If you haven’t read Michael Gulker’s article in this issue (“How to Argue,” p. 6), I recommend you do so before reading on. Gulker is the president of The Colossian Forum, an organization based in Grand Rapids that aims to teach Christians how to have productive, Christlike discussions, even when (especially when) they disagree.
If you haven’t got time for that, I’ll provide a TL;DR version here, just to ease you into the story of my experience with The Colossian Way (The Colossian Forum’s key program). Gulker explains that the church has begun to mirror secular culture in how we deal with conflict. Political allyships rule, the loudest voice is right, and we’re personally offended by those who don’t agree with us. Churches have become places that either explode and break apart when conflict enters or shy away from any conflict at all. Gulker and the others at The Colossian Forum argue that conflict is actually a gift to the church. It’s a tool we can use to become stronger and more Christlike. They believe that, as Colossians 1:17 says, in Christ “all things hold together,” and so if we begin our discussions as Christians rather than as members of particular political parties or denominations or cultural groups, we’ll find we have more in common than we think. That doesn’t mean we’re all going to agree, but it does mean we’ll value each other as members of Christ’s broken and diverse body.
So how do we do that? What’s the silver bullet for acknowledging those elephants in our churches and, by extension, our Christian classrooms? Can we ever stop worrying and just let the conversations flow?
Training in The Colossian Way
Enter The Colossian Way. While there’s certainly no perfect solution for these wickedly tough issues, the program this organization has developed has been a meaningful experience for me, and I hope for the students I’ve brought along for the ride. I’ve co-led two Colossian Way programs in the last two years at Grand Rapids Christian High, where I teach English. When a coworker pitched the program to me, I was interested because I found these elephantine conversations budding more and more often in my classroom, and I wasn’t quite sure how to go about them. Immigration, sexuality, abortion, racial injustice—these things were in the news and in the literature we were reading in class. The country had just endured a long election cycle that left half our citizens unhappy, and my school’s administration had sent out a reminder that it was not a teacher’s job to preach personal opinion in the classroom. I worried that if I engaged these issues, no matter what I said or didn’t say, some student would feel ignored or put upon or misunderstood.
I was also interested because the topic of the program’s curriculum was sexuality. Our district had recently convened a committee to discuss sexuality and write a statement or policy about it. The committee faced strong pushback from both conservative and progressive angles, and they eventually dissolved without finalizing anything. The coworker who pitched the program to me suggested that The Colossian Forum sounded like a possible model if the district wanted to continue the discussion. We decided to test it out, and I agreed to be trained that fall and co-lead a ten-week group that spring.
First, we attended the training conference in downtown Grand Rapids that oriented us to the organization’s philosophy and helped us get a sense for the nitty-gritty details of running a group. We also got to talk with some other teachers who had pioneered the program in their schools—the program is designed for churches, but several Christian schools have adapted the materials. The training ended with the organizers running a ninety-minute practice session with the trainees as the participants so we could see firsthand how a session would unfold.
The practice session went swimmingly. There was a lot of buy-in, of course, because we’d just spent a whole day learning about the program, but I was surprised at the range of opinions in the room. I’ll admit I had assumed most of the leaders wanting to use the program in their churches would be more on the progressive side of the issue, but that wasn’t true. In just those ninety minutes, we heard from a pastor who had performed many same-sex weddings, a parent with a gay son, and a church member who thought all gay people should be celibate in order to be members of a church. There was some pointed disagreement, but I think we all came away with new perspectives. I was ready to get started.
This is an abridged version of this article. To read more, subscribe to the print edition of Christian Educators Journal.
Abby Zwart teaches English at Grand Rapids Christian High School and is the incoming co-editor of CEJ.