A Guide for Meaningful ConversationsBy Guest Author
July 17, 2020
One of the things that is becoming increasingly obvious in our current day is the lack of meaningful conversations. Whether that be due to ignorance, fear, timidity, or laziness, the scarcity of intentional and meaningful conversation is resulting in a fractured culture—and the church is not immune. Though it seems to be cliche to say it these days, this is a gospel issue. Unity in the church is not optional, it is essential.
- Unity is a prayer that Jesus made for us (John 17:20–23).
- Unity was secured through the work of Jesus on the cross (Ephesians 2:14–16).
- Unity is a display of the gospel to the watching world (Philippians 2:27; Ephesians 3:10).
- Unity is a gift to be treasured and maintained (Ephesians 4:1–6).
- Unity honours and glorifies God (Romans 15:5–7).
- Unity makes us effective witnesses and brings about God’s blessing (Psalm 133).
One of many ways we can maintain that unity is through the pursuit of real conversations with one another. This requires both speaking the truth compassionately (Ephesians 4:25, 29) and being committed to intentional listening (Proverbs 18:13; James 1:19). The scriptures repeatedly reveal to us the power of words (Proverbs 18:21; James 3:5). The Gospel itself is a formula of words (1 Corinthians 15:3–8; 1 Timothy 1:15) that results in a change from death to life when accompanied by the Spirit’s power (Romans 10:14; 2 Corinthians 4:1–6). Deceptive words used by false teachers and others in our culture divide and lead people astray (2 Timothy 3:6–9; Titus 1:10–11). These deceptive words can also cause people to shipwreck their faith (1 Timothy 1:19). It is for this reason that the church must pursue and model having difficult conversations.
These hard conversations humanize those in other “tribes” and “camps”—building bridges of understanding and compassion. Real, deep conversations pursue harmony with those that differ from us—especially our brothers and sisters in the church. Unsurprisingly, these intentional conversations can even reveal that we actually agree and stand together with those whom we presumed to stand opposed.
In the pursuit of meaningful conversations, here are a few guiding principles:
Only God knows the heart.
Only God knows the thoughts and motives of our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7; Jeremiah 20:12; John 2:25; Hebrews 4:13). To think that we can perceive people’s thoughts and motives is not only presumptuous, but can also lead to the harm of others (Genesis 12:10–20; 20:1–13). This reality will temper our expectations of others and push for clarity with our words.
Only God knows all.
God not only knows our thoughts and motives, He knows everything (Psalm 139:1-5, 147:5; Romans 11:33). We do not, as our understanding is limited. This distinction between divine and created is so great, that even our understanding of God is dependent on Him giving us His Word in the first place, and on His Spirit making clear His revelation to us (1 Corinthians 2:11). It is humble and honest to admit this and to embrace our finite knowledge when we talk to one another. We may encounter things that stump us, and force us to study and research—it is ok to say we don’t know, and to come back to a conversation at a later point. It is wrong, and a lie, to press forward in a conversation, when we know we don’t know what we are talking about.
Opinions take time to develop and mature.
God revealed Himself to Moses as “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). God is never changing, immutable, and perfect—there is nothing He lacks, or is in need of increase (Romans 11:34–35). We, on the other hand, are always maturing and developing. Especially in understanding and knowledge. Over the course of our lives, our opinions will develop and mature, and might even be abandoned for other positions. Maturity is one of the goals of the Christian life (2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 5:14). But this takes time, in our own lives and in the lives of others. The Spirit is developing us at His pace—we need to afford grace towards one another, rather than expect fully developed positions today. Show patience and compassion to those that are still developing (Romans 15:1), all while remembering the patience we are continuously given by those who are more mature than us. And because we are always developing and maturing, we should approach every conversation with a posture of humility and a willingness to learn (Proverbs 4:1).
Positions are nuanced.
Paul summarized the Gospel in one sentence (1 Timothy 1:15), and yet in another occasion spent one of his longest letters detailing the nuances of the Gospel—“when I say this, I mean this. When I say this, I don’t mean this. If you agree to this, you should agree to this. You might think this because I said this, but don’t” (Romans 3:1; 4:1; 6:1–2; 7:7; 9:14; 11:1). Some (most) positions and ideas cannot be sufficiently and clearly articulated over a text or social media. We should give ourselves and others the time to both form and share our positions.
Experience is valued knowledge.
