I asked that same question a few months ago when I was given the opportunity to attend the Q conference in Boston this past April. It’s hard to fully describe the Q conference succinctly, but think: Christian version of TED talks. Unlike many other Christian conferences that brings in big name pastors, Q brings in experts from various fields (music, politics, academia, art, business, technology, etc to create conversations at the intersection of faith and current issues.
In the midst of this information mosh-pit, if I had to simplify everything down to three concepts for the church that most impacted me, they would be the following:
This is what Captain Ron Johnson said – one of the speakers and the Police Captain of the now well-known City of Ferguson. He talked about how physical and emotional distances are the gateway to judge, criticize and hate a person or a people group. When there is such a divide between you and another person, it is too easy to strip them of their humanity and just view them as evil or the enemy. This is what he was seeing in Ferguson between the police force and the black community.
But it’s not just in Ferguson. If you look around you, doesn’t this statement ring true? And how has the church distanced themselves from the gay community or avoided potentially sensitive topics such as racism, immigration, mental illness, and other tough issues? Don’t think about all the ways another group has distanced themselves from you, but ask – how have you been distancing yourself from other groups – allowing you to more easily make sweeping judgments and assumptions?
It’s not “fun or cool” to talk about issues that are so controversial and seem to breed fear and misunderstanding whenever they are raised. We’d rather hang out with our “own kind” or even with the white elephant in the room, than talk to someone who stands at the polar opposite of us on a particular issue.
But by doing this, we might stay “safe” but also fall trap to demonizing power of distance and the “us vs. them” mentality.
The Q conference pushed us to quit doing long-distance relationships and start living up close and personal – both with difficult issues as well as estranged people groups.
In one of the opening talks, Gabe Lyons, the organizer of Q, cut straight to the chase in asking Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, what had happened with World Vision and the homosexuality issue a couple of years ago. A potentially awkward and controversial topic to hone in on, but this was one example of Q willing to ask difficult questions and wrestle with tough issues such as sexuality, ISIS, racism, etc.
To help raise a generation of Christians who will be able to connect to all people in this world, we need to stop avoiding difficult issues but rather create safe spaces to have these conversations first within the church. In the few instances I have created space to discuss the issue of homosexuality with my students, there has been an overwhelming reaction of, “Yes – finally. We want to talk about this!”
And no – conversation doesn’t just mean talking. It means listening and inviting all questions and thoughts. The church needs to allow for more dialogue while not feeling like we need to have all the answers or the right words. In this way, we can listen to and explore God’s word together in love.
A third of the conference was spent on the issue of homosexuality alone, with several speakers with different perspectives. Seemed like a recipe for disaster to me – did Q want the conference to devolve into ugly debates and dirty looks?
But this did not happen. Many issues were raised and even though there was not an answer that everyone could agree upon… they had a beautiful conversation. They were respectful of each other’s thoughts and agreed to disagree.
“What? No way.” This is how I would have reacted if someone was telling me this had I not attended the conference myself. It is so hard to believe people with different stances on homosexuality having loving conversations because we see it modeled so infrequently.
But if distance demonizes, relationships can open doors you didn’t even know existed. With all the turmoil in Ferguson, Captain Johnson’s priority was to build a bridge of trust. He marched with some of the protesters and gave them hugs and handshakes. The pushed the police to treat the protesters like humans and the protesters responded by dropping their sticks. This helped to deescalate the rioting and tension in the city.
As we embrace and encourage difficult conversation to take place, the church needs to build relationships with all people from all backgrounds and religions and perspectives. We need to see a face and hear the story rather than just address the issue or talk theology. It is easy to talk about people from a far rather than to hear their struggles and pain from up close. But if we lead with relationship first, I believe we’ll see the church become known more for what we stand for (love, truth, grace, freedom) rather than what we are against.