PIVOTING FROM RESPECTFUL ELECTRONIC CONVERSATIONS (eCIRCLES) TO FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATIONS: A BIG NEW CHALLENGE
Sunday, November 11, 2018 at 11:55AM
Harold Heie

As reported on this website most of my attempts over the past seven years to orchestrate respectful conversations among Christians who have strong disagreements regarding some contentious issues have been done electronically (through my eCircles), with follow-up books that seek to capture the highlights of these eCircles. 

While I am thinking about a possible theme for a new circle, I am now focusing my activities on orchestrating face-to-face conversations in my local community. This presents a whole new challenge. 

In this musing, I will report on one local attempt that was a dismal failure and a second attempt that worked well until it didn’t. My next musing will report on a third initiative that is just beginning. I am hoping that these three reports will be helpful to those readers who want to take the bold and very challenging step of initiating such face-to-face conversations in their local communities.

THE GENERAL CHALLENGE ONLINE AND FACE-TO-FACE

I have found it to be extremely difficult to gather Christians, or any other group, together. either online or face-to-face, to listen to differing views about contentious issues and then respectfully discuss areas of agreement and disagreement. I believe this reflects the us-versus them tribalism that is so rampant within both our Christian communities and the broader culture. After all, if the members of my “tribe” have captured the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the issue and the members of other “tribes are “all wrong,” what is there to talk about? 

I believe it is fair to say, perhaps immodestly, that I have met that challenge rather effectively in the various eCircles that I have hosted on this website. My “conversation partners” for each eCircle have demonstrated to an admirable extent that Christians who have strong disagreements about some very contentious issues (e.g., LGBT issues and issues pertaining to American Politics) can express their contrasting positions and their perceptions of areas of agreement and disagreement in a very gracious, loving and respectful manner, provided they all agree before the conversations get started that they will aspire to measure up to certain clearly stipulated “ideals (guidelines) for conversation.” 

But I remind the reader of the enormous amount of work that went into recruiting my conversation partners. To recruit 21 conversation partners for my eCircle on human sexuality, I extended 80 invitations. I sent out approximately 110 invitations to recruit my 23 conversation partners for my eCircle on “Reforming American Politics.” Most who declined my invitations expressed very good reasons for doing so; typically, for the many Christian scholars I invited, their busyness with other scholarly and teaching commitments. 

But, although I have no empirical evidence for what I am about to say, it is my educated guess that some of the hesitancy on the part of Christian scholars to join my eCircles reflected a lack of enthusiasm for the prospect of engaging other scholars who disagreed with their particular scholarly findings. To whatever extent that may be true, however, that recruitment challenge for online conversations pales in comparison to the challenge I have experienced in my local attempts to get Christians in the same room for face-to-face conversations regarding controversial issues about which they have strong disagreements. I will now report on two such initiatives.

A FAILED ATTEMPT AT A FACE-TO-FACE CONVERSATION ABOUT AN IMMIGRATION ISSUE

Given my interest in immigration issues, my interest was piqued when a local resident sent a Letter to the Editor to our county newspaper, the Capital Democrat, criticizing our County Sheriff for his policy of not honoring ICE Detainer requests from the federal government after a local offense has been adjudicated. I came to the defense of the Sheriff in my Letter to the Editor in the next issue of the newspaper, at the end of which I included an invitation to all county residents to join me in a group to discuss this debatable issue.

I received 3-4 email responses to my invitation from other local residents who shared my views and would be willing to explain why in a small group conversation. I received no expressions of interest in joining such a discussion group on the part of local residents who took a position that differed from my position.

It is important to point out that this lack of interest on the part of the more “conservative” residents of my county in Iowa did not reflect a lack in numbers. Since it has been reported that Sioux County is the second most politically conservative county in the United States, I believe it is safe to guess that the vast majority of my neighbors would disagree with the position I espoused So, why didn’t they want to join my discussion group? I didn’t ask, so I can only conjecture.

First of all, I believe that part of the lack of interest on the part of my more conservative neighbors reflects the us-versus-them tribalism that is so rampant throughout our country, including Sioux County. Why would I want to talk to Harold and his tribe of fellow “liberals” about this immigration issue when “they” are all wrong? 

But I made a big mistake when I reinforced such tribalism by the very nature of my Letter to the Editor. I revealed my particular position on the immigration issue, thus giving undue prominence to my position. Any invitee with more conservative leanings might guess, erroneously, that I was “laying a trap”: I would recruit a bunch of my more “liberal’ leaning friends to bolster my position in a group discussion; overwhelming those who disagreed with me.

I “threw in the towel.” Since I have no interest whatsoever in reinforcing the prevalent “echo chamber” approach to discourse, where we only listen to and talk with those who already agree with us, I told those who agreed with my position and wanted to join my discussion group that there would not be a discussion group since I failed at recruiting group members who would disagree with them.

A first glimpse of an important lesson emerged from this debacle. Impersonal blanket invitations to face-to-face conversations do not work well. I may have had more success

If I had approached friends one-on-one with personal invitations to participate. This was a lesson that I learned slowly and attempted, up to a point, in my next initiative.

AN LGBT CONVERSATION THAT STARTED WELL BUT THEN DETERIORATED 

Shortly after the publication of my book Respectful LGBT Conversations, I advertised an Adult Discipleship opportunity in my home church that would be devoted to discussing my book. Once again, to avoid the echo chamber effect, I noted my desire to gather a group that had a reasonable balance between representatives of three populations: Those who affirmed same-sex marriage; those who did not affirm same-sex marriage; and those who were “undecided.”

The initial response was far from overwhelming. I should have guessed this would happen because, once again, I had extended an impersonal blanket invitation. A married lesbian couple from my church signed up, as did two members who were “undecided.”

So, I talked to friends one-on-one. A married couple from another church in town agreed to attend. But they both took an “affirming” position; creating a further imbalance in representation from my three target populations. I still had no non-affirming representation. So, I extended a personal invitation to a friend from my church who I knew took a non-affirming position. He agreed to attend one meeting. I asked him if he would invite any of his friends who shared his non-affirming position. He agreed to do so, and a golfing buddy of his agreed to attend our second meeting.

Our second and third meetings went well. Since the two now non-affirming members made it clear that they had no interest in reading my book, I made a mid-course correction and devoted these two meetings to simply discussing questions that anyone could raise.

The best part of these two meetings was that the married lesbian attendees were able to “tell their stories” and the two non-affirming attendees listened with respect. No agreement was reaches as to whether same-sex relationships are “sinful.” But we were all listening well to each other; thereby achieving a significant measure of “mutual understanding” that would, hopefully, lay the groundwork for ongoing future conversation.

Alas, at the end of our second meeting of this expanded group, our two non-affirming attendees abruptly announced that they would no longer be attending, without elaborating on their reasons for that decision. So, in our fourth meeting, we finally started discussing my book (the announced intention for this class). In my estimation, these discussions went well. But my hopes for this class were only partially realized because of the absence of voices from those who take a non-affirming position. 

But I was slowly learning how to, and how not to, go about orchestrating such face-to-face conversations. In my next musing, to be posted within a few weeks, I will report on a third attempt that I am just beginning that I believe will “work better” because of lessons I learned the hard way from my first two attempts.

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