How Church Talk Turns Toxic

Sit down. Shut up. Listen. Agree or leave.

Sadly, that’s the message many take away from church. And, sadly, they leave. And they don’t return.

And too often, what’s left is an ethos of intimidation or “timidation”–the fear to talk about the touchy, but important, stuff of life and faith.

In our book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, we advocate “fearless conversation”–an openness to dialog and a willingness to tackle tough topics. We suggest, to fuel participation and spiritual growth, that churches replace some one-way lecture time with actual two-way conversation, and be courageous enough to encourage differing viewpoints. Some church leaders have resonated with our suggestions. But others have pushed back.

Here’s a typical comment: “The challenge is that the more controversial (fearless) the conversation becomes the greater the possibility that someone won’t like an expressed opinion. We’ve had people leave in the middle of the hour and tell the pastor later that it was a horrible experience for them. They felt that people who were in disagreement couldn’t possibly love each other. Or they simply couldn’t tolerate listening to ideas with which they disagreed.”

That’s an unhealthy environment. But it’s fixable. Let me suggest a couple of ways.

Construct a safe climate. After spending the last several years tackling tough life topics at Lifetree Cafes across the country, we’ve learned  to be intentional about welcoming differences. We announce before and during discussions that “your thoughts are welcome; your doubts are welcome.” We inform people that we can differ in our viewpoints while we maintain respect and love for one another.

We live in an age of sharp political division and rude talk-show brawling. So, we need to explain that people, especially people gathered around God, can exchange views without exchanging blows. This is the opportunity to intentionally practice the fruit of the spirit. Let’s show the world how love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control can build a healthy Body.

Start on the inside. By this, I mean within the staff. I’ve seen way too many churches that struggle to be healthy–because their staff relations are unhealthy. If the staff environment reeks of intimidation or “timidation,” there’s little hope that members will sense a safe climate.

Unfortunately, most theological schools spend little time training their students how to lead people, how to build teams, how to encourage healthy participation, how to relate directly and tactfully, and how to navigate conflict. So, many of today’s church leaders create toxic staff environments. If staff people do not engage in healthy “fearless conversation” among themselves, it’s not likely to happen among the members.

The essential ingredient for fearless conversation is, quite simply, love. Love for one another. This kind of love, exhibited even when we disagree, is what Jesus called us to pursue: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.  Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

9 Responses to “How Church Talk Turns Toxic”

  1. Great article! Love it!

  2. “We’ve had people leave in the middle of the hour and tell the pastor later that it was a horrible experience for them. They felt that people who were in disagreement couldn’t possibly love each other. Or they simply couldn’t tolerate listening to ideas with which they disagreed.”

    What’s ironic, is that people are going to leave your church for one reason or another. So, why avoid tough conversations? If everything is hunky-dory (sp?), someone is still going to leave for other reasons. Why not learn to dialogue about the tough stuff and see what comes of it?

    Also, some churches, like the last one I was in, and have a very unhealthy view of people leaving. It’s co-dependent or something. I think this stems from years under a very dogmatic pastor who ruled with the “my way or no way” style. People become slaves to keeping the peace just so people won’t leave. Like they can’t stand the thoughts of people leaving, but that tack ends up being the least peaceful way to live. The end goal isn’t growth, it’s just keeping everyone happy. The truth is, you can do all to keep people happy or to keep the peace and people will still leave for any number of reasons.

    One clergy group that I belong to often mentions the non-anxious presence and this is something that clergy would do well to learn, embody and pass on to their congregants. I think a church that is less anxious and emotionally healthy will handle differences and disagreements a whole lot better.

  3. A few months ago I was sitting in church. My husband and I had gone to the 6pm service that Sunday. The attendance for the evening service is much lower than Sunday AM, but they keep it set with the same amount of chairs. People were spread out all through the back and sides making it feel disconnected and empty. Sunday night also draws a diverse crowd- tattoos and catching a quick smoke on the way in the door are not uncommon, nor is it uncommon for people who really need God that week to be there.

    The sermon that weekend was a VERY personal message from the pastor sharing his personal journey and calling into ministry. He talked about God walking with him through the years, his passion for those far from Jesus and the mistakes he has made along the way. The sermon felt like a conversation, but he sat on the stage, with the bright lights, wearing a headset microphone while everyone was so far away.

    I kept wishing and hoping that he would throw down the microphone, ask everyone to move to the front in a circle and have people share where they were at in their journey and what they were excited, scared or confused about in their own walks with God? I kept thinking in my head, are we so tied to our own plan for church that we miss the opportunity to do what God is calling us to do right now? How many people are here tonight because they needed someone to talk to them, not talk at them?

