Suggestions on Communicating Effectively

In a blog post entitled, “The Church and Homosexuality:  Ten Commitments”, Kevin DeYoung offers advice to Christians about speaking on the topic.  As he considers different audiences, he recommends:

-> If we are speaking to cultural elites who despise us and our beliefs, we want to be bold and courageous.

-> If we are speaking to strugglers who fight against same sex attraction, we want to be patient and sympathetic.

-> If we are speaking to sufferers who have been mistreated by the church, we want to be apologetic and humble.

-> If we are speaking to shaky Christians who seem ready to compromise the faith for society’s approval, we want to be persuasive and persistent.

-> If we are speaking to liberal Christians who have deviated from the truth once delivered for the saints, we want to be serious and hortatory.

-> If we are speaking to gays and lesbians who live as the Scriptures would not have them live, we want to be winsome and straightforward.

-> If we are speaking to belligerent Christians who hate or fear homosexuals, we want to be upset and disappointed.

So how ought we to speak about homosexuality? Should we be defiant and defensive or gentle and entreating? Yes and yes. It depends on who is listening. All seven scenarios above are real and not uncommon. And while some Christians may be called to speak to one group in particular, we must keep in mind that in this technological day and age anyone from any group may be listening in. This means that we will often be misunderstood.

While I can appreciate that DeYoung is attempting to help Christians be discerning about their approach in seeking to communicate on this topic, I found that his list contained a lot of assumptions which may not be helpful as we encounter real people facing dilemmas about this matter.

  1. If we are speaking to cultural elites who despise us and our beliefs, we want to be bold and courageous.

Who exactly are the “cultural elite”?  Individuals with high levels of education?  Atheists and agnostics?  Artists and activists?  People who disagree with us who go to the opera?  This label makes unclear assumptions about a particular group of people.  Not only that, the assumption is that they “despise us and our beliefs” …. But how do we know they do?  If they have some level of public voice perhaps we can perceive that, if they write a blog, if they are a newspaper columnist…. With these assumptions DeYoung sets up an “us vs. them” mentality that perpetuates polarity rather than dialogue.  If courageous boldness is to be our response, one might ask, “To what end?”  To what end are we to be courageously bold – in confronting them based on our presumed perception that they despise us and our beliefs?  I can’t imagine such confrontation softening hearts or catalyzing conversation.  Are we to be courageously bold in confronting their beliefs – which we presume to know?  That probably wouldn’t cause us to delve into dialogue.   How are we to know who exactly these cultural elite are, how are we to know what their beliefs are, how are we to ascertain they despise us and our beliefs, how are we to have opportunity to communicate with them, and to what end do we seek to be courageously bold in response to them?  I’m not sure how this is helpful advice for the follower of Christ who is feeling the tension of how to respond to the matter of homosexuality in their every-day ordinary life.

  1. If we are speaking to strugglers who fight against same sex attraction, we want to be patient and sympathetic.

This may sound somewhat petty, but I find it unfortunate that DeYoung would so reduce people to his perception of their struggle with sexuality that he would label them “strugglers”.  Really?  Is that all they are?  In what way are they “fighting against same-sex attraction”?  What does that really mean?  Does it mean they are trying to change their attractions?  Does it mean they are trying to resist temptation or lust?  Does it mean they are trying to not engage in same-sex sexual activity?  If we do not understand what is actually going on with an individual who experiences the reality of same-sex attraction, we have no business responding to them until we take the time to better understand their experience and story.  We all need people to be patient with us – and we certainly give thanks for the incredible gift of God’s patience towards us.  But when you put “patient and sympathetic” together, I can’t help but feel it is rather patronizing.  There is no sense of mutuality expressed in this response.  The truth is, followers of Christ are mutual pilgrims on the journey of faith regardless of our unique and particular areas of weakness or challenge.  If anyone is treated as a second class citizen in the Kingdom of God, we make a mockery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ who took all of humanity into himself making the way for reconciliation with God.  What is our response to Christians who are seeking to steward their experience of same-sex attraction in a manner that is in alignment with their Scriptural convictions and beliefs?  How about respect?  How about listening?  How about prayer?  How about friendship?  How about shared transparency and authenticity?  How about invitations to serve together?  How about opportunities to share their story? 

