In leading Courageous Conversation workshops with church leaders, the first and biggest challenge I hear raised is “How do we get people to show up?” This question is both understandable and lamentable.

The challenge of getting people to see the need for engaging in difficult conversations is often an issue of motivation. Most adults, in general, are repelled by the idea of having a difficult conversation. On the surface, who can blame them? Perhaps they have tried similar events before that turned out to be little more than an exercise in groupthink. Or their experience had either unclear expectations or unrealistic outcomes (“We’re all going to come to consensus). Or, on the other end of the spectrum, perhaps the event resembled more of a steel cage match than an exercise in learning. What is most heartbreaking about the difficulty in getting adults to attend such an event at church is that is reveals people’s reluctance to engage in difficult conversations at church.

What is most heartbreaking about the difficulty in getting adults to attend such an event at church is that is reveals people’s reluctance to engage in difficult conversations at church."

My naivety wants me to believe that the church is best place for such conversations. At church, we have the foundation of a common experience of God’s grace. As Christians, we are called to be lifelong learners. Yet, people’s reluctance to engage in difficult conversations at church reveals that people don’t feel church is a safe enough environment for disagreement. It might be that the cultural air of partisanship and ideological divisions is so thick that it pervades what we imagine will take place at the church. For some–and who can blame them–the mudslinging nature of partisan politics seems unfit for the sanctified atmosphere of the church. Furthermore, there are many who equate so-called “political correctness” with the inability to state perceived minority opinions. They don’t feel as though they can declare their opinions in a way that will be heard, but instead will be labeled “hateful” or “naive” or “old-fashioned” or “just a trend.”

Such perceptions lead to the obvious conclusion that such an event is such a waste of time. It’s the idea referred to as “Mental Math” in the book Crucial Conversations. We do quick math in our head that leads us to believe the event is not worth our time since it will either result in violence (verbal or emotional) or silence (groupthink or the feeling that our opinions are not truly welcome).

While understandable as this predicament may be, it is lamentable that the church fails to live up to its calling. Without being challenged, we’re more likely to stay in our ideological boxes and not grow in perspective or move to a deeper understanding of God’s world. By its nature, the church should be a learning community.

To be more specific, many suggest that their more conservative members are those who are the most likely to turn a deaf ear on engaging in Courageous Conversation-

Copyright: leaf / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: leaf / 123RF Stock Photo

styled events. This view seems to validate some of my limited experiences as well. My assumption about this reality is that their unwillingness to engage in dialogue reveals they presuppose a lack of safety. That’s one of a number possible reasons, though. It could be they feel so bombarded by a changing world that they feel threatened by a discussion that might ask them to think differently. It could be they feel such an event would be merely an exercise in groupthink or attempted brainwashing or that their opinions won’t be received or welcome.

What has been your experience? Am I off base? What can we do to motivate people to attend a Courageous Conversations-styled event? Here are a few quick thoughts (though I’d really appreciate hearing yours):

  1. Be transparent by giving as much information as possible about the event. Provide more than just when and where, but also the guidelines that will be used, the expected outcomes for the event, and so on.
  2. Have a design team that is representative of the community plan the event. Allow them to model healthy conversation, and let them become the leaders who give personal invitations.
  3. Stress that learning from one another is the goal.

If you have ideas, feel free to comment below, tweet me @UMCAdultForm, email me shughes@umcdiscipleship.org, or call me at 615-340-7020.