How to Have Tough Conversations about Beliefs: Sean McDowell
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Dr. Sean McDowellDr. Sean McDowell is an author, speaker, and Associate Professor at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, with a Ph.D. in apologetics and worldview studies. He has authored or edited numerous books, including Chasing Love: Sex, Love, and Relationships in A Confused Culture and So the Next Generation Will Know. Sean is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, especially young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He regularly engages nonbelievers in though...more
What’s it look like to have effective, tough conversations about beliefs? Author and professor Sean McDowell equips you for hard conversations that matter.
How to Have Tough Conversations about Beliefs: Sean McDowell
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Dave: Question for you: the number one thing you think non-believing, non-churched people think about Christ-following people? What’s the first thing that they would say, “This is what I think?”
Dave: No! You’re not supposed to get it right right away!
Ann: That’s what you thought?
Dave: Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking!
Ann: How do you know that’s right? Just because you think it makes it right?
Dave: No, I mean—yes, if I think it, it is right. [Laughter]
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abbott, and your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: No, I mean, with the number of people I talk to, that is at least top three.
Ann: Oh, totally!
Dave: If it’s not number one, they see the church, they see Christ-followers, as very judgmental people.
Ann: And then, the second one could be hypocritical.
Dave: I just know, when I go on Twitter, that’s what I see. And I think we should talk about that a little bit. We’ve got Sean McDowell back in the studio. Sean, welcome back.
Sean: Thank you for having me.
Dave: Yes; and your book—I love the title: A Rebel’s Manifesto. So, we’re sitting with a rebel today. [Laughter] But I mean, yesterday, you described a rebel as someone—say it again so our audience—I mean, it’s a beautiful understanding of what a rebel is in your mind.
Sean: Yes. When a lot of people see the title of this book, they think, “Wait a minute, Sean! You don’t strike me as the rebel kind!” That’s because we have a certain image of a rebel: someone who’s just a contrarian and fighting against the system and loud, etc. Well, that’s kind of a rebel from an era before social media. Now, everybody has a microphone! Everybody’s trying to be louder. Everybody’s trying to shock.
I actually think it’s a little bit rebellious to just say, “You know what? I’m going to care more about you. I’m going to reach across the political aisle, the religious aisle, the racial aisle, or whatever differences are there, and try to hear somebody out and have a genuine spiritual conversation with them.” So, in other words, to forgive and show grace rather than cancel is actually a rebellious way to be today. [Laughter]
Dave: Yes, which is—I didn’t even catch that in the title until I heard you talk about it and then I started reading the book. And by the way, parents, you need to get this book! Not just for yourself, but your kids, because it will walk you through how to have conversations with your neighbors—
Dave: As well as little boys and girls and older sons and daughters in your home. It is a piece of wisdom.
Dave: We talked about, yesterday, how to have conversations with your children about these things, because the world is talking about these issues: gender, sexuality—
Dave: —racism, entertainment, mental health. You name it! We live in a world, like you said, [where] everybody’s got a microphone and they’re talking about it. But when the Christian church, often, talks about it, we scream pretty loudly, and we are heard as very judgmental. You have a chapter on judging.
Dave: Talk about this. How can we do better?
Sean: Well, I would say, yes, the world is talking about this, but the world is actually discipling our kids, and I use that word intentionally. Whether it’s the educational system; whether it’s Netflix; whether it’s Disney Plus; whether it’s TikTok, Twitter, or you name it, through the medium and through the message, it is discipling our kids! So, that’s what we have to first realize.
Second, how do we counter this? Well, all the research I’ve seen, going back to 1970, says that the number one influence in the life of a young person is the parents. So, if the parents are—number one, we have to model a life that our kids want to emulate; number two, build relationships with our kids; number three, just have meaningful conversations with our kids about the issues that matter. That’s what the book is meant to do.
Now, the moment you start to have these kinds of conversations, you’re going to hear people say, “Well, that’s judgmental! You shouldn’t judge.” Now, with Christian kids, I want to take them to the Scripture and say, “What does it mean when Jesus said, ‘Do not judge lest you be judged,’ in Matthew 7[:1]?”
Well, Jesus also gives another analogy, where He says, “Take the plank out of your own eye before you find the speck in another.” In other words, Jesus did not say not to judge. He’s saying, “Don’t judge hypocritically.” And the standard by which you judge others will be used against you.
Now, what I can’t judge is somebody’s heart. Only God knows somebody’s heart. But in Matthew, chapter 7—the same passage—Jesus talks about recognizing false prophets. You can only recognize false prophets if you make a judgment on right belief and wrong belief, real repentance and false repentance. So, we are to judge ideas. In one sense, we can judge certain actions, because the Bible says, “They will know us by our love;” but we can’t judge somebody’s heart.
