Difficult Conversations, by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
MARCH 19, 2016
It’s hard to have a good conversation these days, especially about faith. Even when two people pretty much agree, honest interaction seems elusive.
But being friends across differences is hard, and cultivating good conversations is the rocky, uphill climb that leads there. Good conversations demand active listening, mental and emotional engagement, openness to the possibility that we’re wrong, and empathy to see the situation from the other person’s point of view.
Now throw in some genuine differences of opinion—profound gaps in religious viewpoint or worldview—and a good conversation is further out of reach. Try to talk about things like gay marriage—or anything remotely controversial—with someone you disagree with and the temperature rises a few degrees. At times, it feels as if the other person is speaking a different language, or he’s deliberately misjudging your point of view, or you’re both assuming the worst about each other. What might have been a good conversation—where both people feel heard, understood, and respected—degenerates into defensiveness, name-calling, accusations, bitterness, and even hatred. Good conversations, our best hope for peace in conflicted relationships, are on the endangered species list.
Our research shows that having meaningful conversations is increasingly difficult for many of us. This is true not only on an individual level but also society-wide. Why is a good conversation so difficult to ﬁnd these days?
First, it’s not enough to be nice. When it comes to conversations about beliefs, morals, and faith, Christians have often emphasized the importance of being winsome and engaging. The thinking—driven by the right impulse—is that if Christians could be reeeeeally nice about things, then others would at least respect the people behind the beliefs.
We’ll make the argument, however, that it’s no longer sufficient for Christians to be winsome. Being winsome is not bad. It’s good. But aiming for niceness as our ultimate goal can give us a false sense of making a difference in people’s lives. And as you will see in the research we conducted for Good Faith, many of the basic ideas Christians believe are perceived as irrelevant and extreme. Nice doesn’t overcome the perception that Christians are crazy.
More and more people think the Christian community is completely out of step with the times. No matter how kind or friendly believers are in presenting their beliefs, it’s not likely to make much of a difference. Many folks have their minds made up that Christian ideas are outlandish. These people might listen for entertainment’s sake, but Christians have little chance of breaking through to real understanding.
Now, this is not an excuse to be less kind. Far from it. Rather, it’s an invitation for Christians to rethink our manner of being “in the world but not of it.” We hope this book is a map for the path forward.
An uncomfortably large segment of Christians would rather agree with people around them than experience even the mildest conflict. According to this perspective, it’s never right to criticize people or their decisions and lifestyles.1 By adopting this value without much reflection, many Christians have stuffed their convictions. When Christians cram their deepest beliefs so far down, there’s little hope those beliefs could ever affect real conversations. We acknowledge that our times are complex and relationships are complicated. These facts don’t mean, however, that we should not try to see and communicate about reality more clearly. It is hard to agree on what’s best, but taking ourselves out of the conversation to avoid conflict doesn’t help anyone.
Second, the gaps between people groups seem to be growing. Even if they’ve been there all along, the divides have widened on social media and twenty-four-hour cable news. There are gaping ﬁssures between rich and poor, between races, between genders, between faith groups, between political parties, and so on. Generation, gender, socioeconomics, ethnicity, faith, and politics massively divide us. Just look at the furor ignited in Indiana over religious liberty legislation and in Kentucky over marriage licenses. Or consider the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore that escalated into violence. Even inside the Christian community there are acute divides between various “tribes.”
The bottom line is that many of our social structures—the institutions and rhythms that keep us whole and healthy as a society and as individuals—are unwinding.2
Third, social media, for all the remarkable beneﬁts of digital tools like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, can make connecting across these gaps more difficult, not less. In spite of the truly wonderful gifts of the digital revolution, social media at its worst can magnify our differences, making it even harder to have conversations that matter. For one thing, it can make it more difficult to see other people for who they really are. For another, it helps us ﬁnd the tiny cliques of people who are already convinced of the crazy things we believe. Social media makes it far too easy to self-select voices that always affirm and never challenge our assumptions and sacred cows. Plus, many of our sanest thinkers and leaders are choosing to stay out of the fray altogether. They’ve clued in that the most strident and extreme voices are liked, shared, and retweeted—not the most reasonable ones.
How do you think social media has changed our capacity for healthy, effective, good conversations about our differences?
According to Barna research, most people believe these digital tools have made meaningful dialogue and deep connection more difficult. In fact, 61 percent of adults say they believe social media has made people less social, less capable of deep friendships and strong connections. Furthermore, Americans are twice as likely today to say they are lonely compared to ten years ago.
Social media doesn’t always make us more social.
How can we have conversations that matter on important issues between people and between groups of people? How can we believe with conviction and courage while reknitting social and spiritual bonds?
Our intention for Good Faith is to take a factual, realistic look at the challenges of living faithfully in our new cultural reality and then to help the community of faith respond effectively—both individually and collectively.
We believe that when people commit to a Jesus-shaped way of life, they create a counterculture for the common good—living their lives not for themselves but for the beneﬁt of others to the glory of God. If we do this, we can reshape the imagination of our culture so that the gospel can renew hearts and minds in the generations to come.
1. See especially Dale Kuehne, Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship Beyond an Age of Individualism (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
2. See George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).
Catch David and Gabe’s interview on SBE Here!
David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Good Faith. Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2016. Used by permission.