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Difficult Conversations Part 2

 “You must understand this, my beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:19-20).

Previously I summarized three principles from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Talking to Strangers that makes hearing others difficult. 

1)     We tend to assume people are telling the truth (even when they’re not).

2)     We believe we can read other people’s sincerity or insincerity based on visual cues (even though we can’t).

3)     Both people in a conversation bring baggage - past experiences, assumptions, and fears - which can derail the intent of the conversation in a hurry.

 

Individual attitudes influence the conversations about returning to in-person meetings.  I suggest that there are six types of people:

1)     those who can’t wait for things to get back to ‘normal’;

2)     those who feel we’re jumping the gun;

3)     those who, with a little encouragement, will test the waters;

4)     those who got comfortable with virtual church and aren’t interested in returning;

5)     those who lost their connection with church and, perhaps, God; and,

6)     those who are embarrassed by the church’s response to Covid and are resistant to returning.

 

How can we respond appropriately as we think about the variety of attitudes that people have toward returning to in-person meetings? 

1)     Returning to what was previously comfortable is tempting, but our past definitions of ‘normal’ are long gone.  This is a season for exploring new vistas God is opening up to our church, small group, or ministry.  I want to re-engage with worship, fellowship and in-person disciple-making.  However, I have real doubts about simply going back to the way things were before.  In Scripture or in history, that is seldom God’s way of doing things.

2)     We are jumping the gun according to some who should know what they’re talking about.  The experts vary on the solution and timeline, but essentially the bottom line I hear is “wait until you’ve had both shots and meet only with people who are fully vaccinated.”  I acknowledge that would be the ideal from a physical health perspective.  However, for people’s mental health and spiritual vitality, and for the church to accomplish its mission, I believe a cautious approach to gathering in person again is warranted.  As always, we maintain our example and show love to our neighbours and community by adhering to the current public health orders.

3)     Connecting with those who are hesitant to meet in person is crucial.  We can do that by text, phone or in some form of video chat.  We need to begin ongoing conversations with people to address concerns, reassure regarding our compliance with safety standards, and share the benefits of gathering together at this time.  Certainly, we’ll run across questions we can’t answer and concerns we have chosen not to address.  But getting these queries into the open and being clear about them opens space for dialogue.

4)     We do need to provide ongoing access to our gatherings online.  I believe we can partially address the needs of those whose health prevents them from leaving their home — whether they live independently or in a care facility — with this format.  As well, families who have recently moved away, those who are away studying, and anyone else who chooses to can use the online resource as a way to stay connected.  We’ve used Zoom with our church (30-40 attenders) and found it a place where people can visit, share and pray together.  We’ve got some work to do in adapting this platform to mesh with in-person services, but I am confident that creative people will soon find a solution to that problem.

5)     We need to have patience with those who feel they have lost their connection to God and the church.  It would be ideal to find a way to connect with them one-on-one, (in person if possible) and seek to open a conversational space to reflect on their experiences and God’s desire to be in relationship with them.  Each story is unique and needs to be treasured.  We do not fix people; we simply walk with people and provide a gateway for them to experience the presence of God.  God does whatever “fixing” is needed.

6)     There are those who are embarrassed by the church’s response as portrayed in the media and given voice by more extreme libertarians in the evangelical movement.  The reality is that much of the world is still in the grip of the pandemic. We need to hear the concerns of these individuals.  I empathize with those who say that being vaccinated is a simple way to love your neighbour, and that the church’s witness before the world has been deeply tarnished by its antipathy to public health directives during this time.  It will take time and wisdom to listen and respond to these charges.

In 1 Thessalonians 5:14 Paul says, “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.”  This directive contains great pastoral advice.  As we think about the varying responses to a world beginning to emerge from a time of pandemic restrictions, Paul’s admonition to encourage, help, and be patient certainly apply. In addition, we can infer from the verse that it simply is not appropriate to treat everyone the same way; rather, we must discern where they are and walk with them accordingly.

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