Managing Covid Conversations

Some weeks ago, as the church I serve was planning to move into the next phase of our reopening, a member of my church emailed me expressing their concern that wearing masks would interfere with our ability to worship in a meaningful way. As I was responding to that email, I received a phone call from another member, concerned that we weren’t going far enough to minimize the spread of the virus. To wear masks, or not? To venture outside, or not? To gather in groups, or not? There is no shortage of opinions on these questions, and unfortunately, these issues have become divisive.

You've likely encountered these disagreements. Perhaps a difference of opinion with a friend has turned heated. Or, a member of your church has made comments that have left a bad taste in your mouth. It’s possible that you’ve even felt unsafe around others who aren’t taking what you consider appropriate safety measures. How can we approach differing ideas about the Covid-19 pandemic (and all the related matters) in ways that are ultimately constructive, and Christ-like?

Listen First, Then Speak

James reminds us that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:18). Not only is he urging us to slow down and listen before we speak, he is also suggesting a relationship between losing our cool and failing to listen. In other words, we are more likely to lose our temper if we are more interested in giving our opinion than we are in listening. Most of us have opinions about all things pandemic. We hold these opinions because these matters matter. We feel strongly about whether schools should reopen (or not) because we want what’s best for our children. We feel strongly about a mandate to wear a mask (or not) because wearing a mask likely stops the spread of this virus--but it also interferes with everything from exercising at the gym to singing in church. Strong opinions often mean that we care deeply.

Tune into the heart

Yet too often we work hard to make our thoughts and convictions on these matters known while we scarcely hear another point of view. Sometimes, one of the best ways we can love our neighbor is by listening to their viewpoint--and better yet, listening to the concerns, worries, and pain beneath their viewpoints. We must recover the valuable skill of listening well--even when (especially when!) we don’t agree with another person. When you find yourself in a conversation with a person whose viewpoint differs from yours, try asking them to share more about why they came to that conclusion.

Seek Common Ground

Perhaps you can even look for common ground--maybe you can recognize that you both share a common concern about our need for personal freedom, even if you disagree about how far that freedom should go. It is harder to be angry when we can both see that the other person is desiring what they think is best for their family and community.

Insist on Truth

Mark Twain is credited (falsely, ironically!) with saying that a lie can make its way halfway around the world before the truth has even laced up its shoes. And he said this long before social media made the spread of misinformation, distortions, and outright lies far easier than any other time in human history. Studies have shown that we are inclined to gravitate towards news and opinion pieces that merely reinforce our existing opinions. We then share these on Facebook or Twitter, without taking the time to verify whether or not something is true. And, social media allows us to track down “experts” that support any viewpoint imaginable!

As Christians, we must do better. Jesus insists on it in us. In Matthew 5, where Jesus explains to us that we must “let our yes be yes, and our no, no”, he means that his followers must be so characterized by their commitment to the truth, that it is not even necessary for them to take an oath to support their claims. Sadly, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Christians have promoted conspiracy theories with no basis in fact, and ideas that have no evidence at all. We can’t control what others say--but in our conversations with others, we must remember that we speak every word in earshot of our savior, who calls us to speak the truth in love.

Know when to Speak, and when to Be Silent

There is a verse in Proverbs that has always left me scratching my head: “Don’t answer a fool according to his folly, or you will become like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” Which is it – should we answer a “fool according to his folly” or not? The answer is yes. While we need not assume that everyone you disagree with is a fool, we can recognize the wisdom behind the poet’s words. There are times when we can address a person who we think is wrong on a matter, knowing that they are receptive to hearing a different perspective, and perhaps they may even change their mind. Yet there are other times where arguing your point of view is a fool’s errand because they're simply looking for a fight--they just want someone to yell at. When you find yourself sitting around the dinner table with your extended family, or talking with a person after church, and your differences become sharper by the moment, it is sometimes wisest to say, “Thank you for sharing that--I'll have to give that some more thought. I think I’m ready for a new topic.” Taking this approach isn’t easy; it asks of us the willingness to let go of our need to be right in favor of preserving a relationship. But if we call to mind the assurance that our true “rightness” isn’t found in winning an argument, but in our relationship with Jesus, this becomes much easier to do.

Set Boundaries and Stick to them (While Respecting Others’ Choices)

You may arrive at a point when the choices that others make present a difficult decision for you. If you or a loved one is immuno-compromised and those around you refuse to wear a mask, you may find yourself needing to postpone gatherings or get-togethers. Your convictions may lead you to conclude that you can’t violate your conscience by wearing a mask at church. If you judge these to be matters of conscience or safety, we are called to honor both our own convictions, and those of others. Paul was speaking to the Roman Christians on the touchy subject of whether or not it was okay to eat meat used in pagan sacrifices. He says the following: “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them.” In other words, we can respectfully disagree--and even distance ourselves when we judge it necessary for our health--without passing judgment on a person.

In it for the Long Haul

As hard as it is to believe today, the new coronavirus will not be such a threat forever. In all likelihood, within some time, our society will have made a dramatic shift back to “normal.” But, our relationships with our friends, our families, our churches, our coworkers--these will likely be around for much, much longer. How we navigate these conversations today can prepare us to keep our relationships with loved ones for the long haul.

About the author — Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra

Rob Toornstra has pastored a church in Salem Oregon for the past ten years. He has been married to Amy for fifteen years, and together, they are enjoying the adventure of raising two girls and one boy. For fun, Rob enjoys cooking, reading, aviation, and geocaching.  He is the author of "Naked and Unashamed: How the Good News of Jesus Transforms Intimacy" (Doulos, 2014).

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