Have you ever watched a tennis match in person? I can’t help but envision cartoons I watched as a kid: characters’ heads turning dizzyingly to follow an extended volley. It immediately makes me sea-sick.
Maybe it’s because of the association I make between racket sports and public debate—particularly the kind we experience on social media. Don’t get me wrong: Debate has its place and benefit, helping us to see contrasting ideas. Unfortunately, we don’t often witness healthy debate in the public sphere. In the political arena alone, debates between candidates for political office have more to do with showcasing contradictory ideas and platforms. It’s more about demonstrating who is quicker on their proverbial feet—who makes the better show—than learning from the opposing argument. Whether or not observers gain anything from the proceedings is (ahem) debatable.
We sit entrenched and talk past one another. On social media, the ability to consume the entire debate in large chunks turns up the temperature in the room. We tend to react without making time for reflective responses. Aces and Zingers fly until everyone “surrenders” out of pure exhaustion, our energy and vitriol spent. Game. Set. Match.
But was anything “won”?
The polarization of society and our subsequent inability to engage in reasonable, beneficial discourse is truly a cultural phenomenon—and not a positive one. David Innes, in his recent piece in WORLD Opinions, puts it this way: “When we treat a situation that is not war as though it were a war, constructive discussion––what we need most in the situation––disappears.”
We are losing our ability to reason together.
As followers of Christ, raising the next generation, we are responsible on some level for restoration and reconciliation, for shaping culture for the glory of Christ. Unfortunately, the church has been shaped by culture norms in this case rather than the other way around. We bite and devour one another instead of producing lovely fruit (Galatians 5). As can be seen related to recent pro-life decisions alone, we are divided in our understanding, interpretation, and response. We use many words, and sin is not absent.
The apostle Peter challenges us to: “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” (1 Peter 3:15; I encourage you to read from verse 8 and continue to the end of the chapter.) Paul models this method of evangelism (disciple-making) throughout the book of Acts, emphasizes the need to put childish thinking behind us even as he defines love (1 Corinthians 13), and exhorts us to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). By this shall all men know that we are His: if we have love for one another.
Ok, so we’ve established our “why”—but “how” do we do this?
By practicing a concept I like to call “the Strength of Three.”
Borrowed from Latin, the principle “omne trium perfectum” or “the rule of three” suggests that things that come in threes are inherently more humorous, satisfying, and effective. When I read Ecclesiastes 4:12, it solidifies this idea visually with a clear image: “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” When I consider geometry and design, I learn that the triangle is the strongest shape, favored by architects for the stability of its structure. When I think of writing or preaching, I recall the favored three points. Everywhere I look I see three. Three is truly a magic number.
The discipleship concept I am trying to convey in this “Strength of Three” relates to unity amidst diversity. David writes: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity,” (Psalm 133:1). There exists a loveliness and strength of being disparate in our thinking, feeling, and doing while uniting (or striving towards unity) in our vision and mission. This reflects our Triune God and provides a foundation for a discipleship process which allows for variations in background, learning preferences, culture, calling (etc).
I may need to emphasize here that I am speaking from the perspective of an educator and discipler. Do not mistake me: We need to know Truth vs falsehood, Good vs evil, just as surely as our bodies need to be nourished by food. My goal is to cultivate best practices and a process-oriented environment for learners (disciples). These include lowering the anxiety in our learning climate and increasing the capacity for reflection and transformative learning. It includes not only teaching what to think but also how to think. Another metaphor comes to mind: If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day…if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.
With three or more people, the pacing changes, a question may be asked around the room. One person might respond while others pause to listen and consider. Instead of feeling the need to arrive as experts on a topic area, we can actually learn. With three ideas or reference points, they aren’t immediately in a face-off with one another. Together, they become a spectrum of possibilities rather than adversarial positions. We “lower the temperature” in the room.
How do we do this in a home or a school environment? And who or what are the three elements? To answer the first question, we practice this principle by making time for and welcoming conversation: around the table (organize your classroom into a circle!); after watching a movie or the news (ask questions to move from absorption to analysis!); when studying scripture (inductive Bible study methods!). Encourage the idea that in a learning process, there is no wrong answer or question—grace in operation.
You may have already observed answers to the second question in my first point above. Let me name them concretely. The three elements in operation in an educational setting include: parent/educator/discipler, child/learner/disciple, and curriculum. Curriculum is a much broader term than we often realize. It includes the Bible and textbooks, yes. But it also includes media, cultural artifacts…even people themselves (we have a great deal to learn from one another). Taking the posture of a learner, instead of one who assumes she already has all the right answers, allows us to grow…allows us to come alongside others in their growth.
When we start with at least three possibilities, we develop maturity in our thoughts, emotions, and our actions.
My own favorite experiences of the past two years of homeschooling include learning alongside my student as she developed her usage of ANI (pronounced “Annie”) charts—a preliminary writing practice encouraged by The Lost Tools of Writing. In true classical style, these curriculum writers lean into “the rule of three.” If you have the affirmative and negative sides of an argument without also including the interesting, your essay will be dull and your learning shallow. If you stretch yourself to explore further, you develop nuanced thinking which not only improves your writing, it improves your relationships. When we learn and employ the art of persuasion, we seek to win the hearts and minds of people who disagree with our position. To do this we must develop an understanding of another’s thoughts, feelings, and experience, meet them there.
We have the great privilege to be co-learners and co-laborers with our children and one another! As I listen to others’ thoughts and questions, resisting immediate responses as in a two-person dialog, I can quietly reflect and respond with thoughtfulness and grace. This is hard for me, woman of words that I am! But, founded on and surrounded by the perfect relationship in the Trinity, I have this hope: He perfects our process.
Take time to listen to and equip your older children to share what they know with your younger children (disciples making disciples). Reflect on your discipleship practices. How are they maturing with your maturing children? Where are you allowing them to wrestle with material written from outside of our traditions and worldview to develop their critical thinking and inform their empathy? How are you increasing their agency to to live and serve in the world, to help draw others into His Kingdom?
These discipleship practices are among the most challenging and richest of our lives. Let’s make conscious space for the Third Person in the room who will surely multiply our discipleship efforts, making us and the generation after us fishers of men.