A few weeks ago, for the third year I attended the Q Conference in Boston. This has turned into one of the year’s highlights for me and I was glad Allison got to attend with me for the first time this year. Much has already been written about some of the significant conversations that happened there.
What I left realizing, however, is that one of the things I most appreciate about Q, is the space to have thoughtful conversations, where there’s space to dialogue, hear multiple perspectives and be challenged. Not only from the stage, but also in conversations around lunches and coffees, in the hallways in-betwen and during sessions. I told someone recently that I love going to it because Q has become in a lot of ways, my tribe. Not because we all believe the same things, or because everyone is a pastor in a church like Parkcrest, but because it’s a space for the kind of dialogue that I find myself often longing for and it’s a group of people who are looking for that same thing.
This year, unfortunately, one of the things that happened was because of the sensitivity of LGBT conversations regarding the church that seemed to become one of the predominant themes, there were quite a few people who felt the need was not for dialogue and discussion. People who weren’t looking for safe, thoughtful conversations, but for the conference to take a stronger stand – either more conservative or more progressive, depending on which viewpoint you came into the conference with. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking simply mimics the incredibly divisive and polarized climate in our culture at large – one where you need to show strongly which side you’re on. Rather than approaching these kinds of dialogues in humility, we approach them with the arrogance of being right and needing the conference that we attend (not the one we put on…but attend) to affirm what we already believe.
Researchers have written a bit about what is now being called “The Backfire Effect”, which essentially says that when we’re presented with facts that objectively counter what we already believe, we won’t change our beliefs, but will actuall dig our heels in more to what we already believe to be true. Being presented with actual facts that push against what we already believe backfires by causing us to become more entrenched against those actual facts. We suffer from Confirmation Bias, where we search out information that affirms what we already think, rather than allow ourselves to be challenged by something that may force us to change what we think, or even the way in which we think it.
We don’t know how to be challenged in what we think anymore. We don’t know how to have engaging, thoughtful and respectful dialogue with someone who believes differently than we do, especially with subjects that have become incredibly divisive. When we talk about people and subjects such as our LGBT friends, the role they play in the church and how we understand sexual ethics to be at work today, we haven’t figured out how to not dig our heels in and openly dialogue with those who end up opposing the viewpoint we hold.
As one scholar recently said to me, “This is the most challenging issue I’ve seen in my life for pastors.” There has to be a space for those of us in influential roles to be able to have open, honest dialogue, without feeling like you need to pander to one audience or another. Q has been that space for me for a few years now, and I hope it will continue to be, rather than being coopted by either conservatives or progressives making sure that their agenda is being pushed to their appropriate level of satisfaction.
What we need are more conversations. Conversations like the one that Dan Cathy and Shane Windmeyer had a few years ago. We like to spend a lot of time arguing about what is sin and what is not, while Jesus spent a lot of time with people. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need to have those hard conversations, but it does mean that at the core of Christianity is incarnation – beliefs that are not divorced from humanity. The Word becomes flesh, not the other way around.
What I left Q with, was a deep appreciation for how hard it is to create a safe space for hard conversations. It’s more than putting differing viewpoints on stage. It’s more than giving out a book with multiple viewpoints to read. It’s an ethos of a people who are willing to respectfully dialogue with others. One of my hopes and prayers is to see more of this kind of ethos spring up in Christian communities across the country.