So, I’ve found that when we engage people with that kind of spirit, they’re often willing to engage and have a conversation; not always, but often willing if we just have a humility about us, a willingness to listen to others, not being quick to judge because you’re “right.” That’s the perception so many people have about Christians, and we’ve earned that perception! There’s a lot of truth in it. I think we need to take a step back, listen, find common ground, keep it on issues, not attacking people, and we can have a lot of meaningful conversations.
Ann: Which we do—which we can do—as a family, even sitting around the dinner table, where somebody can have an idea about something. Let’s even say sexuality; it could be race; whatever it could be; but as a parent, you could say, “That person is an idiot!” You know, that kind of thing, instead of saying, “Oh, let’s just talk about that issue.” You know, you’re taking it off of the person and saying, “Let’s talk about the issue.” That could be an easy way to have the discussion without judging the person’s heart.
Sean: I think that’s a great way to start, and I try to do that. The difficult part is, on so many issues today, people don’t separate their beliefs from who they are, especially on issues of sexuality. So, if you say to a young person today—not every young person, but many—that you think marriage is one man and one woman for life, that is making a statement about the kids they know and their parents who are in gay relationships.
Ann: I see.
Sean: So, I think you’re right. That’s what we aim to do, but we’ve got to realize, in this generation, they’re oftentimes combined together. Now, just put ourselves in the shoes of these kids, who are just trying to navigate: “Do I get to class on time? Do I go to prom? Who am I? Am I playing a sport? Do I get good enough grades?” And they’re told, you know, “At home, my Christian faith says your biological sex is part of who you are; that’s the Genesis account. But I go to school, and I go online, and I’m told the opposite!”
These are the waters our kids are having to navigate. It’s personal for them, and it’s almost impossible to just kind of stand on the sidelines. So, that’s why we’ve got to start these conversations early and bring them back to the Scripture within relationship, rather than wait until, in some cases, it’s almost too late.
Ann: As parents, that can tend to freak us out, and our automatic—my automatic—feeling is, “Then we need to protect them!”
Sean: That’s right.
Ann: You know, a lot of parents will think, “I need to homeschool them. I need to keep them away from everything! I’m going to get rid of my TV. I’m going to get rid of all social media.”
Dave: No apps!
Ann: Yes, nothing! What do you think?
Sean: You cannot keep your kids from the things in the world. It’s not going to happen! They’re going to have friends. They’re going to have babysitters. They’re going to have teammates. It’s simply impossible. You can’t do it! That didn’t even really work in the ‘80s or ‘90s anyway. [Laughter] It’s certainly not going to work today with the technology that we have, so we’ve got to be proactive and equip our kids when they find themselves in that circumstance.
I think of Daniel—Daniel 1:8 says, “Daniel determined not to defile himself.” That’s past tense. Before that temptation came, he had built a certain kind of character. The question is: are we preparing our kids before they find themselves in that circumstance? I think that’s the biblical goal and model.
Dave: Well, you cover a lot of topics in The Rebel’s Manifesto. One of them we already mentioned a little bit: racism. I don’t know if you want to go there, but I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding that we all have in different ways. Where do we start with this topic?
Sean: You know, there are 25 issues in this book. [Laughter] I got the top 25 thorny issues I could come up with. This was one of the hardest chapters to write. Partly, when I wrote the first book, that this is an update from, I had ten chapters. That’s only because books had ten chapters. [Laughter] I had no deeper thought than that! Now, as a parent, I’m like, “Oh, what tool would actually help me? Shorter chapters!” You know?
I just wasn’t a parent; and I didn’t include a chapter on race.
Sean: So, it came out in ’06, so I wrote it in ’05. It just didn’t cross my mind. When I went to update this, a lot had changed culturally; but I remember pausing and thinking, “Oh, my goodness! I didn’t even talk about race!” I talked about war; I talked about sexuality; I talked about other topics. And I thought, “Why not?” Well, number one, the cultural conversation has shifted a little bit; but second, I think, honestly, it’s not on my radar.
If you are in the majority race in any country, you’re probably not going to have to think about navigating your life in the same way you are if you are a minority. It hit me! I thought, “Wow! I wonder what other blind spots I have?” From anything! Not just my race, but other issues. So, I thought, If I’m going to write on this, and I’m a middle-aged white guy, I’m going to just need to read a lot, have a lot of conversations, and get some wisdom and feedback from people on the content and on the tone.
So, it was one of the hardest chapters to write, but as I talk to a lot of my minority friends, I’ll say, “Hey, what’s one thing I can do?” What I hear, pretty much every time, is, “Just listen. Just understand. Just hear me out. Don’t get defensive.” That’s something all of us can do. It’s not that hard if we’re willing to do so.