    Wouldn’t Jesus have reached through the crowd and gone to talk to the person in need that evening?

  4. I listened to a lesson on closed handed and open handed beliefs. There are certain essentials you just can’t bend on and you hold tight with a closed hand but things like the doctrine of election and infant baptism, you want to have open handed even if inside your dead against or for it. But there are people who just can’t let open handed things go. It drives them NUTS that the next guy just doesn’t see things their way. So a conversation with them quickly becomes toxic.

    I now say that the bible contains two trees. The Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life. Bible doctrines, all those things we fight and argue over are fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that not only separated Adam and Eve from God, this tree separates people from people into our fragmented church. The Tree of Life is Jesus and the love, joy, peace, gentleness, kindness, temperance, faith, patience and grace that not only united man back with God but also unites us with each other.

    The toxic church is the one whose focus is much on theology and the search for truth in doctrines. This falls into the category of ‘knowing what God knows’. Good churches focus on Christ and relationship with God and others and bearing the Spirits fruit. They grow in grace and in knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ… not so much in the doctrines of the bible.

  5. This immediately brings to mind the countless times I’ve been asked, “So do you believe the Bible?”

    A definite conversation killer.

  6. I want to go to Ryan’s church! Seriously I want to go to church, but things like this are why I don’t… ”

    “Left” and “Right” : A little Bible study Remember what Jesus said: ‘Goats on the left, sheep on the right’. To Peter, ‘if you want to catch fish do it from the right side of the boat.” They did and filled the boat. Origin of Left & Right… I have often wondered why it is that Conservatives are called the “right” and Liberals are called the “left”. By chance I stumbled upon this verse in the Bible: “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.” Ecclesiastes 10:2 (NIV) Thus sayeth the Lord. Amen. Can’t get any simpler than that. Spelling Lesson The last four letters in American……….I Can The last four letters in Republican……..I Can The last four letters in Democrats………Rats End of lesson. Test to follow in November 6, 2014 Remember, November is to be set aside as rodent removal month..

    I’m not looking for trouble, like I said, I want to go to church. I have looked high and low for a church… one was so welcoming that they demanded I sign the guest book and actually sent people to my home the next day. I was visiting someone at the prison but my husband was quite shaken, apparently they were worried about infiltrators. You can’t make this stuff up! Another church requested a 15 page application. You can’t, well I could make this up but I’m not. Maybe I’m searching for a reason to not go to church, it’s depressing really. I love my Christian rock music : ) It’s full of love and tolerance, hope and honesty, inclusion not exclusion, prayer and praise… the Jesus stuff : ) Any advice and encouragement would be most helpful!

    • Bewildered, I used to go to a church that employed what was called a Care Team and their job was to greet people and make them feel welcome on Sunday mornings. There was a little card to fill out and initially they did try to visit people to just follow-up on the visitor’s experience at the church and leave a small gift like a loaf of bread. That didn’t work well as it was hard finding people at home. Then, they mainly just focused on making people feel welcome on Sunday morning and following up with phone calls and/or letters. The goal was just what I stated–to make people feel welcome–because so often people say they go to a church and NO ONE greeted them or talked to them. Admittedly, when a church has a ministry like this, you have to work with your volunteers because some will be heavy-handed about it and that is not the desired goal at all.

    • I’m touched you want to go to my church. My church is usually down in the basement in my quiet room, sitting on the floor on a blanket in front of my space heater. I talk to God and read my bible to hear from Him. I have it several times a week. Since your not going to church, you may be doing my thing at the moment. I occasionally download sermons and listen to them at work when I’m not being constantly bothered by people but it’s hard with the constant interruptions. I regularly listen to Dr. Charles Stanly because his focus is on relationship with God and much of what he preaches hits right on the money with what I am living out in my relationship with God. I don’t know what your relationship is or how it looks with God, but I will encourage you to read the bible to hear from God, watching for things to stick out and grab your attention… things that seem to hit to the heart. That is God speaking. Listen to those things and take them to heart. You’ll find God much nicer and more understanding than how people present Him sometimes. God isn’t all that demanding, in fact hardly at all. He really doesn’t have to be. When you see how really nice God is, you just want to do what He says and He hardly ask much at all… nothing all that hard. He does point out things that need fixing, heart wise. I guess those things are the hardest but He…the Holy Spirit, will help with those thing if you ask. One of the good things is He teaches by example when it come to how to treat others just by the way he’ll treat you. My new thing is do unto others as God has done to me. If God is understanding and helpful with me, then I should be the same with others.

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