John Meunier

'An arrow through the air'

Archive for the ‘Communication’ Category

Feeling mislabeled

Timothy Tennent argues that we have in the United Methodist Church two groups:

What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox.

As you might imagine, his terms have provoked applause and disagreement. Those who find themselves described as orthodox appreciate that someone is describing their sense of things well. Those described as heterodox are less enthusiastic about his categories.

This happens the other way, too. Some of us are called bigots over doctrine. Others engage in a more subtle kind of labeling that goes like this. “When I was young, I believed what the church taught, but now that I am older and have thought about it more …” Or another variation: “Many thoughtful/intelligent Christians look at these questions and …” These constructions appear to suggest only immature or non-thoughtful people take the opposite position.

Even when all we are trying to do is describe out own position in positive ways, we end up labeling people who disagree with us in negative ways.

Perhaps this is just the price of trying to think and speak clearly.

I suppose the Donatists and Pelagians did not like be called heretics, either. Church of England stalwarts did not like John Wesley going around defining “real” Christians in terms that eliminated most of them from the term.

But is interesting to me that nearly everyone feels that they are being described in inaccurate terms and in ways that are not honoring what they are trying to say. I wonder if this is just the way it is or if there is something that can be done about it.

Written by John Meunier

May 6, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Posted in Communication

Tagged with

Death to straw men

United Methodist Internet conversation is plagued by many logical fallacies. We invoke the slippery slope. We appeal to authority. We roll out the band wagon. The one that always comes to my mind first, though, is our rampant use of straw man arguments.

This is so common that it almost appears to be required, as if the Book of Discipline mandated its use.

The moves are simple. First you over simplify or mischaracterize a competing argument. This is setting up the straw man. Then you knock the straw man down, leading to the conclusion that your alternative must be the better argument.

The only solution I know for this problem comes from the counsels of active listening. When we want to describe the position or argument of a person with whom we disagree, we must first ask that person if the argument as we have described it fairly represents what they are trying to argue or say.

Only once we can construct our opponent’s argument in a manner that strikes them as fair should we critique it.

Now, of course, it often happens on the Internet that we cannot engage in the kind of back-and-forth that would allow us to get that kind of acknowledgment. But that should be a goal in all we do.

It is not as fun as knocking down straw men, but it is certainly more in keeping with the law of love.

Written by John Meunier

April 25, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Getting to yes in the UMC

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

I’ve been thinking lately of Fisher and Ury’s classic book on negotiation Getting to Yes. It is a book about reaching successful agreements, success being defined in part as an agreement that all parties to the agreement observe. (Here is a summary of the book’s main ideas.)

I know the very thought of negotiation and compromise on the matters that threaten to split our denomination is anathema to many. To both sides of the conflict, it is tantamount to turning away from God’s righteousness.

I understand that. I am exploring these questions, however, as one who is not persuaded that splintering is either God’s desire or the cure for what ails us.

Here is the book summary on the difference between positional and principled bargaining. Which one sounds like us?

Negotiations often take the form of positional bargaining. In positional bargaining each part opens with their position on an issue. The parties then bargain from their separate opening positions to agree on one position. Haggling over a price is a typical example of positional bargaining. Fisher and Ury argue that positional bargaining does not tend to produce good agreements. It is an inefficient means of reaching agreements, and the agreements tend to neglect the parties’ interests. It encourages stubbornness and so tends to harm the parties’ relationship.

Fisher and Ury argue that principled bargaining requires four steps:

  1. separate the people from the problem
  2. focus on interests rather than positions
  3. generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement
  4. insist that the agreement be based on objective criteria

Let’s look briefly at a few parts of that first step: separating people from the problem.

Fisher and Ury argue that a large problem in any negotiation is that people tend identify personally with their position, and so experience any non-favorable response to their issue as a personal attack. This tends to make it very hard to see the issues clearly and to speak about them rationally.

Fisher and Ury highlight three kinds of people problems: perception, emotion, and communication. (Read the summary of the book for a quick take on these.) The bottom line on the first step in the process is summed up nicely on the web page:

Generally the best way to deal with people problems is to prevent them from arising. People problems are less likely to come up if the parties have a good relationship, and think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than as adversaries.

And so, the impasse emerges. Are the two sides in our denominational crisis willing to come together as peacemakers seeking an agreement that speaks to the interests of everyone? Or are we locked in a struggle that both sides can cast only as a competition between angels of light and angels of darkness?

