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In his excellent new book, How the Body of Christ Talks, Chris Smith highlights the fact that we live in a fragmented age, from denominations to communities to families. The reasons for this are numerous from the transportation revolution to the rise of individualism to the numerous technological advances we have witnessed in just the past 10 years. Not only do we need to own the societal fragmentation, but we also need to realize that within all of us we live fragmented lives due to the effects of sin.
While we know this, as small group point people, do we stop to consider how our individual and corporate fragmentation affects all our abilities to have conversations within our small groups?
In my previous two blog posts, I have discussed one way to improve our conversational skills and also tips to be present in our small group. But no matter how good our conversational skills are, sooner or later we will find ourselves in a difficult conversation in which we disagree with the person we are talking with.
Chris Smith makes a helpful distinction in his book between disagreement and conflict. Disagreements are a natural part of who we are as humans, even as Christians. I think we sometimes confuse disagreement with a lack of unity, thereby cutting against the prayer of Jesus in John 17. I don’t think that this is true, and when handled properly, disagreements might actually lead to greater unity.
Conflict, on the other hand, is more insidious. Conflict rips communities, families, and small groups apart. Conflict creeps in to a group when we no longer see members as humans created in God’s image but instead, we demonize them.
Handling disagreements well starts with healthy leadership, which Chris Smith writes:
“Acknowledges disagreements, facilitates conversations about them, and holds the community together while disagreements are discerned in light of the way of Jesus, the wisdom of Scripture, and the traditions we have inherited as a particular community of God’s people.”
To circle back to Celeste Headlee’s book on conversation, she offers five tips/strategies when we find ourselves in difficult conversations.
- Be curious. Every person has something to teach me, if I will be open to that possibility. Because every human being we talk to is created in God’s image, she is of infinite worth with something valuable to add to our limited understanding of the world.
- Check your bias. We know everyone else has biases that affect conversation, but are we aware of our own? Not only that but how they affect us?
- Show respect at all times. This is a big one. Sadly much of life around us provides little to absolutely no help in this regard. But as Christians, we, again, believe that every human is created in God’s image and therefore worthy of respect, even, and most especially when we disagree.
- Stay the course. When handling disagreements, we are always tempted to skirt around them, or simply avoid them. Healing will never be found when we do this, rather we need to face them. In facing them, we are not working toward everyone agreeing, but working toward understanding where that person is coming from.
- End well. Thank the person and/or the group for the conversation. You can even debrief with your group on what you learned and how the experience of the conversation was for them. But whatever you do, resist the strong temptation to have the last word.
As a bonus tip, but probably the most important tip: learn to apologize quickly and often in conversation. Apologize when you interrupt. Apologize when you misrepresent their thoughts. Apologize if you have demonized them for their opinion. Conversations are hard and fraught with landmines. You will mess up. You will hurt and offend people. So. Apologize. Apologize. Apologize.