time someone participates in DOOR, I feel a tension between their desire to make a difference and the time it takes to earn the right to make a difference. I am not sure that this can be resolved in a few easy steps. As a matter of fact, I want participants to feel this tension.

Vital, significant ministry is not instant or quick.

Mutual trust takes time.

There is no swift way around this.