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Depolarizing our Views on Reaching the Unreached

22 Mar Posted by in | Comments

Polarization plays a useful role in many fields. In physics, chemistry and biology, it describes functions essential to our everyday lives. But in human relationships, as in the fields of sociology, psychology and politics, polarization is not nearly as useful. In fact it’s often harmful.

Polarization among God’s children, within the body of Christ, rarely if ever helps us be and do what the Lord wants of us. Yet when others push for a ministry approach we consider harmful, ineffective, or even sinful, polarization waits in the wings. The early church faced such challenges, inspiring this divinely-inspired corrective:

“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought….What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ….I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.… You are still worldly….For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?” (1 Corinthians 1:10,12; 3:1,3-4 NIV)

In his article The Seven Habits of Highly Depolarizing People, David Blankenhorn offers some ways to de-polarize interactions. I highlight here five of the seven that I consider especially useful for our interactions as we grapple with issues in BtD.

  1. “Criticize from within. In other words, criticize the other—whether person, group, or society—on the basis of something you have in common…. besides being depolarizing, criticizing from within is typically much more effective than criticizing from outside.” This requires extra effort, both mentally and emotionally. Am I willing to invest this extra effort for the sake of more effective communication?
  2. “Count higher than two. Of all the mental habits that encourage polarization, the most dangerous is probably binary thinking—the tendency to divide everything into two mutually antagonistic categories.… in most cases, this way of thinking about the world is not only polarizing, it is highly simplistic and leads mainly to pseudo-disagreements as opposed to real ones.” As we have seen in BtD, the heart of our discussion is not between two “camps” (as many have framed it) but rather among a wide range of nuanced views, insights and practices. Simple binary framing of an issue may sound clearer and stronger than multiple views or nuanced portrayal. But when simplicity includes inaccuracy, sounding strong exacts too high a price. God is a God of truth. And the truth often requires counting “higher than two.”
  3. “Doubt—the concern that my views may not be entirely correct—is the true friend of wisdom and (along with empathy, to which it’s related) the greatest enemy of polarization.” Thousands of years before Blankenhorn’s article, King Solomon wrote: “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). When I acknowledge I don’t already have all the truth and I listen carefully listen to others, I can become wiser. What I already know and believe can be honed, sharpened and sometimes corrected through insights from others.
  4. “Qualify (in most cases). To qualify something you say is to make it less definitive, less comprehensive, and more nuanced, and thus to acknowledge the possibility that some pieces of the puzzle may still be missing. To qualify, then, is almost always to announce—even if indirectly—a willingness to engage further with the other side in pursuit of getting it right.”
  5. “Keep the conversation going. Why? Because ending the conversation is tantamount to ending the relationship, and when the relationship ends, everything hardens, polarization reigns, and your opponents turn into your enemies.” Sometimes we reach a point where engaging a specific issue or a certain person ceases to be fruitful (or a lower priority than other issues and people to whom we’re called). But we should rightly feel horrified when we envision Blankenhorn’s scenario unfolding among followers of Jesus and children of the same heavenly Father. Easily anathematizing and washing our hands of others with whom we disagree has a long and shameful history among Christians.

I don’t think the Lord intends us to keep talking about very subject until we agree on every detail. We have a lost world to reach! And a conference or a discussion goes much smoother and more efficiently when the only people invited are those who essentially agree with each other. Yet God’s Spirit seems committed to maintaining love and respect within a very diverse family (as described, for example, in Phil. 2:1-4 and 1 Cor. 12:4-25). Not all perspectives are equally right or helpful. Yet we never know when the Spirit might surprise us with what he is willing to bless and use. Let’s do the extra work of counting higher than two!



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