3 Practices to Jumpstart Missional Conversations

Today’s missional leader must be adept at conversing across ideological divides. Through a strategy called 3Practices, Jim Henderson is helping large and small communities learn how to speak respectfully to those with whom they disagree. We sat down with Jim to find out how he does it.

with Jim Henderson

Telos Collective: As Christians, why is it important to engage people who don’t agree with us?

Jim Henderson: I don’t think you can become spiritually mature without engaging the “other.” That practice was central to Jesus’ life and ministry. He came into our world and entered into our lived human experience. Everything he did was about connecting with those who had been “othered,” particularly by religious institutionalists.

For the past 20 years I’ve been exploring what it means to “take Jesus public.” In traditional evangelism, we give speeches and do rallies, but that’s not what interests me. Instead of speeches I prefer thinking about and asking questions such as, “How do we take Jesus into a culture that’s two generations removed from a western Christian view of the world that’s favorable to us—where people will no longer know what our symbols mean?”

In today’s context, if you attempt to talk about Jesus, you’ll get the raised-eyebrow treatment. We shouldn’t be offended or surprised by this reaction. Some of our (negative) reputation has been earned by questionable choices Christian leaders have made for us. Nevertheless, this is now our mission field, and while the terrain may have shifted under our feet, Jesus’ direction to engage the “other” has not changed one iota. The only question we have to ask ourselves is, how?

My answer to that question is the 3Practices, which may have implications for the missional/cultural conversation you’re having at the Telos Collective.

TC: How does the Church typically engage people who don’t agree with us?

JH: Unfortunately, when Christians encounter people who don’t agree with us, we often revert to calling them a name —“the lost” —and in so doing, “otherize” them. Realistically, most people aren’t walking around feeling lost so when they discover that we refer to them that way, it doesn’t compute.

We’ve all felt “otherized.” It might be because of our racial or socio-economic status or something as ordinary as not getting picked for a team. We all know the feeling of people talking about us behind our back and using derogatory terms.

I’ve asked hundreds of people, “How does it feel when we call you lost?” Nobody said it felt good. They said that being called a name makes them want to stay away from us; it makes them not trust us. The language is only helpful to the insiders’ group because it makes us feel powerful and reinforces the rightness of our views.

TC: You’re trying to change the way we treat people who disagree with us. What catalyzed that?

JH: I realized Christians needed a methodology to take Jesus public in a way that people would listen. I found George Hunter’s book, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, very helpful. St. Patrick approached his ministry by looking for human connections and building on them. Rather than reminding people that they were lost, he “caught them doing the right thing.” What a freeing concept! How much more fun might evangelism be if we became experts on finding the good in people and building on it?

As I looked around at our mission field, I noticed that polarization had become an epidemic in our nation—and also in the Church. “Who are you voting for?” “How could you vote for someone who isn’t pro-life?” I started wondering what it would look like to bring ideological opponents together to cross the difference divide without surrendering their core beliefs.

At that point, two things intersected for me: I could simultaneously help people solve a serious relational problem and openly acknowledge my connection with Jesus. As a result, I came up with the 3Practices, which I identified over the course of years with the help of some colleagues.

TC: Can you explain the 3Practices and how they work?

JH: The 3Practices are:

  • I’ll be unusually interested in others.
  • I will stay in the room with difference.
  • I will stop comparing my best with your worst.

What we’re doing with these Practices is simply giving people attention, which as you know, is something we all want but can’t often get. We’re practicing being unusually interested. We’re out-listening people. We’re learning how to not talk. We’re staying in the room with difference with our ideological opponents. We stop playing “gotcha” with people; we practice giving ground, which might mean admitting a weakness in your own argument or inviting the other person to question your point of view. When it comes to evangelism in our context, it might be easier to understand it as less apologetics and more of an apology.

We communicate 3Practices through 3Practice Circles. I call them “CrossFit for civility,” where you “work out” with people with whom you share specific and passionate differences. During that experience, you discover that the people you are working against are actually your collaborators. The Practices help you get used to listening respectfully to people with whom you share real ideological differences.

TC: How do 3Practice Circles work?

JH: We host Circles around the country. We were recently brought in to do a 3Practice Circle by the University of California Merced and the American Leadership Forum. In front of an audience of 100, we put 8 people on stage—African American, White, Indian, Hmong—and I led a conversation around the framing question, “Is racism as American as apple pie?” The question is important because it has to generate dialogue but not trigger bias. Other questions we’ve asked in Circles include “Where are you on impeaching the President?” and “9/11: After 18 years, what have we learned?”

Each Circle lasts 20 minutes, and we don’t interact with the audience directly until afterward, during a Q&A when anyone in the audience can ask a clarifying question. I’m the referee—I’m not a moderator or facilitator. I’m there to ensure that everyone gets a hearing and that the group is respected, even though we are hearing things we would typically not be exposed to.

Circles are not a dialogue or discussion, and we don’t end in agreement. That’s not our goal. In Circles, we’re seeking to train people how to respond when someone says something inappropriate, mean-spirited or bigoted to them—and in a split second, they have to make a decision about how they’re going to respond. The Circles prepare people for that moment, and we teach them the skill of saying, “I’d be curious to know…”

Over the last two years, we’ve hosted over 50 3Practice Circles with hundreds of people in secular settings. I didn’t want to do the Circles in a church where I’d have a convinced audience. I wanted to go to my non-customers, where there is essentially no competition to what I’m trying to do.

TC: How have people responded to the 3Practices?

JH: 3Practices are simple to understand. People can take take them home with them or, as we say, they travel. In the Circles, people practice the skill of not talking and staying in the room with difference and learning the power of the phrase “I’d be curious to know,” which, when things start to fall apart relationally, they can pull out like a safety pin. We all need modest mechanisms to pull us out of really slippery situations.

TC: How can 3Practices help missional leaders?

JH: If I was planting a church or pastoring a church and wanted to connect with people in the community, I would use 3Practice Circles. I’ve watched it happen. People just show up. They are not coming for spiritual help, but you meet them and then can be available to them if and when they need you. Here’s a secret: People outside of the Church have the same exact problems you do inside the church: marriages, meaning, families, kids, money, and health. But people outside the Church don’t have any place to go talk about it. If they need to talk, and they trust you because they’ve watched you host—but not control—a 3Practice Circle, it will increase the likelihood of them trusting and connecting with you.

Learn more about 3Practices.  

Interested in learning to lead a 3Practice Circle? Read Jim Henderson’s new book, 3 Practices for Crossing the Difference Divide.

Jim Henderson is a speaker, author, and producer. He holds a Doctorate in transformational leadership and has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Fox News and This American Life with Ira Glass. USA TODAY said, “Henderson has blazed a new path as an innovator, author, church-evaluator, self-professed subversive, and leader in the creation of new ways to be publicly and persuasively Christian in the 21st century.”