Ann: One of the things I’ve appreciated about your book, too, is you have Scripture under every single topic. Even with this one, you have James 1:19, which says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” I mean, I think that would be true of any topic we have, but I love that you have Scripture in every single chapter about that topic.
Sean: By the way, I don’t come up with a position and then throw Scripture on top of it.
Ann: Good point!
Sean: Start with asking the question: “What, if anything, does Scripture say on this issue?” So, issues like race and diversity—I mean, there’s diversity in the past. God creates man and woman, all the nations. There’s diversity in the present, in the church. And there’s diversity in the future, in heaven. So, it’s built into the fabric of God’s good creation.
Now, the chapter on gun control—the Bible’s not going to talk about gun control. You can’t slap a verse on it, but it talks about human value; it talks about when it is okay and not okay to take a human life and protecting. So, the Bible applies to all these issues.
Sean: Some are just more direct than others. In this case, I think that applies directly to conversations on race and beyond.
Ann: For sure.
Dave: I mean, so much of what you’ve said yesterday and today is, “Listen. Give grace and really listen to another person or another idea.” Why are we so bad at this? In terms of being known as really leaning in to hear another differing, opposing viewpoint, I don’t think we, in the church, are known to be good listeners. Why?
Sean: Dave, I love this question! I’ll tell you a few reasons that I’ve thought of on this: number one, it takes work, and it takes effort to actually listen to somebody. But also, if you listen, you begin to realize that you might be wrong. It’s painful to admit on big and small—“Wow! I got that issue wrong. Wow! I need to change my perspective.” So, it takes time; it takes effort. I think, in our quick culture—you know, I was just talking with students about this yesterday. If you look at most social media posts, people are thinking about communicating in a way that makes them feel better, not thinking about, “How is this actually going to be received? Is this going to be effective? How is this going to be heard?”
In other words, we’re thinking about ourselves rather than somebody else and how our words are going to land. Listening requires that, doesn’t it? It requires being others-focused rather than self-focused. So, I guess the third reason would be that doesn’t come naturally to us, does it? [Laughter] We naturally love ourselves. We think about ourselves. Listening involves saying, “You know what? I’m going to care about you and what’s important to you first and put myself second.”
There are probably other reasons why, but those are a few that come to mind.
Dave: Yes; I was on a Zoom—I got invited a couple months ago to a Zoom—men’s Bible study with some guys in the Detroit area. I knew a couple of them but didn’t know most of the guys. It was sort of a dialogue. Again, I’m sitting in my home, looking at a camera. The question came up: “How do you convince somebody who doesn’t believe in Jesus to believe in Jesus?”
I’ve got to tell you, Sean, as I listened, most of the guys said, basically, “You speak the truth in love! You open the Word of God, and you show them what’s true!” Blah, blah, blah. I just sat there, and finally, one of the guys who knew me well said, “Hey, Dave, you haven’t said anything. You’ve been in ministry 40-plus years. Do you agree? Would you say that’s the way to go?”
I said, “Here’s what I think: let them talk.” Everyone got really quiet. It was like, “What?” I said, “There’s probably a reason they don’t believe. It might be intellectual; it might be they don’t believe the Bible. It might be something else, but how do you know if you don’t just ask them some questions?” I said, “I think I’ve learned to ask questions and really listen and hear what they think. I think they’ll feel loved that you asked them, and that will draw them closer than anything else you say.”
All the guys just looked at me like, “Yes! That’s really good!” [Laughter] I said, “If I’ve learned anything in 40 years, I have not done that well.” Maybe that’s why I’ve learned it, because I was the guy saying, “I have the Truth here, and here it is.” But I’d have my Bible, like, “I’m going to convince you that it’s true,” rather than thinking we do live in a culture that says, “Nobody’s listening to me. Nobody sees me. Nobody hears me.”
And one of the things I love about what you do, even when I go to your YouTube channel is, you’re one of the best listeners I’ve seen in the Christian community.
Ann: Oh, yes.
Dave: [You] validate other people’s image of God in them by listening well. And, at the same time, [you] speak truth. What you said is so crucial! And if we, as parents, did that in our homes, it would change everything.
Sean: I love your response, by the way. I was sitting there thinking, “What would I say in that situation?” I think I would have said the same thing. I would simply ask people, “Who do you think Jesus is?” If I’m going to try to make a case for who Jesus is, don’t I want to understand, if they’re not a Jesus-follower, what their faulty ideas are?
