A Better Conversation

Like it or not, the 2024 presidential election is on the way, and many pastors and church members are already feeling a sense of dread. Since the 2016 presidential election, a survey found that nearly a third of people have stopped talking to a friend or family member due to political disagreements. There are reasons to think that the 2024 election will be even worse. 

Since it can’t be ignored, how should pastors prepare? Our work with the Winsome Conviction Project has given us a lot of opportunities to talk with Christian leaders, and a few thoughts have emerged from these discussions. 

First, the good news. Responding well is not as complicated as one might think. It is actually simple—not easy, but simple. We follow Jesus by loving what he loves and obeying what he commands. The results must be left to him. What makes this hard in practice is all the things that cloud our vision of what loving and following Jesus really means.

Let’s look at some issues that a contentious election is prone to cloud.

Keeping Jesus on the Throne 

A friend of ours is fond of saying that the main thing is that the main thing remains the main thing. It is a good rule to follow for an election year. 

For Christians, Jesus is the main thing, but there is always someone or something wanting to push him off the throne—polarized politics is one of those things. Recent surveys show a startling rise in “affective polarization,” a term used to describe not merely disagreeing with the opposite side, but having antipathy toward them. It is often associated with high levels of fear and anxiety about political outcomes. 

Hate and fear tend to push Jesus off the throne. This was driven home to us at a recent conference. We were speaking to a person who was expressing their animosity toward the political “other side.” They said that they feel much more in common with a non-Christian who shared their political views than they do with a Christian who didn’t. In this case, politics simply mattered more than a shared faith in Christ. 

Cultivating the Right Fruit 

We’ve had some memorable conversations with Christian politicians and activists about civility in the public square. We’ve been surprised, and not a little disappointed, to hear them say things like, “Gentleness, kindness and civility are great when people are playing by the rules, but in American politics today, the other side is out for blood. The time for civility is passed.” 

We doubt the merits of this argument even for professional politicians, but what really worries us is when political amateurs adopt the same belief. We read posts on Facebook or Instagram that sound for all the world like civility has been thrown out the window. People write nice things about their friends or their vacations, but posts about politics are full of hatred, quarreling, rivalry, factions and a party spirit. 

Unfortunately, those words are taken directly from Paul’s list of the works of the flesh in Galatians 5:20. He states that these things are opposed to the Spirit. He warns that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. He contrasts them with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. 

For Christians, at the very least, there should be no real choice between doing the works of the flesh and bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Cultivating the fruit of the Spirit is part of what it means to keep Jesus on the throne of our life. It is not a means to some political goal; it is an end in itself. This fruit is simply what grows when the Spirit takes root in our heart. Unless we plan on uprooting the Spirit from our lives, we’d better plan on being gentle, loving, kind and patient, and letting the political chips fall where they may.

Letting the Church Be the Church 

The New Testament describes the church with pretty exalted language. It is the pillar and foundation of the truth, the temple of the living God, and the bride of Christ. It is a building built on the foundation of Christ himself, and every brick laid upon that foundation is trimmed and fitted according to Christ who is the cornerstone. 

The church is a city on a hill, full of peculiar people zealous for doing good works. It is the place where the faith once for all delivered to the saints is not just guarded and protected, but put into action every day all around the world. And one day our earthly vocation of trusting, serving and worshiping Jesus will graduate to heaven where people from every nation, tribe and tongue gather in praise and worship around a single throne. 

The Christian faith is not about power and influence in this present world. Christ promised that the very gates of hell would not prevail against his church, so we need not fear for her existence. We do, however, need to tend to her health and keep her on task. Few tasks are more important than the one Jesus gave us on his last night—to love one another, and so demonstrate that we are his disciples. Looking outward, our task is the Great Commission, preaching the gospel and teaching people to observe all that Christ commanded us. This means loving both God and neighbor. It means extending care to the hungry, sick, naked and imprisoned because in so doing we care for Christ himself. With a calling like this, it seems crass to use the church as a platform for a political agenda. 

This does not mean the church should be politically unconcerned, but there is a difference between being politically concerned and politicizing our concerns. Politicizing our concerns means mapping each issue of social concern onto a political party and discussing them in political terms. That’s not our calling. Rather, we need to map these issues onto our biblical theology and discuss them in biblical terms. Once this is done, we can make prudent decisions about the actual policies and candidates that confront us within a given election cycle. We must begin with our theology and order our political decisions accordingly, not begin with our politics and fit our theology to its demands. 

This approach is often counterintuitive. It may even lead to bad outcomes from a short-term and this-world perspective. But, as was said of the early church, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. God often works through unlikely people who make profound sacrifices, and who may very well not see any good results within their own lifetime. The church is always playing the long game—even when it doesn’t yield good short-term results.

Being Ambassadors for Christ 

When ambassadors think of home, they do not think of the land they are in, but the land they are from and which they have been appointed to represent. Their home is determined by their citizenship, not their residence. Likewise, the primary projects of the ambassador are not those of the country in which they find themselves, but those of the country they represent. 

In the upcoming election, we need to keep clear on our primary allegiance. We need to shape our speech first and foremost by the King whom we represent. When others talk to us, we should also leave them with a strange feeling that we don’t really fit into the neat political categories. We should seem a bit out of place, because we are. We are aliens, exiles, sojourners and ambassadors. Ultimately, our heart lies elsewhere. 

Keeping Love First 

Finally, our first attitude toward other people should be one of love—regardless of their political leanings. This is especially true within the church. Neither party has written its platforms or chosen its candidates with Christian theology as its guide. There is no religious test for those who serve. 