  1. If we are speaking to sufferers who have been mistreated by the church, we want to be apologetic and humble.

OK, here again, are we to reduce people to the hurt they have experienced?  Are they “sufferers”?  While it only takes a few seconds more to type “people who suffer and have been mistreated by the church”, it speaks volumes about how we see people.  Our language matters.  I’m all for the call to humility – and in fact really wish DeYoung had included it for every single category.  I’m a bit puzzled by the word “apologetic”.  Is that the best we as the people of God have?  An apology to offer?  What about confession of sin?  What about repentance – a changing of our mind so that we see people and things differently?  What about lament?  What about reconciliation?  What about restitution?

  1. If we are speaking to shaky Christians who seem ready to compromise the faith for society’s approval, we want to be persuasive and persistent.

OK I’ll just be blunt, this one smacks of judgment to me.  First the judgment is that the reason a Christian might be wrestling with or even reconsidering their perspective on the question of God’s intention for a gay person is because they are “shaky”.  It couldn’t be because of honest conviction, cognitive dissonance, spiritual discernment, experience with gay Christians, a different hermeneutical starting point, a renewed consideration of textual, exegetical, historical or cultural factors, a different emphasis in ethical reflection or engagement with Biblical scholarship.  Rather it is assumed that the individual is “shaky”.  It is also assumed that the individual who may be wrestling with the matter of whether a same-sex oriented follower of Christ might be enfolded in the accommodation of God’s grace if they entertain the possibility of finding love, companionship and family through a same-sex relationship is “ready to compromise the faith” and for the reason of “society’s approval”.  What is the faith?  Is it moral decision making?  Is it understanding of the contours of sanctification?  Certainly these matters are part of the faith of followers of Jesus.  But we see all through the course of the history of the church, beginning with the earliest years and in particular the experience of the Roman church that Paul considers in the 14th chapter of his letter to them – that such questions are not uniformly agreed upon by adherents of the faith.  So then, what is the faith – that core of faith that binds us together as the Body of Christ?  Is it not that God has made a way for his broken creation to be reconciled to him through the atonement won by his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ?  Is this not the faith – unshakable by the moral and ethical disagreements among Christians because it is caught up and assumed in Christ – not in anything his children wrestle with, think about, or make decisions on?  And is it really fair to assume that the reason someone might be deeply wrestling with such matters is because they are looking for “society’s approval”?  Might it not be a much more deeply intrinsic part of their journey to know God and to love him with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and their neighbor as themselves?  And if our response is persuasive and persistent, how can we ensure that we have space to hear what the Spirit might be whispering to us through the witness of our brother or sister in Christ (who despite our presumptions of being shaky – may actually be in a place where they are straining to hear God’s direction)?  If we are persuasive and persistent, how can we possibly allow any room to consider how we might be wrong?  How do we find the space to recognize our own limitations, and the implications of our own privilege, bias and blind spots?

  1. If we are speaking to liberal Christians who have deviated from the truth once delivered for the saints, we want to be serious and hortatory.

What I find challenging about this particular recommendation is the assumption that all liberal Christians have deviated from the truth.  What truth exactly have they deviated from?  The truth about homosexuality?  Or is it a more general sense of the truth of the gospel?  The truth of the atonement?  All of the above?  In this “us vs. them” framing, are we simply expected to assume they have deviated from the truth?  Now I’ve been accused of being too serious more than once in my life – but what exactly does DeYoung want us to understand by the use of the word “serious”? Does being serious mean we ought not to find a sense of camaraderie with sisters and brothers in Christ who we may have labeled liberal?  Does serious mean no shared joy in our salvation?  And then maybe some of you need some help with a word like “hortatory” so here is the dictionary definition of this adjective: urging to some course of conduct or action; exhorting; encouraging.  Hortatory speech may be appropriate but not if we are basing it on our assumptions.

