Recently some members of my congregation strongly objected when I placed in the narthex an article that said homosexual behavior is sinful. That was only the tip of the iceberg. In further conversations I discovered hostility to my entire pastoral approach. “You don’t understand the personality of our church,” they said. “We stand for openness and freedom, not narrow fundamentalism!”

I realize my situation is somewhat unique. Most pastors are more liberal than their congregations; I’m struggling to share a more conservative perspective with my people. This situation, however, is becoming less unique. Both politically and ecclesiastically, conservatives are gaining power. Seminary students are more conservative than their counterparts a decade ago. Many entering mainline pastorates graduate from evangelical seminaries.

How do we pastor in such situations? I am not suggesting we compromise our convictions, but I have found that discretion and timing are a far more effective strategy than frontal assault. The following reflections apply to anyone who serves in a somewhat alien setting.

Don’t belittle others’ theology. Any intelligent person can caricature beliefs. Most of us have endured such attacks.

In one church, the pastor criticized evangelicals from the pulpit, always managing to pull out the worst examples to illustrate the point: unloving aggressiveness, preaching at people instead of listening, using the Bible and prayer to avoid responsibilities. That irritated me. Not that the criticisms were untrue—I knew the individuals he referred to—but he gave the impression all evangelicals act in uncaring ways.

Perhaps those with whom I disagree deserve criticism, yet I must not create an environment where certain ideas cannot be discussed. To slap someone as a “secular humanist” or a “murderer of the unborn” does exactly that. I may believe another theology is inadequate, but the people influenced by it are certainly not silly or foolish. When I must disagree, I try to criticize ideas not people.

Provide opportunities to disagree. People of opposing views should be invited to express themselves, especially in classes and workshops. If I wait for them to take the initiative, they may not speak up. Eventually they may leave the church without a word—or explode angrily in frustration. It hardly creates a healthy climate.

A simple, “So what do you think of that, Bill?” or “How would you approach this problem, Mary?” will encourage people to talk before hostility festers. This not only eases tensions, it has taught me a great deal.

One member challenged my theology of preaching, saying it was too biblical, too much like a Bible lesson. I said if a sermon wasn’t biblical, it was a lecture; in a way, the sermon is a lesson from the Bible. Neither of us was satisfied. I later concluded he was right in one sense: My sermons contained more exegesis than application. As John Stott says, I spent too much time in Jerusalem and not enough in my home town. Our theologies of preaching may never harmonize, but this man’s perspective enabled me to preach more relevantly.

Listen. Initiating discussion will not help unless I genuinely try to understand and find points of agreement. My response should not be, “You don’t understand me” but “I like what you say in this respect—but I would differ at this point …”

Listening is nothing less than an act of love; it affirms people as they journey in faith. When someone genuinely listens to my opinion, I feel cared for, even if we still disagree, The fact that I have received a genuine hearing inclines me to respect, listen, and stay in communication with that person.

Let others express their theology in action. I don’t think social issues should set the agenda for the church, but I believe we have a social obligation (Matt. 25), and if certain members of the congregation have this calling, why shouldn’t I encourage them to carry it out? I don’t have to agree with everything, but having them work within the church strengthens our witness.

In college I attended a church where the pastor preached what I zealously called “nothing more than baptized modern psychology.” I imagine he considered my friends and me immature and naive. Yet he didn’t fight us when we wanted to organize folk services on Sunday evenings, though the emphasis was more evangelistic than he cared for. His openness kept us in the church.

Share the budget. I may believe evangelism is the top priority of the church, but it is not the only priority. Other priorities emerge as members express their gifts and desires. If I take my parishioners seriously, I must be open to other types of mission giving.

Finally, remember what the church is. A true church is marked by both biblical doctrine and biblical love. Of course we must hold to the Bible’s teaching about God. But orthodoxy in doctrine is not to be joined to heterodoxy in ethics. We please God when we believe his standards of truth—and obey his standards of conduct based on that truth. If we fail to love one another, our theology turns to ashes. I cannot hope to keep everyone happy, but I can keep from alienating people because of my insensitivity.

Mr. Galli is pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church. Sacramento, California.

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