Supportive Engagement

“Your indiscretions are worse than mine ANY DAY!”
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When Christians Simply Yell

On behalf of the Institute for the Art of Biblical Conversation (IABC)
The parent of Coffee With Paul  (CWP):

A chief goal of our gatherings (live or online) is to promote intelligent Christian conversation about our ancient sacred writings. We are pursuing the opportunity of an incredible, lively, open, generous, electrifying, and thoughtful atmosphere of the discussion of biblical texts, concepts, and ideas.

Unfortunately, that is a rare thing among Christians. Far too often, “Christians” won’t sit down at the same table with each other–they just yell across it at each other. Instead of setting an example for the world, they follow the pattern of political radio talk show hosts or of presidential debates—–which in recent times are national scandals, disgraceful, and a sign of baby-rattling self-centeredness on the part of all involved. So Christians end up either fighting or refusing to talk about anything important (thus creating a culture of mindlessness that  is unworthy of the name Christian).

The inability or unwillingness of Christians (often even within their own churches!) to be able to talk to each other and to challenge each other with an open spirit of grace is both longstanding and reprehensible.

What follows are the guidelines (not rules) we have in place for ourselves.  Not because we ourselves feel in any way superior to anyone else;  but only because we feel this is a far superior way.  We commend these kinds of guidelines for all kinds of Christian groups around the world.

What is “Supportive Engagement”?

“Conversation” for us implies a “give and take” among people of good conscience in an atmosphere that we call “supportive engagement.

Supportive Engagementhas two main elements which work together: (1) challenge, and (2) support.

  1. CHALLENGE: Many faith environments avoid “thinking” together because thinking promotes dissension!  However, in our groups we intentionally pursue a thinking environment in which we study together and engage each other for the sake of “iron sharpening iron.” In our group, you are free to advocate any belief or position you like; but you had better be ready to get challenged by someone. Challenge is not only acceptable, it is welcomed. Challenge does not imply being “argumentative” or “obnoxious.” Rather, “challenge” means the intelligent exploration of ideas with one another, especially when we disagree over one or more issues.
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    1. This implies that the challenger is mature enough so as to always try to show appropriate respect to the person he or she is challenging. It is never permissible for a challenger to attack, demean, or impugn the person whom the challenger is approaching. (This is not a presidential debate, and the disgraceful tactics used by childish candidates will not be tolerated here!) Any such attack will be stopped promptly in its tracks, and anyone who will not cooperate may be ushered out of the group altogether. Personal disputes do happen, and those disputes will need to be handled personally off the community discussion board–like two grown-up Christian people. This is a place for invigorating discussion. Mud slinging will not happen here. Following are some examples:
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      1. Appropriate: “I find your argument lacking coherence, especially at two points: (1) . . .”
      2. Inappropriate: “You are obviously incapable of thinking through a problem with any coherence . . .”
      3. Inappropriate: “You’re an idiot!” (Anything close to this will certainly get you called on the carpet, and it will possibly get you thrown out of the group.)
      4. Inappropriate: “You are trying to say . . .” or “You feel x . . . ” or “You think X . . .”  (Don’t tell people what they they think, feel, or are trying to do. Speak your own feelings and let others do that for themselves. This is good manners and it shows respect.”)
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    2. This also implies that the one being challenged is mature enough to know the difference between a personal attack and an appropriate challenge to a position or approach. Misunderstandings can occur, of course, even among mature participants, and sometimes confusion sets in. But being able to receive a challenge with grace is part of what we are about. As long as we keep in mind that we are challenging “issues” and not “people,” we will be able to resolve any misunderstandings and continue.
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    3. This also implies the acceptance of three basic principles of communication:
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      1. The sender always must take responsibility for what he or she says/writes. He or she must work to write/speak in such a way that deals with issues rather than personalities, always in an attempt to respect and NOT to offend another person. It is always appropriate if a sender chooses to reword a statement based on a perceived offense.
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      2. The receiver must take responsibility for how he or she decides to read/hear a statement. He or she must work to not “over-read” any received statement. The fact is, absolutely anything can be misunderstood and inadvertently twisted into something it was not intended to say (even this statement). There is clearly a point at which a sender is not responsible for how a reader may twist or distort a received message.E.g.: The statement: “Offensive comments are not allowed” can be interpreted: “You are accusing me of writing offensive comments!” But it does not even come close to saying that. To assume such a thing may be an aggressive and unwarranted reading on the reader’s part.
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      3. In all cases, it is legitimate for a receiver to ask a sender what is implied by a statement. In this environment, once the sender clarifies the intent, that is the end of the matter. Any response by anyone questioning the sincerity or honesty of a discussion partner will be regarded as a personal attack on that party (for calling that person a liar). This has no place in mature Christian discussion.
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  2. SUPPORT: No matter whether the sender and receiver end up agreeing, in this environment, they make a commitment to end up supporting each other for the sake of community harmony—–even if they disagree in good conscience. (And it is perfectly legitimate for them to state it as such.)
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    1. Appropriate: “Jo and I disagree with one another, yet I respect and laud her attempts to search the scriptures and to explain her position.”
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    2. At all times we resolve to interact with each other openly and honestly in a spirit always of Christian love. We offer support of each other despite particular disagreements over one matter or another.
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    3. We grant to each other that we are all doing the best we can do to understand the scriptures and be honest with ourselves. We grant that it is possible for intelligent people of good conscience to diligently study the Bible and then honestly arrive at different conclusions. We accept that it is NOT a requirement that everybody has to agree with each other in order to support each other.
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WHAT “SUPPORTIVE ENGAGEMENT” IS NOT:__

  1. It is not “agreeing to disagree.” The latter is where all tend to believe whatever we want without any need to discuss or support it.
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  2. It is not any kind of formal debate. (We are not a debating society!)
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  3. It is not a Sunday school class, a counseling session, or a feel-good session where participants tiptoe around each other so that no one will “feel any challenge.” This is honest discussion where we do not wear our feelings on our sleeves and where we support the other in challenging us. There is no promise, here, that you won’t get your feelings hurt! It depends on where you wear your feelings and what you decide to do about it that is important.
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SUMMARY: We advocate an incredible discussion environment! “Supportive Engagement” is just that: Engagement! It refers to an active and willing challenge to one another to sharpen each other. Such an approach is only possible among mature Christian adults who can and do distinguish between (1) intelligent, pointed, and direct challenge (as an actual goal), as opposed to (2) personal attacks, dismissals, or name calling (as is found in presidential debates, a thing of disgrace to everyone and which brings shame to a nation). Christians are to walk by a different set of principles.

Again, these are not rules, but guiding ideas that flow from a principle desire for something better than what the popular political arena offers. What we follow here is a kind of mindset that asks:  “What can we do to engender valuable conversation? How can we help create that and pursue that?”

I do not suggest that this is a perfect outline;  I do suggest that this kind of approach can work. As always, it depends on the people involved.

Gary D. Collier