Both parties attract a wide variety of religious (and nonreligious) people. Individual Christians will weigh Christian values differently. Nonetheless, all these Christians have been placed in one body. They have been arranged by divine design and given needed gifts by the Spirit. God cautions us against despising or disdaining the gifts we find unattractive, weak or of less value than our own. 

Stewarding Our Citizenship

These are our main things, and during the coming election cycle, we need to work hard to keep them the main thing. There are also secondary things that are important too. We care about our jobs, houses, families and communities. Indeed, Jesus calls us to faithfully steward these things. Oftentimes our jobs, houses, families and communities are directly impacted by political decisions. If we care for one, we will care for the other. 

Keeping first things first does not mean we don’t care about politics. As an analogy, a Christian businessperson who wants to keep Jesus first does not need to neglect their business. Rather, they see the business itself as a stewardship responsibility given by Jesus. It should be well-tended according to its proper level of importance. But it should also be kept in its place and not allowed to dominate their entire life. It is poor stewardship for a businessperson to neglect their family, damage their relationships, or sacrifice their character for the sake of their business. The same applies to stewarding our citizenship responsibilities. 

How, then, can we become better stewards of our political concerns in the coming election year? How can we talk about politics without dividing the church? Here are two communication strategies we have found helpful. 

1. Keep Talking With Each Other. 

Healthy conversations are essential to community life, and to ensure our conversations are healthy, it is helpful to think of two categories of communication—emphatic and phatic. Emphatic communication dives into emotional topics like mask mandates, issues of race and immigration policies. They are serious conversations about serious topics, in which voices are often raised and emotions run high. (If you’ve raised teenagers, then you know that seemingly every conversation can feel like this.) Emphatic communication is important, but we can’t stay there. If every time we meet a person in the church lobby or in our small group we engage in emphatic conversations, we’ll either stop talking altogether or break into polarized groups. 

This is where phatic communication comes in. It involves the smaller things of life: a child’s soccer match, a Netflix movie worth watching, or how our fantasy football team is doing. It reminds us that the upcoming election isn’t all there is to life. Despite our political alliances, our children still go to school, jobs continue to press in on us, and we all try to manage increasingly hectic schedules. Talking about these issues is important because it makes deposits in our relational accounts. It fosters good will. It can be as simple as asking, “Hey, how is Tommy feeling about his upcoming band recital?” Small talk sets up future big conversations about potentially divisive issues.

Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor and Amy Coney Barrett couldn’t disagree more about political issues; the first was nominated by Obama, the latter by Trump. They don’t hide from their differences. A Politico article from earlier this year detailed their relationship: “When we disagree, our pens are sharp,” Sotomayor declared. 

But they also go to lunch where the topic of politics is off limits. They even share candy. 

“Justice Sotomayor showed up at my office with Halloween candy for my kids,” Coney Barrett shared. She then offered a thought that could help our church disagreements: “Collegiality isn’t going to make you change your principles … but there’s a way to have disagreement and to meet each other where it is possible to meet.” 

Asking about our kid’s soccer tournaments, discussing favorite movies, and sharing candy creates a place to meet and nurtures lines of communication that can set a softer tone when disagreements arise.

2. Start Conversations Gently.

How you start a conversation is how it will end. John Gottman, a leading scholar on relationships, asserts that the first 30 seconds to a minute set the tone for the entire conversation. When moving from the phatic to the emphatic, the first words uttered will determine the trajectory of the entire interaction. 

Think before you speak. And, if you forget to do that, Gottman suggests you can always reset. If you accidentally start a conversation poorly, such as by insulting a particular candidate or belittling a person’s position, just stop and restart. “OK, that didn’t come out right. My bad. Can I try that again?” 

One reason for harsh startups to political conversations is thinking the goal is to set the other person straight. But when reading the Scriptures, we get the sense there are two parts of communication, not one. There is our content (beliefs, convictions, opinions) and the relational (amount of respect, compassion and acknowledgement between two people). In Ephesians 4:15, Paul states we are to speak truth (content) in love (relational); while Peter (1 Peter 3:15) urges us to be ready to give an answer as to why we believe (content), but with all gentleness and reverence (relational). 

The key takeaway is that if we neglect the relational, people won’t hear our content. When discussing politics, we need to make sure that in our very first words we affirm our respect for the other person’s view. If we start a political conversation by coming in hot or dismissive, stop and start over. Ancient wisdom reminds us that a “gentle answer deflects anger, but harsh words make tempers flare” (Prov. 15:1).

Fruitful Civility

We have already stated that Christian faithfulness is not determined by political outcomes, but we should note that the political impact of exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit should not be underestimated, even when living in very challenging circumstances. 

Czech dissident-turned-president Václav Havel lived through more politically difficult times than most of us can even imagine. He was imprisoned by the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia before the Iron Curtain came down in 1989. He became the first president of Czechoslovakia in the post-Communist era and was the first president of the Czech Republic. It was not an easy job, nor were those times easy. Nonetheless, Havel was remarkably civil and gracious, in part because he saw this as the only way to get to where he wanted to go. 

In his essay “Politics, Morality and Civility,” Havel writes, “There is only one way to strive for decency, reason, responsibility, sincerity, civility and tolerance, and that is decently, reasonably, responsibly, sincerely, civilly and tolerantly.” It is a good lesson for us to remember this year and beyond, both within the church and in the public square.