Sad to say, American society has become a place of increasing deadlock and dysfunction. At the same time, American religious life, centered in its congregations, can offer a unique model for overcoming dysfunction. Conversations take place there—in worship, in small group study, in team meetings. What if we practiced healthy, respectful conversation? Would the idea catch on? Can congregations embody the sort of democratic practices that are vital to renewing our common life?
We know the problem with our civic life: political rancor, racial hatred, demonization of opposing viewpoints, and fear the “other.” The Kettering Foundation, which studies American democracy, summed up what observers have been pointing out with alarm: we are deadlocked and dysfunctional. They point out a few of the problems:
- Flood of corporate money into political campaigns
- Influence of lobbyists and special interest groups
- Increasing polarization and rancor of political discourse
- Disengagement of ordinary Americans from politics rather than making voices heard.
Can churches model another way? What if churches practiced healthy, respectful conversation? Would the idea catch on? For example, over the past few years, the Minnesota Council of Churches has sponsored a series of “Respectful Conversations” on divisive social issues. Since 2012, the Council has offered over eighty forums for 2,000 persons on issues such as:
- Gay marriage
- Urban/rural differences.
- Religious/non-religious dialogue
- Muslims/Christian dialogue on security
- Jewish/Protestant dialogue on Israel/Palestine
The purpose of the conversations is not to create winners or losers, but, as the Council puts it, “to be sources of living water, cooling the heat of intense disagreements.”
Elizabeth Gish, Interdisciplinary Honors Professor at Western Kentucky University, believes that congregations have a public role to play in teaching respectful dialogue. As an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, she should know. How do congregations do this?
- Work with other institutions to solve community problems
- Provide a space for citizens to have more say over their lives
- Create the possibility for people to improve how they live with each other.
For example, consider what happens when tragedy strikes, such as a school shooting or a devastating hurricane. In response, panicked communities often converge on the church as a place to gather, discuss what happened and mobilize a response. In fact, for just this reason, church leaders are increasingly seeking formal training in disaster response.
Gish offers two images for how the church can renew public life:
The Church As a Node in the Network. As public institutions with their front door facing the busy street, churches maintain relationships with other institutions, such as public schools, social agencies, and the police. The metaphor here is of a communication network, with the node as a single communication point. Its essential importance lies in playing the role of connector. In a small town this network may consist of only a few points, while in a larger city the network may be quite complex indeed.
The Church As a Civic Gym. It has long been recognized that churches, though led by pastors, are essentially a complex system of volunteers. Volunteer systems require meetings and leadership structures, and ideally, everyone has the same opportunity to practice leadership. So the church becomes a place for emerging leaders to “work out” and “build their civic muscles” to be used in the society beyond. Robert Turner, Pastor of St. James African Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama, notes that in the Black church, leadership development for a disenfranchised people might be the congregation’s primary role. “I believe it’s the most important thing we do.”
 Political Fix: How Do We Get American Politics Back on Track? National Issues Forum Institute, 2013. Found at www.nifi.org.
 Elizabeth Gish, Toward the World We Long For: The Role of Churches in Strengthening Civic Capacity and Building Healthy Communities, presented at Kettering Foundation, October 21, 2016.