Foster a dialogic culture

In this month’s Joyful Journey, Bishop David Alan Bard asks us to dedicate ourselves to creating a spacious church with a dialogic culture where conversations are respectful, rich, and deep…

We are beginning a new year, and I am starting the next part of my journey with you as your bishop. My temporary assignment as bishop of the Minnesota Conference has ended, though Julie and I will still return to Minnesota to visit family. My assignment to Michigan is now set until 2024.

Through the coming months, we will continue to navigate turbulent waters as our denomination works through disaffiliation and the church lives in a society where “disaffiliating” from religious affiliation continues to increase. These are difficult realities, and there is significant pain to attend to.

Even now, though, we must continue to take up the challenge of ministry. We need to build The United Methodist Church of the future. For me, fostering a dialogic culture is one necessary and important dimension of the future church. In the episcopal address I delivered at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference last November, I spoke about the kind of space I was committed to working toward in The United Methodist Church—spacious space, capacious space, magnanimous space. This is a commitment shared by many, including the bishops whom I had the honor to represent when giving that episcopal address. I see the idea of such space rooted in New Testament texts such as Romans 12–14.

In preparing to deliver that address, I encountered the work of Anand Giridharadas. In his new book, The Persuaders, he expresses concern about a disturbing element in our culture, one of “writing people off—assuming that they would never change their minds or ways, dismissing them as hopelessly mired in identities they couldn’t escape, viewing those who thought differently as needing to be resisted rather than won over, refusing to engage the work of persuasion.” Giridharadas encourages that instead of writing people off, we develop a culture of persuasion, where people listen well and engage in deep conversation.

I think such a culture of persuasion is an essential dimension of spacious, capacious, magnanimous space. The alternative is a culture where we view others as unpersuadable, not worth the work of deep listening and constructive dialogue, and people only to be opposed. I also recognize that the term “persuasion” has its limits. It carries connotations that one person has all the truth and is patient in trying to persuade others. “Persuasion” can sound heavy-handed. Let’s admit that we all begin being, in the words of Paul, “fully convinced in [our] own minds” (Romans 14:5, NRSV). Yet a genuine culture of persuasion needs to have a mutuality about it that the word “persuasion” may not convey well. Perhaps talking about a dialogic culture would be more helpful.

In December, I finished two other books that deepened my thinking about such a culture as an essential dimension of being a church in the spirit of Jesus. Philosopher Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski’s book The Two Greatest Ideas is a fascinating intellectual history. Zagsebski concludes by arguing for the need to develop a third great idea, “intersubjectivity,” the idea that a human mind can grasp another human mind. She argues that paying more attention to our ability to understand the mind of others might help us overcome some of our deep polarization. “Respect for the selfhood of others means going to the trouble to see the world from their point of view.”

Dialogue and deeper understanding are also important in Pamela Cooper-White’s book The Psychology of Christian Nationalism. When trying to speak across differences, and Cooper-White acknowledges that there are better times than others to do so, it is important to remember that building and maintaining relationships is crucial. Building and maintaining relationships involves deep listening, working to find common ground, and kindness.

The emerging United Methodist Church should be spacious. We need to work together to create space that is genuinely spacious, capacious, and magnanimous. To do so is to foster a dialogic culture that entails practices of self-differentiated empathy (self-knowledge combined with trying to understand another person’s perspective from within), deep listening, and intellectual humility (the openness to modify one’s perspective). Such space is encouraged in the New Testament and by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist stream of the Christian tradition. Wesley proposed a high ideal for Christian conversation or conferencing. “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?”

As we move into this new year, may we, with grace and in the power of God’s Spirit, dedicate ourselves to creating a spacious church, a capacious church, a magnanimous church, a church with a dialogic culture where conversations are respectful, rich, and deep, always in grace, seasoned with salt.

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