  1. If we are speaking to gays and lesbians who live as the Scriptures would not have them live, we want to be winsome and straightforward.

If we are encouraged by people like DeYoung to not reduce people to their sexuality, if we are encouraged to call all people to find our true identity in the reality that we are forgiven sinners, made right by the free gift of God’s grace given to us through Christ, then why are sexual minority persons reduced to “gays and lesbians”?  With this language is DeYoung making a concession to the immutability of sexual orientation for those on the extreme ends of what is an otherwise somewhat fluid continuum?  My guess is that answer would be “no”.  So then could we use language that is a little more respectful of the whole person?  Could we simply say, “gay people or gay men and lesbian women”?

And given the reality that we, as followers of Christ, have the opportunity to incarnate and embody the presence of Jesus in the midst of our pluralistic context, would it not be more winsome to consider that gay men and lesbian women might be living their lives in a manner that does not line up with our belief of how Scripture would have them live – rather than a declaration that they are living in a manner  the Scriptures preclude? 

It is great to encourage people to be winsome. I hope with such a recommendation that DeYoung is prioritizing the opportunity to reflect the beauty of Jesus with our gay neighbours.  I hope that this would come with the acknowledgement that our gay neighbours may already be in living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ.

But what are we to make of this word “straightforward”.  Hopefully it isn’t meant to be some simplistic play-on-words.  Is it supposed to insinuate a call to repentance?  While the list may be catchy with its pithy words – if the Christians reading the article don’t know what is meant by certain terms – how does that actually equip them to communicate well?  If “straightforward” communication precedes listening, asking open ended questions, inquiring about the potential journey of faith an individual is on, then it will straightforwardly lead to a closed door …. And how does that jive with the call to be winsome?

  1. If we are speaking to belligerent Christians who hate or fear homosexuals, we want to be upset and disappointed.

Now one might assume that from this entire list, I would be most pleased with this recommendation.  But, I actually see some unhelpful assumptions here too.  Without question, there are belligerent Christians who harbor attitudes and emotions concerning sexual minority persons that are inconsistent with the way of Jesus.  I’m not sure, however, how our upset and disappointment can lead to any transformation.  With supposed shaky Christians we’re supposed to be persuasive and persistent – but with hateful jerks we’re supposed to be upset and disappointed?  Really?  That’s it?  What about offering some hortatory speech?  What about principled confrontation?  Anointed assertiveness?  And what if the hatred or fear comes not from belligerence but from ignorance, fear, skewed teaching, bias, misguided privilege?  What about the role of education?  What about information that breaks stereotypes and exposes motivations and attitudes inconsistent with the person of Christ?  What about remembering that “if I diminish you, I diminish myself”?  I’m not sure that passive aggressive disappointment and upset have any potential for the needed transformation that recognizes that ALL parts of the Body of Christ are needed and that if and when ANY are alienated, mistreated or oppressed it is to the impoverishment of the entire Body.

DeYoung goes on to lay out ten commitments that he encourages those in the church to adopt.  In the interest of length for this post, I’m not going to comment on all of them – but do go read the whole blog and form your own response.  But these ones I think are particularly worth noting:

We will treat all Christians as new creations in Christ, reminding each other that our true identity is not based on sexuality or self-expression but on our union with Christ.

I think this is great – it is just too bad that it doesn’t seem to be fully reflected in his statements about how we ought to communicate with different audiences.

We will ask for forgiveness when we are rude, thoughtless, or joke inappropriately about homosexuals.

Thank you for this statement – I hope that it is taken to heart and put into practice as more than just a nice sentiment.  (Although I still wish that there was a recognition that the language “homosexuals” just smacks of exclusivity).  Which leads us to the next statement:

 We will strive to be a community that welcomes all those who hate their sin and struggle against it, even when that struggle involves failures and setbacks.