I know and greatly admire individuals on both sides of this conflict. I also am aware of people on both sides who would never be interested in unity. They see unity as a rag of shame when it requires compromise on the principles they hold most dear.

I understand that. But I still want to explore whether it is possible to be peacemakers in the midst of our conflict. Can we enter into a process — if not all of us then some of us — that does not seek to destroy each other but to make peace in the midst of our conflict?

Written by John Meunier

April 9, 2014 at 10:55 am

A failure to communicate?

David Watson looks at the United Methodist Church’s main web site. If our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, he asks, why is that mission so hard to discern from the web site?

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

Written by John Meunier

February 20, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Is this how Christians should disagree?

I found this an interesting interview between former United Methodist pastor Frank Schaefer and a critic. Of course, the host big-footed the interview some, but the tone and exchange was much better than most of our conversations. It is about 45 minutes in length. The two end with expressions of mutual respect that is not common in our vitriolic discourse.

Written by John Meunier

February 18, 2014 at 3:05 pm

‘The’ gospel vs. their gospel

Craig Adams shares a guest post by William Birch about the gospel. Birch outlines nicely a genre of “gospel-ology” that has gained a significant following and has been popularized by writers such as Scot McKnight and NT Wright.

The short version is that traditional and contemporary evangelicals have misunderstood the gospel. They put too much stress on salvation and soteriology and neglect the bigger story of creation, Israel, Jesus, and the New Heaven and Earth.

Birch sums up the conclusion of the storied gospel critique of the plan-of-salvation gospel this way:

Whenever we deconstruct the gospel to a mere formula, ignoring the story of Israel and how Jesus “fulfills, completes, and resolves Israel’s story,” we then “permit the gospel to collapse into the abstract, de-storified points in the Plan of Salvation.” The blight of such a bankrupt gospel is reduced to what the late Dallas Willard called “sin management,” which presumes “a Christ with no serious work other than redeeming humankind . . .” and that which fosters “vampire Christians,” who “only want a little blood for their sins but nothing more to do with Jesus until heaven.” That is a scathing critique of modern evangelicalism, and it is true.

What interests me is the rhetorical move being made by McKnight, Wright, Birch, and others. It sounds very similar to the rhetoric of those who they critique. The form goes this way: “Those people are wrong or only partly right. Here is the full gospel and what it means.”

What such folks do not often give me — and what I long for — is advice on how to read or receive the wisdom of all those who have come before who they view as carrying around a deficient gospel. What do I do with the sadly lacking “soterian” gospel of John Wesley, for instance? We are long on critique and replacement, but short on appreciation and thankfulness for the gifts that these others bring.

It seems like we all do this. Wesley did it, too. I’m sure people will say I do it. Paul in Galatians certainly did it. We all proclaim the gospel as we understand it. Since it is the gospel, we want to make sure that people understand it for what it really is. But this leaves us discounting the gospel that others proclaim, often in terms that suggest those others are ignorant, self-interested, or worse.

How do we talk about the gospel while respecting the fact that we all see only darkly now?

Written by John Meunier

January 18, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Can we listen to each other?

I read comments all the time that I don’t understand. I don’t understand them because they generally come from Christians who are both intelligent and capable of empathy.

A person criticizes “contemporary” worship by saying the only thing the worship leader cares about is looking hip and being cool. Someone else argues that pastors today care about being “authentic” while previous generations did not. Another person says some Christians care more about hate than Jesus.

Shouldn’t Christians do a better job of listening to other people? (And here — in case there is any confusion — I include myself. Shouldn’t I do a better job?)

Is there really any worship leader who has as his or her primary goal “being hip”? Did pastors in 1930 want to be in-authentic? Would any Christian claim that his or her primary interest was in hating other people?

Every thing I’ve ever been taught about effective communication starts with listening. It starts with being able to hear a person clearly enough that we can state back to that person what they said in a way that they would recognize as their own words and meaning.

I think it is a close to universal desire of people to be listened to when they are trying to say something. Isn’t it — therefore — a Christian imperative to be good listeners? We do for others what we would wish them to do for us.

Listening does not require agreement. But does not Jesus require us to listen to each other?


