Third Rail Conversations in Renewal Congregations

Written by Keith Doornbos
February 27, 2023

Third Rail (untouchable) conversations should courageously move beyond that which is safe to address that which is significant in the life of Jesus followers.

Third rails are electrified metal rails supplying power to subway trains. If you touch the other two rails, you will live. If you touch the third rail, there are no guarantees. A “third rail” has become a metaphor for a charged and untouchable topic. Every church has any number of third rails that may include: women’s leadership, climate change, same sex attraction, the plight of migrants, guns, unwanted pregnancies, Christian nationalism, conspiracy theories, remarriage, singles and sex, pornography, etc.

  • Most churches ignore third rails or dispense churchy answers to which everyone nods in agreement. The result can be seen in a Pew Research project that discovered religious people are less likely to believe in or care about global warming’s impact on God’s creation.
  • The Bible, on the other hand, does not avoid third rails. Scripture seeks to shape minds and hearts to mirror the mind and heart of God. This passion demands that no topic impacting life, society or creation can be off the table. Renewal congregations should courageously move beyond that which is safe to address that which is significant in the life of Jesus followers. Disciple-making demands nothing less.
How To Have Third Rail Conversations And Live To Tell About It
Provide A “Heads Up”
  • Be upfront that today’s conversation will touch a third rail. Giving people advanced notice lowers the anxiety when the topic shows up. Be clear that this will be an exploration not a declaration.
Lead With Stories
  • Third rails are deadly when they are treated as concepts that have a right/correct position or a wrong/incorrect position. Stories provide context by exploring the struggles of real people and real life.
Choose Humility
  • The person taking lead in the conversation (often the preacher) must choose humility as their primary posture. Humility says, “This is what I’m presently thinking/believing, but I’m still listening and learning.”
Lean On The Bible
  • Whatever wisdom is shared must be derived from an honest and open reading of the Bible. That discovery process must be informed by important hermeneutical principles including the progressive revelation of Scripture.
Identify Additional Discoveries and Materials
  • Christians in the Reformed tradition believe God reveals himself in special revelation (the Word) and in general revelation (the world). Respecting revelation demands sharing knowledge from both locations.
Name the Complexities
  • Every third rail is complicated. For example, Jesus was a pacifist, but in Luke 22:36 he tells followers to sell cloaks to buy swords. If people on the left or right are entirely comfortable, something is being missed.
Leave With Questions to Ponder
  • The exploration of a third rail should close with questions to ponder not pronouncements to embrace. Questions create room for the Holy Spirit’s transforming work within a community of believers.
Putting This Week’s Newsletter Into Action
  • An example of a good third rail conversation on the topic of climate change is a presentation by Rev. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap during Calvin University’s 2023 January Series. You can view it here (advance to 12:50 if you want to skip the introduction).

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