Civil discourse requires maturity, openness, desire to listen to others


People are often surprised when they discover that a church sometimes experiences conflict when they first come to a church. As one young couple confided in me, “We expected everyone to be more loving here.”

Such expectations are common. In one popular song, the lyrics go, “Yes, they’ll know us by our love.” Jesus himself said, “A new commandment I give to you. You shall love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34)

Yet the reality in many churches is we bring our values into our church. The norm in politics, the media and our own families is often a norm of not just winning, but putting down those who oppose us. After all, there must be something wrong with them.

As a result, when an issue arises in our churches (usually around change) we don’t just discuss it, we tend to debate it often with raised voices and an attitude that others are just plain stupid for disagreeing with us. The result is that, a former parishioner once quipped, “We act more like a circular firing squad than a church.”

So how do we return to the commandment to “love one another as I have loved you?”
Many churches (including People’s Congregational Church) have been rediscovering the idea of “civil discourse.” Civil discourse can be defined as engaging in a conversation intended to enhance understanding. Such conversations begin with an attitude of respect for the other person.

But more than that, civil discourse does not diminish the other persons worth nor does it question their judgment. It avoids direct antagonism and hostility. Most important, it requires an appreciation of the other person’s experiences and a spirit of openness.

Civil discourse in other words requires some maturity, openness and the desire to listen and learn from the other person. It is a skill that many churches are beginning to teach its members as part of the process of growing and learning to be more loving toward others.

Civil discourse is also a skill that we can all learn and apply to other situations as well. For example, my wife and I recently went on a date to see a movie. I had heard or read about a couple of movies that I wanted to see. My wife however read about a different movie (called “Mud”) that received high reviews. Rather than debate who was right, we listened to one another and simply decided to pick the one with the highest reviews.

Of course, her pick won and so that was the movie we went to see. And of course, it was a terrific choice that we spent an hour discussing after the movie ended. Rather than engage in a win-lose battle, we both learned long ago that the best outcome usually occurs when we listen to one another respectfully.

Could civil discourse be something that would benefit you, your family, or the church you attend?

The Rev. Dr. Lanny Kuester is interim pastor at People’s Congregational Church in Bayport.