Over the last few weeks, I’ve been traveling to different colleges to talk to students and begin campus conversations about homosexuality and Christianity. At each stop, we bring together a roomful of students who disagree with each other and then try to have a respectful conversation with each other.
The experiences have been fascinating, and many of the things I’m learning in these groups could be applied to passionate disagreements on any issue, not just this one.
Every time, I can feel the tension as the students make their way into the room. Some come on their own, but many come in small groups. They come for different reasons. Some are members of the campus Gay-Straight Alliance or similar group; others are members of campus Christian groups with a conservative view of homosexuality; still others have no particular group affiliation but are there because they have a personal interest in the issue.
A number of the students come with Bibles in hand and certain passages bookmarked. They’ve got their arguments prepared, and they’re ready for a debate. But my goal there isn’t to have a debate. It’s to have a conversation.
Normally, when someone says something like that, they’re about to hit you with some wishy-washy sort of garbage about how “everyone’s opinion is equally valid” and that “none of us can judge if someone else is right or wrong.” Pardon my bluntness on this, but that’s just silly. Yes, everyone is entitled to an opinion if the question is about which ice cream flavor is best or whether Avatar was a good movie, but some issues aren’t just a matter of opinion. Would we say that everyone’s opinion of whether child abuse is okay is equally valid? Or that we should all just agree to disagree about whether the Holocaust really happened? No, everyone is not equally right on these issues. Someone has to be wrong.
As I tell these students, we want to change each other’s minds. Let’s admit that. A conversation doesn’t mean that we’re just agreeing to disagree. What it does mean is that we’re showing respect for one another in the midst of that disagreement.
More importantly, it’s also the most powerful way to change minds.
Our natural inclination when we passionately disagree is to debate. We prepare our arguments from logic, philosophy, and the Bible, and we come out swinging, thinking that the sheer force of our brilliant and unstoppable argument will convert the other side. That’s what many of these students come prepared to do.
But it doesn’t work. As a pastor friend of mine used to say, you can’t argue people to the Lord. Debates almost never change minds—at least, not the minds of the people you’re debating with. They make us feel better, but they’re pretty ineffective.
(Of course, debates are a great tool if they’re happening in front of an undecided or conflicted audience, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about when we start debating directly with the people whose minds we’re trying to change.)
Debates don’t change minds because if I’m debating with you, both of us are focused on winning the debate. When you’re making your argument, I’m not really listening; I’m focused on what my rebuttal will be. The whole time you’re talking, I’m looking for the flaws in your argument that I can point out as soon as you stop to catch your breath. If by chance you do make a great point, it’s not going to change my mind; it’s just going to make me work that much harder to come up with an argument against it.
Debates are a lot like quarrels in that way. Neither side wants to admit defeat, so neither side backs down. The tension only escalates, and no one’s mind is changed. Instead, both sides tend to dig their heels in further.
Conversations are so much better at changing minds. In a conversation, we actually listen to each other, because our focus is on understanding each other. Paradoxically, when I stop focusing on winning the debate, I have a better chance of ultimately changing your mind. Why? Because I grow to understand more about why you believe what you do, and you grow to understand the same about me. That understanding is vital to making us both feel comfortable enough to consider other viewpoints, and it helps us both communicate about the areas in which we differ.
Conversations breed relationships, and relationships change minds. I believe this is part of the reason Jesus’ ministry was so much about building relationships with people rather than just preaching at them, and why Paul entered Athens with a spirit of understanding rather than simply deriding their worship of false gods.
So on the issues I care the most about, I want to be someone who opts for conversation instead of debate. Not because I don’t care enough to argue for my side, but because I care too much to use an ineffective tactic like debate.
I’d rather follow the example of Jesus, who was much better at this than I’ll ever be.