the shape of leadership

Don’t Ever Debate Like That!

Engaging doubters with gentleness and respect

Preston Ulmer on October 2, 2020

What did you think about the first presidential debate? I put my kids to bed early in hopes of watching an intelligent exchange of ideas surrounding political policy and personal hope for the country.

I couldn’t even keep a straight face as I wrote that last line! I knew Donald Trump and Joe Biden were going to treat one another like speed bumps in their race to the next presidency. Shouting, interruptions, and incoherent cross-talk filled our living room for over an hour — and again, our children were in bed.

The aftermath of this disaster of a conversation has included memes, sound bites of insults, and personal, highly subjective commentary on why one candidate did better than the other.

As irritating as it may be, the debate reminds me of a truth we easily overlook: The voices we put our short-term hope in are, at best, entertaining to the other side. Until we learn to be the voice of hope ourselves, we will continue to forfeit the power to persuade the doubter of a better, more compelling future. No person can represent the hope you have better than you.

In 1 Peter 3:15, we are told, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”

Against a cultural backdrop of people talking over one another, demonstrate the beauty of Kingdom dialogue by offering a listening ear and a hopeful heart.

The kingdom of God will always stand in stark contrast to any kingdom of the world. Among Christians, we should not see the sort of verbal onslaught we witnessed Tuesday night.

Here are three ways to present the gripping reality of Jesus without making your unbelieving friend feel attacked in the process:

1. ‘Revere Christ as Lord’

Where Jesus is Lord, the person who disagrees with you is welcomed and loved.

Conversing like the world — where Jesus is not Lord — involves applying pressure and pushing “opponents” into a corner until they come around to our way of thinking.

While I acknowledge it is impossible to have disagreements without experiencing some sense of pressure, our posture is one of invitation, not alienation. As Jude 1:22 says, we should “be merciful to those who doubt.”

We can be persuasive without being pushy. Jesus didn’t push people. Rather, He sought to pull them out of harm’s way, even to the point of laying down His life (John 10:11).

If I am claiming Jesus as Lord of my heart, I will make His mission my own. Consequently, my goal is to help set the captives free, and my words are the Kingdom tools I use. I should never be eager to point out the flaws in someone’s thinking if I am not prepared to offer a more liberating Kingdom alternative.

2. ‘Be Prepared to Give an Answer’

The main objection I hear from those who would otherwise want to start a Doubter’s Club* in their community is, “What if I don’t know the answer to someone’s question?”

And while we can never anticipate all the potential questions someone may have about Christianity, we have to be willing to try. Top athletes, musicians, and others understand they won’t be prepared for the moments that matter most unless they consistently practice. Similarly, if we want to “always be prepared,” we must practice graciously answering those who have objections. There’s no such thing as being prepared without practicing.

However, that doesn’t mean shouting people down or even doing most of the talking. Practice involves listening, learning, and leaning in. It means listening to the skeptic, learning with the skeptic, and leaning into the conversation again once you feel like you have discovered insight on the issue. Starting a Doubter’s Club isn’t about being fully prepared; it’s about being willing to practice.

3. ‘Do This With Gentleness and Respect’

Sadly, gentleness and respect are missing from most dialogue today. Gentleness is something a Christian shows (Philippians 4:5). Respect is something a Christian shares (1 Peter 2:17).

A gentle person can keep a cool head in the face of a hot topic. Gentleness is a quality every Christian should possess. After all, it is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). It is also the nature of Jesus (Matthew 11:29).

Respect is a form of grace we offer the person with whom we are interacting. In a world that treats respect as admiration that must be earned, Christ followers give it out freely. From a Christian perspective, we admire the image of God in someone’s life, as well as the potential of their calling. To the skeptic who likes to argue, this posture might be more persuasive than the best apologetic defense.

With another debate right around the corner, resist the temptation to let talking heads represent your perspective on any issue. Practice 1 Peter 3:15 with your doubting neighbor or co-worker. Invite him or her to coffee. Be a beacon of hope during a storm of uncertainty.

Against a cultural backdrop of people talking over one another, demonstrate the beauty of Kingdom dialogue by offering a listening ear and a hopeful heart.

Using 1 Peter 3:15 as your guide, you will come across as more prepared than either candidate was on Sept. 29.


*Influence is proud to partner with Preston Ulmer and The Doubter’s Club on a series of articles about spiritual conversations with non-Christian friends. The series appears biweekly on Fridays. Ulmer is founder of The Doubter’s Club and director of network development for the Church Multiplication Network of the Assemblies of God.
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