You can change the conversation

Christian leaders can reject the tone of current debates and, instead, elevate the level of discourse.

Perhaps your Facebook feed has resembled mine in the last several weeks. Perhaps you have been inundated with links to articles about Phil Robertson and A&E, Franklin Graham and church trials. Maybe your friends, too, have asked for your opinions on these topics or lobbied for your voice for “their side.” And, if so, perhaps you are feeling a bit baited by all these conversations and by the false choices they represent. I know I am.

It may be helpful in these moments to remember that one of the particular privileges of being a Christian institutional leader or a leader with Christian commitment is that one can reject the terms of debate as they have been offered. By virtue of one’s role and faith commitment, one can change the conversation for the better. One can elevate the level of discourse and can alter the tone of dialogue. One can ignore straw man arguments and litmus tests alike. One can refuse false choices. The conversation can be translated into a theological key, and one can demand more from one’s interlocutors.

For years, I watched as one of my mentors would do just that, and I remember people complaining that he didn’t discuss the most contentious issues in the life of the church. No matter how much they prodded him or complained to him, he persisted in carrying on a different conversation.

In hindsight, what I realize is that he was inviting us to join him in that different conversation, that one conducted on different terms. Though we didn’t have ears to hear it yet, he was rejecting the terms of debate as we offered them and as society offered them. He was asking us to have a more theologically informed discussion with him and with one another. He was asking us to lift our eyes again to the mission of God in the world. Looking back on it, it was a profound model of Christ-shaped leadership, no matter how frustrating it may have been at the time.

I am learning that to do what he did requires a consistent commitment to go deeper into the tradition and into the practices of faith. It is, after all, much easier to join in the conversation than it is to change it. One can only change the conversation when one is grounded and centered, when one has been schooled by the tradition and when one has practiced the disciplines that lead to humility and holiness.

The certain Christlikeness that my mentor displayed is formed gradually. It is the result of a thousand prayers and struggles. It is the result of years befriending the scriptures. It comes when the heart is turned toward God and broken by the world.

It is still the prerogative of the leader to engage people in surprising conversation about serious things in substantive ways. In these reductionist times, when complicated issues are mocked by sound bytes and status updates, it is rare and refreshing when someone dares to do just that.