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Tackle Touchy Topics–and Survive!

The planned discussion on same-sex marriage really riled him up. He feared the forum might attract “seekers” and lead them astray.

He contacted his pastor and asked, “Why are we exposing unbelievers with no biblical backing to the worst of false doctrine?”

Though this man never attended any of the discussions on controversial topics, he left his church because he said dealing with these issues was “nothing short of compromise.”

Dealing with controversial subjects at church is, well, controversial. Many churches follow one of two approaches–neither of which is healthy.

  • Some church leaders and teachers choose to simply avoid any touchy topics. They fear people will disagree and walk away mad.
  • Others attempt to shut down discussion (and thinking) about controversial issues with a monologue from the bully pulpit. They dispense the “right answers” and walk away.

Many reject the idea of hearing from those with differing views. The man cited above said, “I just don’t see anything beneficial in bringing obvious wolves in sheep’s clothing to deceive the sheep, and then gobble up those who are already lost.”

I’m afraid this fellow would have been really peeved with Jesus, who not only listened to those with differing views, but actually employed one such “wolf” among his 12 associates. Throughout his ministry, Jesus did not hide from touchy topics. He did not shun or silence those who held opposing views. He knew his truth would stand up well in the marketplace of ideas.

The church of today would do well to follow Jesus’ example. We must demonstrate that our faith is relevant to all of life, no matter how controversial or difficult the issues. And we must admit that we cannot shield our people from touchy topics. If we don’t deal with these issues within the church, our people will simply talk about them outside the church, without the benefit of a scriptural perspective. How could that be a better alternative?

Navigating Gnarly Stuff

With Lifetree Cafe, a national network of conversation cafes, we often tackle touchy subjects. After several years of creating content for these weekly discussions, I’ve learned some things about navigating controversial subjects in a Christian environment. Here are some of the secrets:

1. Set a respectful tone. At the beginning, acknowledge that the issue is a hot one. Mention that people hold widely differing views on the topic. Do not disparage or belittle those who think differently than you. Establish that this will be a time for a respectful exploration of the issues.

2. Train your people how to differ. Express the expectation that people may disagree, but will do so in a manner that is friendly and loving. Ask everyone to listen to others, without interrupting, or passing hasty judgment, or plotting vengeful retorts. Encourage people to share their perspectives and stories in positive ways. Incidentally, this training and experience also prepares your people to interact and glow their faith when they’re out in the world.

3. Allow give and take. Touchy topics–even those you believe have only One True Side–need to be aired in an environment of interaction. One loud voice at the microphone rarely settles anything. Allow differing views. Encourage questions. Engage people in conversation. This can even be done during sermon times with large groups of people. Simply ask thought-provoking questions and provide some time for people to talk in pairs or threes or fours.

4. Let the scriptures speak. Inject relevant scripture into the discussion–not as a proof text but as a resource and light. Resist the temptation to contort the scripture into saying something more than it actually says. Let your people explore how the scripture may apply to touchy topics. And if different passages provide different perspectives, encourage your people to grapple with those contrasting perspectives.

5. Trust the Holy Spirit. Pray. Invite God into the discussion. Incorporate God’s word. Air differing views. Even allow Judas to speak. Then let the Holy Spirit do what the Holy Spirit does best. Have confidence in the power of God’s truth to prevail in the hearts of your people.

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Thom Schultz is an eclectic author and the founder of Group Publishing and Lifetree Café. Holy Soup offers innovative approaches to ministry, and challenges the status quo of today’s church.