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.”