Updated: Nov 2, 2021
It has been said, “soldiers fight the enemy on the front lines, but in the barracks, they fight each other.” Trouble always turns a church inward upon itself and when that happens each holds, ever so tightly, to their religious mask fearing that at any moment their true self will be revealed.
Consider the monumental challenges pressed upon the church over the last year and a half. In those early months last year, leaders were changing things almost daily and often without any opportunity to gain consensus. Even worse some churches didn’t gather for worship in over a year and let’s just admit it, ZOOM didn’t fill in all the gaps.
Then, when services resumed attendance was down, relationships were uncomfortable, and there was an overwhelming feeling that something just wasn’t right. This season has been unlike anything the American church has ever experienced. Sadly, we are now beginning to realize that these things have been a breeding ground for disagreement, misunderstanding, and pain.
Legions of ministers whose self-worth had been tied to attendance numbers and financial giving no longer had these statistics to measure personal value. What is the entrepreneurial leader to do when they are called upon to be a shepherd instead? How does the progressive ideolog suddenly transition from pundit to pastor? How can our pride deal with the embarrassment of less, or even worse, no growth?
Likewise, congregational lay leaders, who for years had served diligently in one ministry program or another, suddenly found themselves with people-less programs. Classrooms were empty or sparse. Budgets had to be cut. Programs were suspended. Much like the Bill Gaither song, “All the marketplace was empty, no more traffic in the streets, all the builder’s tools are silent, no more time to harvest wheat—and suddenly the marketing tricks no longer worked and the uncertainly of a strange new era was upon us.
Having led in four successful and one failed revitalization ministry I believe I can make a few observations about the wounded church; observations that may help us understand what has happened within the faith community. This additional awareness may equip us to discover how we can better become a foreign embassy on the earth for our glorious monarch Jesus.
Church conflict affects communication, heightens emotions, divides friends, and destroys long-held relationships. Before the crisis came conversations were open and free filled with lighthearted jesting, life events, honest admissions, laughter, and shared experiences. But then one day something unexpectedly changed and now there is an unspoken heaviness overshadowing the fellowship.
Conversations are guarded, even between longtime friends. People pause before they speak fearing how their words, or merely the tone of those words, will be heard and retold. The conversation is no longer happy and free, but agenda-oriented and issue-heavy. Just the perception of an odd word or turned phrase is enough to prompt detailed analysis and interpretation in a later conversation.
A quick look around the church reveals one cluster talking in hushed tones down the hallway; another group huddling around a car long after service has ended; over there is a trio lingering behind in the classroom after others have left. Even in worship, an otherwise good sermon is seeded with passive aggressive words, reactionary tones, and innuendo.
A bird’s eye view of the larger life of the worshipping community reveals that this cancerous conflict is not merely disrupting Sunday, it has invaded the community. The far-reaching tentacles of “the issue” now extends to restaurants, golf courses, school events, athletic games, even into the bedrooms and living rooms of the flock. The puritan Thomas Brooks wrote this in his work, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices.
“Satan has his devices to destroy the saints’ and one great device that he has to destroy the saints is, by working Christians to first find another strange then to divide, and then to make them bitter and jealous, and then they will bite and devour one another.” i
Sadly, years after this cancer has died or been eradicated its damage remains leaving lifelong scars. I once heard a congregant say, “I can live with them going to another church but what hurts so much is that I never see them, and we never talk anymore. We were friends for 15 years.”
This doesn’t have to be. Healing begins with the act of forgiving even the most painful wounding from the dearest friend. Paul reminds us that true love “does not take into account a wrong suffered.”
When a church is wounded, everyone is wounded. We must not forget that trouble never occurs inside a vacuum. Every individual, leadership or laity, not only plays some role in the drama, they often become disoriented in that role.
Leadership says, "it is our job to fix the trouble." So, the call is made, “there is an emergency leadership team meeting tonight!” Everyone gathers and the conversation about blame, best practices, and being bold is a common one. Attempting to manage the situation, with as little fallout as possible, leadership seeks to find a way of using their power to resolve the tension.
The meetings of the laity are unofficial but no less critical, occurring in the ordinary contexts of gatherings, coincidental encounters, and casual conversations. “So-in-so leader has done a number on this church.” “This would have never happened under X.” “We need to get rid of...” In very informal ways the laity, much like the leadership, attempts to resolve the tension through the power it possesses.
In 1957 psychologist Leon Festinger published A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. He theorized that the discomfort of cognitive dissonance occurred when people acted in contradiction to their beliefs. Furthermore, the degree of dissonance (or discomfort) experienced would be directly proportional to the type and value of the beliefs contradicted as well as the disparity existing between action and belief. He also theorized that this would be coupled (in most people) with the drive to relieve that discomfort. He called this instinct the “principle of cognitive consistency.”
Wounded people often act in ways contradictory to their known character because of this instinct for cognitive consistency. The church family is a single community of individuals, and everyone experiences the same dissonance in conflict. However, identical experience does not translate into identical reactions. Much like a large rowboat filled with panicked rowers, conflict reduces the single community into multiple groups and individuals all rowing in different directions with varying force. In this confusion, godly leaders and laity can become disoriented thereby acting in inappropriate, even ungodly ways, that stands in stark contradiction to their reputation and known character. Desperate for cognitive consistency disconcerted people act unethically thereby causing even greater dissonance within the community of faith. One thing feeds off the other and the wounding escalates.
The most powerful thing a wounded person can do is forgive. The first step to healing is becoming aware of what has happened, the second is realizing the path forward passes through the gate of forgiveness. However, to pass through this gate you must admit that you have hurt and have been hurt—this is the selfish and unselfish component necessary for revival after being wounded in the conflict. Here are three helpful truths:
Through the forgiveness of others, the pain of wounding is replaced by the reemergence of joy. Those friends who became enemies in conflict can become even greater friends than before through forgiveness. This is the nature of grace, this is why we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Forgiveness of self is the admission of the sin of self-righteousness. In church conflict, some will attempt to claim the moral high ground attacking those who disagree with them from the hill, only to remain on that hill long after the conflict has ended. (In many cases, the moral high ground is more perceived than actual.) There is no greater source of personal guilt than the defense of past behavior. Coming down from Mount Self-Righteous means no longer reliving the past and accepting God's promise to “restore the years the locusts have eaten.”
Forgiveness is the fertile soil from which brighter futures and better relationships come. If you don’t believe me, hear Peter after his thrice betrayal preaching Christ to thousands from the Southern steps of the Holy Mount or read Paul's words in his last letter to Timothy, "bring John Mark when you come."
If you are in a church that has been wounded by conflict and turmoil the solution isn’t discarding past friendships, starting a new church, nor defining your tribe--it is forgiveness. This is how bitterness is purged. This is how new trails are blazed. This is how the church begins the wonderful journey of discovering what it means to be God’s ambassadors in a foreign land here and now. I know personally the destructive nature of bitterness, and I have seen forgiveness heal and transform a church.
“Sometime between 1960 and 1980, an old, inadequately conceived world ended, and a fresh new world began. We do not mean to be overly dramatic. Although there are many who have not yet heard the news, it is nevertheless true: A tired old world has ended, and an exciting new one is awaiting recognition.” ii
I agree with the assessment of Hauerwas and Willimon. This should be our attitude. Rather than pine for a former world that will never return, let us look forward with hope realizing that the brightest and best days for God’s church lie ahead of us.
Church Survival 3: Rage Against Dysfunction
i. Thomas Brooks: Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices. Device IV point number 3.
ii. Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 15-16.