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Conflict abounds in the church of Jesus Christ. Reconciliation within the body, however, will not happen with the right 'method' or 'set of principles.' In Making Peace, readers are challenged to place their church and all of its dissension under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
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A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict
By Jim Van Yperen
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2002 Jim Van Yperen
All rights reserved.
ROOT CAUSES OF CONFLICT
For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.
The words were printed in large letters on bright fluorescent colored signs: "Frost Heaves." They looked like placards from a low-budget political campaign stuck in the snow. Some guys named Frost and Heaves were running for national office.
People who live in northern New England know that frost heaves are not the names of politicians or a type of ice cream. The two words describe what happens to our roads in March and April. They freeze and heave.
Frost heaves are caused during winter by thawing daytime temperatures followed by freezing nighttime temperatures. When water that has collected in pockets underneath the road surface freezes, the expanding ice forces the road upward, often cracking open the surface an inch or two at the peak.
Frost heaves can cause roads to rise as much as six inches, and they usually damage road surfaces permanently. Driving a vehicle too fast over a frost heave can damage your shocks and shock your nerves.
One nine-mile stretch of road between our home and the next town must be one of the world's worst roads for frost heaves. In some sections of the road, drivers who hit the heave just right can serve dinner, view an in-flight movie, and earn five hundred frequent flier miles before landing on the other side. Well, so it seems.
When the weather breaks to temperatures consistently above freezing, the road settles down to its previous level with potholes and cracks. Eventually the road crew dutifully fills in the gaps, solving the problem until the next winter.
People complain a lot about the roads and those who crew them. But the real problem is underneath. And that's the way it is in most churches. The real conflict lies below the surface.
What is presented as the "problem" is usually a symptom of what lies underneath. As long as we treat the symptom, not the underlying problem, the conflict will return. It may lie dormant for a time, but it always comes back. Always.
In our work with dozens of conflicted churches, four systemic issues have emerged that, like water trapped under heaving roads, are the source of most crises. They are cultural, structural, spiritual, and theological issues that we must not ignore.
Many Western churches look and act more like the contemporary culture than the kingdom of Christ. The term for such behavior is cultural syncretism.
By culture we mean a complex system of assumptions, practices, stories, and beliefs that guide how a common people think and act as well as what they value. For instance, "meeting my personal needs" is an everyday assumption and behavior in a consumer culture. Christianity is formed around a different story—Jesus' death on the cross—requiring a different set of assumptions and practices that considers the needs of others before our own. (See Philippians 2:3-8.)
Syncretism is the uncritical combination of two or more different, often opposing, beliefs and practices into one. For instance, Western culture celebrates individualism and self-promotion. Christianity calls believers to love and serve others. These stories and values are fundamentally opposed. Western individualism actively persuades against spiritual vitality and mutuality, breeding autonomy instead of biblical community.
By attempting to harmonize secular values with historic Christian ideals, we unwittingly adopt habits, therapies, and practices that undermine our call to be a separate and holy people.
In our churches, this has both practical and theological implications. When believers look like the world, they lose their distinctive voices. They do not "shine like stars" in darkness but join in the parade. We must watch ourselves closely to see if salvation and sanctification, God's great gifts to the church, have become privatized and co-opted into a personal transaction.
Are we gathering in community to practice and prove a way of life together, or are we privatizing faith into self-help answers that breed a kind of spiritual attention deficit disorder? Where is reverent waiting, corporate intercession, and public confession in the contemporary church?
Churches Focused on Individual Needs
These cultural conditions impact our ability to address conflict redemptively. A church founded on principles of individualism will respond to conflict out of its cultural values. Since conflict threatens private faith, we respond with the democratic ideals that form our privacy. Issues of fairness and tolerance take precedence over obedience and mutual submission.
In many churches, the remedy for conflict often makes it worse, deepening the problem by failing to address the fundamental issue: We are trusting our ways more than God's.
All individualism leads to consumerism. When self is center, the world exists to meet one's personal needs. "Hey, I'm entitled to this!" A culture of consumerism will always value individual needs above community life. "You're important to me so long as you serve my needs."
