Two-hundred and eighty. From actors and public figures to government officials and emergency response agencies, Twitter has become the social media platform through which thoughts and opinions are expressed, information is disseminated, and public arguments are conducted. Want to know what Brad Pitt thinks of this year’s Oscar nominees? Check his Twitter. Need an update on which reopening phase your county is in, or up to the minute stats on the latest California wildfire? It’s on Twitter. Wondering what the President thinks about the latest developments in China? No need to wait for the press conference, just check his Twitter. When our public forum limits us to a mere 280 characters (this paragraph sits at 858 characters, by the way), is it truly that surprising then, that we have lost all ability to engage in thoughtful conversation or debate?
The restriction in characters, combined with the insular and proclamatory, rather than conversational, nature of social media, leaves no room for substantive discussion, and over time, even erases the desire to have one. Critical and exploratory thinking is a lost skill set throughout most of our society. Instead, we stand on our 280-character soapboxes and shout our opinion to the world, welcoming those who agree with open arms, and vehemently “cancelling” anyone who dares to object. After all, if they are not 100% for us, they are 100% against us.
In last week’s special In The Ring: Podcast Symposium, guest Dr. Ben Haupt, Associate Provost at Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, describes the lengths to which they go to train soon-to-be pastors in how to properly engage in a dialogue with others, particularly those who have differing opinions. “One thing that we use, which I think is just good for starting conversation, is Rapoport’s Rules. Students in systematics class have to read this, and then they commit to use this as a guide to starting conversation.” Mathematical psychologist Anatol Rapoport is credited with the following rules for how to constructively and fairly critique a contrary point of view: 1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.” 2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement). 3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target. 4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism. “If we were to submit ourselves more to rules of engagement like this, I think the conversation is more interesting, more clarifying.”
“We’re lacking [these rules] in society in a lot of ways, and if people actually did this we’d be in a whole other world in talking about issues and actually solving problems,” reflects Rev. Joel Hess, and while there is no instant fix for society, we can start to model this within the Church. “Christians, of all people, should not be running into this [polarized view], or demonizing the other side…We [as pastors] tell our people ‘Love your neighbor, love your enemy,’ and we should give them tools like this to do that…the goal here is to win someone over for Christ, not to simply win an argument. What is your goal? Is your goal to make someone feel bad, like they lost and you won? Or, is your goal to actually bless this other person, to reconcile them to the Church and actually give them something.” Matthew 18 clearly lays out what your goal should be, and Saint Paul makes similar arguments to the church in Rome about how brothers and sisters in Christ should engage with one another, urging the weak in faith not to pass judgement on his stronger brother, and the strong not to cause his weaker brother to stumble, but to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7).
When we take the time to truly understand a contrary point of view, find the common ground between both sides, and remain open to learning something new, not only are the conversations we engage in more fruitful and enlightening, but we also come to understand those individuals we engage with in a more profound and human way. We then begin to realize that we don’t have to be 100% in one camp or the other, polarized to the point of instant hatred and exclusion. There is in fact a middle ground, and an even more important goal here. Joel speaks for all pastors saying, “We want our people to think through these things. We want them to be a theologian when we’re not there, to not be afraid to engage people who think the opposite of what they think, and to be strong and at the same time, kind and compassionate in order to ultimately bring people to Christ, not to win the argument.” To do so, you are going to need more than 280 characters.
This article is a brief examination of one of several topics discussed in one of many conversations during last week’s inaugural In The Ring: Podcast Symposium. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Ross Engel, Rev. Paul Koch, and guest Dr. Ben Haupt as they duke it out over how to properly engage in conversations, tools for how to encourage people to think exploratorily during the sermon, who the heck Tertullian is and why you should care, and many reasons (once again) Tyler the Intern should go to seminary, on the full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, “In the Ring: Debate in an Age of Deconstruction with Dr. Ben Haupt”. More videos from the In The Ring: Podcast Symposium, can be found on the Ringside Preachers YouTube Channel and Craft of Preaching YouTube Channel.
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