Sean: I mean, do they think He’s just a good moral teacher? Do they think He didn’t exist? Do they think He’s a social justice warrior? I mean, who do they think Jesus is? So, asking questions—the right questions—and just listening. I’m an apologist, so I can listen in a way, if I’m not careful, where I’m listening to arguments and formulating responses as I go.
Dave: Yes. [Laughter]
Sean: But I try to, just in the back of my mind, think, “Am I really understanding?” (number one), and “Am I being charitable to what this person believes?” number two.
So, on my YouTube channel, I say, “Clarity and Charity.” Those are the two values, I think, of a good listener. Then, notice 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Be ready with an answer when somebody asks,” right? Jesus didn’t force people to listen who didn’t want to hear. He let the rich young ruler walk away. So, we’ve got to be ready with an answer, but I kind of want to know first, “Do you really want to know who Jesus is?”
I mean, why did Jesus teach in parables sometimes? Partly, He was weeding out people who were just there for the show, there for the food.
Sean: And then, people who wanted to know came to Him. So, that’s what asking questions does. “Do you really want to know? Do you care who I think Jesus is? Do you care what the Scriptures say?” Let’s figure out some of that before we launch in and start giving somebody a mini sermon, who might not want to hear it at that point anyway.
Dave: Yes, and even as you were saying that just a minute ago, when I think of 1 Peter 3:15, he didn’t say you’re answering a question. You’re answering a person with a question. I think that’s really important, because I think sometimes, we think, “Oh, I’ve got the answer to that question! Here are the three reasons that’s a false belief. I’m going to nail every one of them!”
It's like, “No, no. There’s a person asking. It isn’t just this question. It’s somebody made in the image of God asking you a question. Respond the way Jesus would.” And as I say that, I’m thinking, “Man! Do our kids feel that from us as parents? Do they feel like we are answering them, rather than a belief that we don’t want them to have because they grew up in our home?”
Sean: And by the way, can I jump in? What you said about, “Do our kids feel that?” You didn’t say, “Do our kids think that?” You said, “Do our kids feel that?” My dad would often make a distinction between saying, “Son, what do you think?” and “Son, how does that make you feel?” Very different questions.
Ann: What are the kinds of questions we should ask our kids. You guys, you have three kids, all different ages. What are the things that you’re talking about at the dinner table that could get to their hearts?
Sean: I want to ask my kids a couple questions. One is just [about] stuff going on in the world and what they think about it (external).
Sean: And then, stuff going on in their world, and what they think and they feel about it. I try to do both. So, if something happens, maybe politically; or maybe something happens culturally, I’ll just throw it out there to my kids: “Hey, this happened. What do you guys think about it? I’m really curious.” We’ll just listen, and we’ll talk, and we’ll chat about it.
The other thing is, I’m just asking my kids, you know, the standard questions about, “How’s school going? How’s your friend doing?” But I’m listening really carefully if there’s something they say that gives me a hint at what’s going on in their heart. “I had this class that’s just driving me nuts!” “Well, do you mind telling Dad about that? What’s driving you nuts about it?” And that might be an opportunity, and it might not be. A friend of mine, Kara Powell, says a question she asks her kids (which is interesting as they get older) is, “What do you believe that your mom and dad don’t believe?”
Ann: Great question.
Sean: “And what do you not believe that we do?” Isn’t that an interesting question to ask?
Ann: Yes, yes.
Sean: That’s going to unlock—now, you’ve got to prepare yourself! [Laughter] [Don’t] get defensive and angry.
Sean: And just model listening. Make sure they feel a certain way. Those are practical ones, but honestly, Jesus asked over 330 questions, at least that we have recorded. Paul asked 263.
Sean: Asking questions is an art and a science. That’s one of the most important skills for parents to develop.
Ann: I think that’s my takeaway. “What do you think about this topic or issue? What do you feel about this?” That’s a great takeaway for families.
Shelby: Hi, I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Sean McDowell on FamilyLife Today. You know, why don’t we model honesty and listening with our children? Asking good questions will help bond you with your kids and get to the heart of what’s truly going on with them and with us. That’s really where God can do some serious work to change us and unite us as families.
Sean McDowell has written a book called A Rebel’s Manifesto: Choosing Truth, Real Justice, and Love Amid the Noise of Today’s World. You can pick up a copy at FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call at 800-358-6329. Again, that number is 800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.”
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You can go online to FamilyLifeToday.com, or you can give us a call with your donation at 800-F as in “family,” L as in “life,” and then the word, “TODAY.” Coming up tomorrow, Sean McDowell is going to be in the studio again with Dave and Ann Wilson to talk about loneliness, hurt, brokenness in homes and families, and recognizing issues as a parent to help us build relationships with the hearts of our kids. That’s coming up tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We’ll see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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