One of the strongest cultivators of my growth as a believer has been theological conversations. Whether with “friends” on my bookshelves or with friends in real life, a regular exchange of ideas has helped challenge and grow my theological beliefs. In his book, “The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry,” Austin Carty speaks to this dynamic when he quotes the following from Tim Keller,
“When you read one thinker, you become a clone; two thinkers, you become confused; ten thinkers, you begin developing your own voice; two or three hundred thinkers, you become wise and develop your own voice. We should read writers of differing perspectives, genres, and disciplines, so that we can become more than one-dimensional thinkers. So that we can become capable of offering more than simple responses to multifaceted problems. So that we can develop more than one filter through which to interpret reality. ”1
As I read Keller’s words, I immediately think about the church’s current discipleship crisis. Over the past few years, we have produced fruit that shows a spiritual formation gap between who the Western American Church is called to be as followers of Jesus and who we are. Specifically, our presence on social media has been filled with unkind, and sometimes sinful, communication that has damaged our Christian witness.
The community we find in our online gathering spaces provides us with both blessing and temptation. We can meet like-minded people with similar interests, life experiences, and ideological convictions. But the comfort and acceptance we find in this homogeneity can be so enticing that we slowly become closed off to different voices and ideas. At this point, our online community groups become ideological echo chambers. Rather than allow the depth and validity of our ideas to be challenged, we only learn from people who agree with us. Unfortunately, this ideological isolation can lead us to dehumanize people whose views and personhood we have not given thoughtful consideration.
Now, the disagreements I am referring to are not about doctrines that are essential to our Christian faith (i.e., trinitarianism, the deity of Christ, or the authority of Scripture). They pertain to theological beliefs that historically have been categorized as secondary or tertiary, which means there is space for Christians to have healthy disagreements and still honor one another.
So, this spiritual formation gap shows us that what we are ultimately missing is not consensus but wisdom.
Good and healthy conversation is an environment where you give and listen to ideas. This exchange of information requires full engagement, as we listen to understand rather than listen to respond. Our participation is grounded in respect for our conversation partner’s humanity, as we consider the views he/she is presenting. Whether it’s with Christians from generations past or those on the other side of the issue we feel strongly about, this learning process is slow and transformative. It also increases our fortitude for theological complexity. The short form of social media doesn’t always allow us to move beyond a limited understanding of a particular concept. By taking that conversation offline, we can engage it at length. This forces us to examine our theological blind spots as we learn how we have oversimplified or mischaracterized our conversation partner and their views. The result of this won’t always be a change in our views, but it will make the reasons for our disagreement more substantive and elevate the methods we use to communicate our dissent.
In the long run, reading a diverse group of authors or meeting with a diverse group of friends strengthens our view of God and understanding of our role as His disciples. We are exposed to a variety of perspectives that challenge our understanding of the world we live in as we grow to see the gospel through a global lens. One resource that has done this for me is Faith in the Wilderness from The Center for House Church Theology. It is a collection of sermonic letters written by Chinese pastors and ministry leaders that “pull[s] back the curtain on the pastoral heart and eschatological hope behind the house church’s remarkable faithfulness.” 2 Grounded in a rich history of faithfulness amid persecution and suffering, these sermons have expanded my view of the cost of discipleship. We often have a reductionist view of religious persecution as American Christians. But these pastors’ words have opened my eyes to the sobering reality of what it means to suffer for one’s faith. This has and will change how I discuss religious persecution, suffering, and the hope we have in Christ, both online and offline.
There is a need for a renewed approach to discipleship in our churches. I believe an honest assessment and diversification of our theological “conversation partners” is a step in the right direction. We need to critically engage with the writings of people whose gender, race, class, age, and life experiences are different from ours. We also need to pursue diverse in-person conversations as well.
Will we always agree? No. But maybe we will have greater humility and wisdom in our disagreement.
Here are a few voices I’ve been challenged by over the years: The African Church Fathers Augustine of Hippo and Athanasius, J. I. Packer, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Michael Williams, Tony Merida, Ruth Haley Barton, Harold L. Senkbeil, Maya Angelou, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Fleming Rutledge.
There is a lot of room for me to add some new names.
I hope you’ll join me by considering formative voices you’ve been influenced by and diversifying your list too.
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Elizabeth Woodson is a bible teacher, writer, and speaker, who is passionate about communicating the rich theological truths of Scripture. She loves helping people internalize their faith and connect it practically to everyday life.
Elizabeth works as the Institute Classes and Curriculum Director at The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas where she teaches classes on the Bible, theology, and spiritual formation. She formerly worked as the Single Life Coordinator at Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship under the leadership of Senior Pastor Dr. Tony Evans. Elizabeth is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary with a Masters in Christian Education and a cohost of the podcast Culture Matters.
1. Austin Carty, The Pastor’s Bookshelf: Why Reading Matters for Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2022).
2. The Center for House Church, Faith in the Wilderness, https://www.housechurchtheology.com/.