Those without shared experiences are often dismissed as having no valid input in much of today’s conversations. If we applied the same standard, much of the New Testament would be counted in that company (ex. Marriage – 1 Corinthians 7, The Role of Women – Titus 2). Wisdom is not exclusive to experience. Yet, experience still offers genuine insight. When false teachers threatened the church in Corinth with division, Paul lists his extensive experience with suffering for the Gospel as an argument that he truly cares for the church and is a herald of the truth (2 Corinthians 11:16–12:10). Again, when encouraging Timothy towards endurance in ministry, Paul reminds him of his experience with affliction (2 Timothy 3:10–11). Experience doesn’t make something that is not true, true. Truth is the lens by which we interpret and understand our experiences, not the other way around. But experience does add weight to truth. We do well to listen carefully to those with experience.
Conversations aren’t about winning.
The goal of our words and conversations are about building up one another (Ephesians 4:29). The desire to quarrel and argue is not only deemed unprofitable, but is also evidence of a heart that is warped and sinful (Titus 3:9–11). We should not seek to win arguments, but rather mutually grow in understanding and compassion towards one another. Don’t build straw men, don’t misrepresent, don’t be rude. Our conduct will either make sweet, or add offence to an already difficult gospel (1 Corinthians 1:23). So we approach each conversation with humility and a commitment to clearly speak the truth, resting in the Spirit’s power to convict and change rather than our own wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:1–5).
Terminology needs to be carefully defined.
Words and phrases should be clearly defined. A single term can be used by multiple positions in a variety of ways. The false teachers in Ephesus used the word “mystery” to communicate a secret knowledge available only to a select people. Paul in response to those false teachers uses the exact same word to communicate knowledge that has been revealed and made available to all (1 Timothy 3:14–16). When we assume a shared definition, we can sometimes talk over each other without knowing. Terms that sum up a body of knowledge is only helpful when the meaning has been agreed upon. The nature of our world is that definitions are always changing—we always do well to take a moment to carefully define what we mean in our conversations with one another.
Conversations that happen in private operate under a different understanding than conversations that happen in public. We should respect and honour those whom we’ve spoken to through personal and private ways. We do this by not sharing private conversation in public without asking the other person first. Sharing these conversations, minus the context in which it happened, can easily be misunderstood and misrepresent the other person. The cultural tendency to publicly shame others by exposing private conversations should be tempered by the reality that God sees all that we do in private and will expose that which is done and said in the dark to all (Luke 12:2–3).
Listen well and be willing to be challenged.
Part of listening and learning well is to hear all sides—particularly to those who think differently than you. Most aspects of our lives cater to the positions we already hold. We naturally gravitate to people who speak and live like us. Social media promotes posts and pages similar to the posts and pages we already like. This produces a very insulated worldview—it is often only when we are challenged that we see the deficiency of our thinking (Proverbs 18:17). Talk with people unlike yourself. Read books and listen to podcasts from the opposite position. This will serve to either strengthen your own convictions, or convince you of a position you never considered before.
Model love and kindness.
Our conversations and conduct with those within and outside the church should model our obedience to Christ and His law—all summed up in love for neighbour (Matthew 22:36–40; Romans 13:8–10; Galatians 5:14). Note that this doesn’t mean we don’t share the truth. From Paul’s exhortations to the church, we can conclude that a withholding or a twisting of truth is actually hatred towards neighbour. Instead, we strive to model Jesus who in every moment spoke in fullness of grace and truth (John 1:14). Truth must be paired with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15), otherwise we are simply irritable and profitable for nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
The hope is that these principles would guide our words and help in the pursuit of real, intentional and meaningful conversations with others. However, it is a temptation to remain in the sphere of conversation and contemplation, but we must pursue good works in light of what we know today and each day. We must strive to do good with what knowledge we have. The Christian is saved for good works (Ephesians 2:10)—faith without action is nothing (James 2:17). Consider the examples of Zacchaeus and the Samaritan woman who jumped into action having understood the truth (Luke 19:1–10; John 4:28–29). Have meaningful conversations. Then strive to follow Jesus in the present—loving God and neighbour, and doing good.
This article was written by Sheyan Jayatunga for Hope Church Toronto North and is used with permission. Sheyan began serving in local church ministry full time in 2015 after graduating from McMaster University with an undergraduate in Biochemistry. Having served in four different GCC churches, he now serves as the Director of Worship and Communication at Hope Church Toronto North. He serves alongside his wife Natalie, and together have a son Shepherd and eagerly await another little one this winter.