As a child, my neighborhood friends and I loved to play on a train track near our house. Foolish, I know, but quite fun and exhilarating. We learned to tell when a train was coming long before it actually appeared. We would put our ears to the rail and hear the heavy engine rolling toward us while it was still far away. We knew to get out of the way, and would stand in awe as the earth shook while the massive engine and railroad cars lumbered by.
For several years now, we have been hearing the distant rumble of conflict as it spreads through American congregations. Despite repeated warnings and predictions, the rumble is growing louder and seemingly becoming more intense. Since 2000, several surveys have been undertaken that suggest major conflict had occurred in 25% to 35% of congregations over the previous four years.
My concern is that our current congregational climate is primed for a sharp rise in church conflict, unless we find ways to avert this destructive train.
There seem to be multiple factors coalescing to make this fear legitimate.
COVID-19. First, the COVID-19 virus has caused a major disruption to individual and congregational life that continues to unfold. The impact upon every aspect of life is hard to describe, and the future disruption is even harder to imagine. Attendance patterns are disrupted in an unprecedented fashion. Fear about if and when we will return to any sense of normalcy is palatable. All of this anxiety results in increased reactivity and lowered trust, both of which are a breeding ground for overt conflict. Throw in the fatigue and depression that long-term uncertainty produces, and the virus has created a wave of misunderstandings and conflict.
Economics. Second, the harsh economic realities that are emerging as the impact of high unemployment and a sluggish economy will continue to affect congregants and ministers. While the stock market is surging, many Americans are struggling to pay rent, buy groceries and care for their families. This puts additional stress on congregations that care for their city and seek to provide relief to a rising tide of need around them.
Racial tensions. Third, the racial tensions and conflict sweeping our nation feed into a heightened anxiety and distrust that seeps into congregational life. Long-simmering frustrations are boiling over as the events and images of the day disturb and shock us. Clergy are trying to speak for a middle way of respectful dialogue and understanding, and being criticized for stepping into the debate with the words and actions of Jesus.
Political climate. Finally, the political climate of our nation is as toxic as most of us have ever experienced. What our political leaders model as conflict resolution is very nearly the opposite of what Jesus taught his followers. Character assassination, assigning motives, hidden agendas, belittling, demeaning, half-truths and untruths are standard fare that our congregants are exposed to daily. Far too often, church members take their cues and instructions from media sources and politicians rather than the one they claim as Lord of their life. The result is that congregational life is conformed to the dark standards of culture rather than serving as a transformative gospel force for good.
All of these factors feed into my concern that we have a “conflict train” bearing down upon us. We hear it coming and wonder what we can do to slow it down or divert it from our community of faith.
Perhaps it is time to reconnect with our founder’s lifestyle and leadership model.
Here are some simple suggestions for all of us as we seek to go against the flow of our culture and our own fears in this season.
First, let’s remember who we are and why we are here. When we said yes to Christ, we committed ourselves to live by a different and higher standard than the world. It is time to revisit that pledge and renew that promise. For a start, read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as your field guide for life in the 2020 decade.
Second, we need to pledge to listen more than we talk. Far too often we close ourselves off to others by our unwillingness to listen and hear the pain and discomfort that is behind the words they speak. The gift of listening can be the start of a new and Christ-like relationship with those who are different than you.
Third, we are called to confess our own sins before engaging in the popular sport of confessing the sins of others. Our lack of personal reflection and repentance breaks the heart of God as we pass judgment upon others. Such behavior is diametrically opposed to what God intends his people to show the world.
Finally, the way through conflict for God’s people is always the path of humility. Healthy churches, ministers and laity are always marked by a profound sense of humility. Paul taught us that it is in our weakness that we discover our strength. While this is the opposite of what is held up as normative in culture for us, it is unquestionably the way Jesus taught and what he expects from those who carry his name (see Mark 10:42-45 and John 13:12-15). Pride and arrogance are the traits that Jesus and Paul taught us inevitably lead to conflict and division.
I genuinely fear for the health and viability of our churches that mimic and embody the tragic examples of conflict management that rule our culture today. At the same time, I also believe it is not too late to reclaim our allegiance to the one who was described as the Prince of Peace and the giver of Abundant Life.
I hope and pray that we can hear and avoid the train of conflict bearing down upon us.
Bill Wilson is director of The Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, N.C., and a member of the Baptist News Global board of directors.
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