Relationships: the key to fruitful conversations about the Bible, theology, and morality

October 29th, 2021
Available from MinistryMatters

In January 2019 the state of New York enacted the Reproductive Health Act, which allows for abortion after twenty-four weeks if the woman’s life or health is at risk or if the fetus is not viable.[1] The social media and cable news rumors quickly filled up the airwaves, claiming that a people can have abortions all the way “up until birth.” No other information was given in the memes or click-bait headlines. At the time, I was teaching Sunday School in the rural church where I served on staff. The very next Sunday, the class brought up the “New York Abortion Law.”

I had noticed their posts on social media before Sunday, so I researched the actual language and intent of the act. Participants in the class, unafraid to talk about any subject, quickly wanted to make statements about the immorality of the law and how New York is a terrible place, full of terrible people. We regularly equate entire states with their largest metropolitan areas, particularly New York, Illinois, and California. After they remarks were finished, I calmed the group by explaining the intent and scope of the law, and we explored the section on abortion in the United Methodist Social Principles. Participants thanked me for my explanation and the connection to the denomination. They then asked, “Why didn’t they (the media sources) explain it like you did?” 

Many people think rural communities are all very conservative and unwilling to have critical and constructive conversations about faith, life, and ethics. We assume because they are in “red” counties that they are a monolith of straight- ticket voters who tow the party line. However, once we develop relationships with rural folk, we’ll see they are communities diverse in background, belief, and practice. Rural communities are far more complex than their votes or edited sound bites.

Still, I often hear from pastors and lay staff that they have trouble connecting with rural churches, because they feel shut out or shut down. I regularly hear stories that the rural people they serve are not interested in learning, growing, and talking about tough topics. It’s said that when pastors bring up tough topics, the rural people will often shut them down with bumper-sticker slogans, such as “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” or use proof texts from the scriptures to respond to the topic they are discussing. I also hear that many people don’t want to learn or only want to learn “the Bible.” Or it’s said that when pastors offer Bible studies, people often respond that they aren’t teaching the Bible; they’re teaching what someone else thinks about the Bible. For the pastor, who has spent several years learning these things, they can perceive this an apathetic or willing ignorance.

These responses (which can be overheard in suburban places too) are often resistance measures against someone the community deems a threat or outsider. Religious communities are protective of their culture, people, and traditions. Thus pastors, especially appointed pastors from outside the community, can pose a threat to their realities. However, in other cases, these interactions are a result of a failure to understand rural culture that is conveyed through story and proverb. It is an oral culture that relies on testimony, heritage, and music to explore the nuances of life.

While it’s easy to paint these acts of resistance (and rural ways of knowing) as signs of an uneducated or hostile church, I experience this tension as the complex actions of intelligent and creative people. They want to learn about their world with the  pastor or teacher. If the pastor comes in with an agenda that does not mesh well with rural culture and values, that agenda, no matter how theologically sound, is going to meet resistance.

I can provide some insight into my formational process as a leader, which allows these conversations and explorations to take place. My experience grows out of intentionally developing relationships and connections. I develop deep, rich, and ongoing relationships with the rural churches I have served. Once I kindle these relationships, we can easily talk about liberation theology, the state of the United Methodist Church, and as I mentioned earlier, topics like abortion, divorce, and human sexuality. I do acknowledge my privilege as a white, 35+ male, whose accent and mannerism fit with the mostly white southern churches I have served, but I feel like my process is helpful to other leaders as well.

First, I don’t start day one by having these conversations; nor do I bring an agenda that expects immediate or even long-term change. Instead, I move into the community. While I don’t regularly preach at this time, my observation of successful pastors in rural communities starts with sermons on love, hope, community, connection, and tradition. They select hymns familiar to the congregation and offer times of prayer that connect to the people. They even ask for members to share stories of ministries past, as part of a time of testimony within the service. In terms of Sunday school, I don’t usually start with teaching. I join a class. I sit, listen, and learn. 

Second, I develop relationships. I go to lunch with people, visit them in their homes or even simply after church. I create points of connection with them and slowly become part of their lives. Rural folk want to know the pastor and staff; they don’t want to feel managed by the pastor and staff.

Third, when I am given the opportunity to teach or preach, I begin with the Bible and relationships. Rural preaching and teaching revolve around starting with the scriptures. While you probably shouldn’t overly quote scholars and theologians, you also shouldn’t assume people don’t care about these things or aren’t smart enough to learn them. However, while speaking in the language of the people, you do have to sound like you know what you are talking about. In this, you become a trusted authority and information source. This will be true for the Bible, the Christian faith, and many world events.

As I teach the Bible, I work in varying historical, theological, and liberative interpretations. I do not, however, “block quote” various scholars and rattle off dates. This feels like a class and not a formational experience. The easiest place to begin is with the parables. The parables are useful because they play with biblical ideas in stories that Jesus (the Gospel writers) made up (or retold from other people who made them up). In those stories we can talk about justice through the parable of the workers in the vineyard, about subversive abundance with the parable of the yeast, or about reaching out to care for people who are not like us through the Good Samaritan.

Along with the Bible, I invite their stories, traditions, and experiences into the conversation. People carry a great deal of knowledge and wisdom. However, rural communities are not going to carry them in academic and theological texts. They carry them more intimately, in pieces of their culture and heritage. Whether it is through prayers and scriptures committed to memory, stories of their family helping in the community, or proverbs and songs that help them express their faith, these realities matter. I want to hear people’s stories more than their list of beliefs about issues, because this is where their knowledge, experience, and hope rests.

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As you develop that openness to scripture and culture, congregants begin to ask question about scripture and about life. I remember when we began to talk about the sacrifice of Isaac, and several older people brought up that they cannot stand that scripture text, because they can’t believe in a God that would require them to sacrifice their child. In terms of issues, such as abortion mentioned earlier, people trusted me enough ask for my wisdom, and then instead of fighting back, they listened to my explanation of the legislation and the United Methodist Church’s stance on the controversy. As this conversation developed, we found that most people were more moderate on the topic than their votes and voice would first suggest.

Finally, I suggest not having formal “hard conversations” as a part of an experience. Rural folk are not coming to a breakfast to discuss the future of a congregation. They come to eat and be together. These conversations happen informally as part of Sunday school, after church conversations in response to a sermon, or as part of the coffee group that sits down between the Sunday school and worship service. Look for these formational spaces to be fertile ground once relationships exist.

However, even in the best circumstances, hard conversations will be hard, regardless of the relationships you have forged. People will disagree with you, with each other, and even themselves.  However, one key means for fostering successful conversations is to connect these conversations to the context of the rural community. Whether it’s divorce, veterans’ affairs, or gun control, the discussion must connect to the community. Their community, not the world, is how rural community engages various social issues. People care deeply about their place, culture, and heritage, and want to preserve and protect it. Even those who disagreed with me, the denomination, or the consensus of the class, did not respond in anger toward any party. The relationships matter more than the issue.

This local, relational approach does not always work. I know people have left churches because they disagree over politics, theology, or practice, and they found it irreconcilable with their identity. This behavior is okay. They are free to find other ways of connecting with God and community. Rural spaces experience this regularly. Even if they talk about longstanding membership and traditions, people still change and grow over time. Friendships and relationships blossom and fade. Fights and feuds happen as often as reconciliations and celebrations. Successfully navigating tough conversations and topics doesn’t mean everyone is on the same side. Nor does it mean everything is the same after the conversation. It means that the Holy Spirit is at work in this space, engaging people, places, cultures, and traditions with the hope for God’s revelation within the present time. 

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