Written by John Meunier

July 31, 2013 at 11:55 am

Preaching effects

In the class I teach at Indiana University,  use a classic piece on communication early in the semester to set up conversations with the students about the processes and parts of communication.

Part of the chapter is a four-part explication of what has to happen for communication to have a chance to have the effect you desire.

  • You must gain the audience’s attention.
  • You must use a set of “signs” that the audience can understand and that the audience interprets in the same way you do.
  • You must evoke a need within the audience.
  • You must give the audience a way to act or respond that is possible for the audience.

In both the chapter and the class conversation we talked about the fact that communication almost never has the effect we intend if we do not start from where our audience is. You need to start within the beliefs and values the audience already holds and  then try to move them toward the goal.

None of this is new or revolutionary, which is why I use it with sophomores.

But it does get me thinking about the sermon as an act of communication. I hear common sermon advice in here. Andy Stanley wrote a whole book that pretty much covers these same points. Rick Warren writes about the need for to evoke a felt need. Paul in Athens famously followed the bulk of this advice when he preached. Even John Wesley shows in his journals how much he thinks about where his audience is as he determines what to preach.

And yet, I am also mindful of how many voices — especially post-liberals and neo-Barthians — counsel treating the sermon as an impossibility. Will Willimon writes often about the fact that it requires a miracle for us to hear the sermon rightly.

So, I wonder about the balance between technique and Spirit in preaching — and communication in general.

Written by John Meunier

January 11, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Posted in Communication, Preaching

Tagged with ,

When the bridge is out

Bridge OutYou see a man driving down a road. You know that up ahead of him the bridge is out. Visibility is poor tonight, though, and he seems to be in a hurry. He may not spot the broken bridge until it is too late. What do you do? Of course you flag him down or try to get him to stop.

Much of the world, we believe in the church, is heading toward a broken bridge. And yet, many of us leave it to these night drivers to notice on their own and stop before it is too late. I suppose we comfort ourselves with the belief that our heavenly flagman will step in before the final drop. We tell ourselves that no one can hear our warnings before they are ready to hear. Oddly, we do not do the same with steel and concrete bridges.

Wesleyan soteriology teaches that people are spiritually dozing at the wheel. By the preventing grace of God, those who would otherwise be dead and blind have been stirred to the first awareness of God, but most people fight off this awareness. They drown out the still small voice of God that we call conscience and race on bleary-eyed down the road.

My experience with sleepy people is that they do not like to be jolted awake. Indeed, they are often quite angry about it. So, I hesitate to stir sleepers.

But what about that bridge?

There is a fall coming.

Is it love

To let



Written by John Meunier

December 28, 2012 at 8:10 am

An experiment at nonviolent communication

Asbury seminary president Timothy Tennent writes about why evangelicals spend so much time and energy talking about homosexual sex.

In one sense, you won’t read anything new here. But I do find the post and the comments thread an interesting case study in the way we talk past each other. For all the times we use terms like “Christian conferencing” and take classes on nonviolent communication and speak of hearing the other person before speaking, we do not practice that very well, at least not on the Internet. This is probably due as much to the nature of the medium as it is to our intentions. The Internet is not nearly as interactive or “social” as we claim it is.

What we tend to do in “conversations” about hard issues is lob arguments at each other. Often, these arguments include all manner of statements about the thoughts, motivations, and emotions of other people. Almost always as they go back and forth they lose all contact with the point the other person was trying to express or discuss. We seek to get our point across rather than listen to the other side. We don’t want to let anything with which we disagree go unchallenged. Or at least I know that is what I do when in a difficult conversation.

So, I want to try an exercise in listening on my blog. I’m going to try to write what I hear Tennent writing in his post. My goal here is not to offer my reactions or analysis, but to say accurately, without using a lot of direct quotation, what he would recognize as the point he is trying to make. I invite you to help me listen better by pointing out where and how my summary might miss important things.

Here is what I hear him writing:

Evangelical Christians feel the need to spend so much time and energy talking about and organizing actions with regard to homosexuality because they feel that harm is done to the church when something sinful is treated as if it were holy.

I’m not sure this is a fair statement of what he wrote. In a real conversation, I could ask him. (I have posted a version of this on his blog to try to do just that.) Before I react or respond, I would want to be certain I am hearing him as he intends to be heard.

What do you think? Is this close to what he is trying to say?

Written by John Meunier

November 29, 2012 at 8:40 am

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