Really?  We’re only going to strive (a.k.a.  “work really hard – cause it is a hard thing after all”)  to welcome people who hate their sin?  What about people who don’t even know what sin is?  What about people who currently disagree with us about what is sinful and what isn’t?  What about people who just don’t care about sin at all but are wondering about who this person Jesus is?  What about anyone from our neighbourhood who might wander into our midst and wonder what we are up to?  What about our model of the unconditional and radical hospitality of Jesus – who certainly didn’t seem to make hating one’s sin a criteria for being welcomed?

We will seek to love all  in our midst, regardless of their particular vices or virtues, by preaching the Bible, recognizing evidences of God’s grace, pointing out behaviours that dishonour the Lord, taking church membership seriously, exercising church discipline, announcing the free offer of the gospel, striving for holiness together, and exulting in Christ above all things.

I wonder sometimes, in the struggle to “get things right” if we miss the forest for the trees. One might ask the question, “How do I feel loved?”  Quite simply, we feel loved when we are welcomed, when we feel we belong, when we are cared for, when we are extended grace and the benefit of the doubt, when we are trusted, when people take the time to actually know us, when people see beauty and goodness in us, when people share their lives with us ……  I am not questioning for a moment that in the Christian community we are called to engage the Scriptures together, look for God’s grace; hold one another accountable to not get sucked into patterns of culpable shalom breaking (ie. sin); consider deeply our commitments to live our lives together; discern how to spur one another on towards growth and demonstration of the fruit of the Spirit, enacting of the Great Commission and living out the words of Micah 6:8 “To do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God”;  share the good news of the inbreaking of God’s reconciling grace into our broken world; pursue a life of grateful response that looks more and more like the life of Jesus; and to deepen and mature in our expression of holistic worship through every facet of our lives.  One has to wonder, however, if in seeking to embody the way of Jesus in an increasingly pluralistic, post-Christian and gay-affirming context, if those actions of the church will be a tangible demonstration of love to the one on the outside, the cynical one, the wounded one, the lost one …. let alone the one who identifies as a child of God but who sees things differently than we do ….. It is important to have a strong sense of who we are called to be as the gathered people of God …… but it may be helpful to remember that that may not be perceived as love by those who do not share the same ecclesiastical and/or doctrinal commitment.

DeYoung warns his readers to expect to be misunderstood because in our day of technology we do not have the luxury of speaking to only one type of audience.  This is true – in an online world, we are speaking into diverse contexts that may splice, tweet and otherwise dissect our words any way they please.  If this is indeed the case, then perhaps the best response is not a resignation to being misunderstood.  Perhaps we need to consider a response that might connect in the midst of such diversity.

It seems to me that Jesus models for us the kind of common ground response that will connect with real human beings across the categories that DeYoung takes pains to describe.  Jesus puts the wisdom of God, seen as foolishness by the world, on display for all of creation to see.  Jesus empties himself and makes himself nothing.  He thwarts the way of power, surrenders the right to defend himself, releases his privilege and status….. all for the sake of identifying with all those who could not reconcile themselves to God – but for whom he would offer his life to make us right with God.  Jesus humbled himself and demonstrated the most tangible expression of love ever seen:  he laid down his life for his friends.

What if our call to response was humility – across the board?

What if our call was to build friendship – across the board?

What if our call was to deeply entrust those we encounter – across the board – to the already completed, but not yet fully realized, atoning work of Christ?

What if our call was to love – tangibly, deeply, fearlessly, with a deep commitment to mutuality and grace?

What if we really trusted that the Holy Spirit is the One more than able to reveal, convict and lead people into truth?

If we did these things, I believe we would be able to respond to the diverse audience of individuals engaging the matter of homosexuality in a way that truly smelled like Jesus.

#dealingwithdisagreement

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