When a church focuses on meeting the needs of individuals, Jesus and the Bible become a personal, need-meeting machine. The church becomes a collection of individuals who are fundamentally at competition with one another—competing to have their needs met. Here, the Gospel becomes a commodity distributed by supply and demand. Since no church can meet all the needs, ultimately one set of needs must be placed against the other.
When this happens, staff and members will compete to make a case for how and why their needs are greater than others. To make more compelling cases, the church becomes divided into interest groups or coalitions formed by age and individual preference.
To address these concerns, some churches offer solutions that only compound the problem. The answer, they believe, is targeting ministries and services to specific demographic or life interest groups who have the same concerns, desires, or needs. This keeps people happy for a time but further fragments the body. The attempt to meet selfish needs tends to reinforce selfishness.
The worship wars are a good example. In many churches the style of worship pits believer against believer. Coalitions form to lobby a point of view. Members are too busy counting how many hymns and how many choruses are sung in each service to actually worship God.
Instead of asking, "How can we enter into worship in mutual submission under the lordship of Jesus Christ?" we divide ourselves, forming two or three worship services according to music style. In effect we become multiple, homogeneous interest groups sharing, or fighting over, the same space. We are not the church.
Our fighting resembles our values as well. To defend our point of view, we quote Scriptures that prove how we are right and the other is wrong. We divide over narrow and legalistic notions of truth. One small church we served actually had two youth groups—one for home-school kids and the other for Christian school and public school children.
Or we separate people by having special services and support groups for the divorced, for singles and single moms, or for people with addictive behaviors. Most churches think nothing of sending their members outside the church for private therapy conducted by "experts" who are not accountable to the church and often not believers.
Well-intentioned efforts to help the hurting often miss, or deny, the power of healing given to the church. These approaches are forming us—and the church—in ways we do not see.
The church becomes a shopping center where we pick and choose what is good for us. We are not a community being formed by God's Word and Spirit. We are individuals shaping ourselves. This strips the Gospel of its power—leaving people in their selfish individualism rather than inviting them into a transforming community of faith.
Christianity and Self-Help
Christianity is not a "self-help" religion. Salvation is not a private decision, nor is sanctification a personal transaction. These are Western values. This is individualism, not discipleship; a cheap substitute for biblical faith.
A church that organizes itself around meeting personal needs runs the great, unintended risk of breeding autonomy rather than mutuality. It also risks a theology of prosperity (feel good now) rather than a theology of the Cross (suffering for the joy set before us). God wants us to be healthy in ways greater than our perceived needs and feelings.
We must ask ourselves hard questions about the faith people are being saved into, when our spirituality becomes self-conscious instead of Christ-revealing.
The trends above are occurring in both traditional and contemporary churches. Each trains people to think and to act more like individuals and less like a body. Transactional churches form consumers, not parishioners. These are the seeds of conflict.
How Do We Measure Fruit?
Years ago I wrote for a marketing firm that served many large, national Christian organizations. To encourage greater giving, the marketing firm I worked for frequently included an offer in its fund-raising appeal. "If you send a gift of $25 today, we'll send you a copy of [Famous Pastor's] most recent book."
It worked. More people gave in order to get something back. Our marketing firm argued, as marketing executives do, that we were being successful because the donor list was growing and more people were giving. This was half true. It was an argument from quantity, not quality. For instance, no one asked what kind of donors we were forming.
For our Christian clients we could spiritualize our success by saying our efforts were "bearing fruit." No one thought to ask, "What kind of fruit?" This question leads us to the problem with every marketing-driven strategy. What, or who, are we forming? Are we forming believers or consumers?
Our fund raising, in the end, actually had little to do with philanthropy. We were not attracting donors; we were building a book club. There is a qualitative difference between someone who gives in order to get something back and someone who gives for the joy of giving. Giving to the poor for a tax deduction is not the same as giving to feed and clothe the poor.
This same dynamic applies to the church. It is not enough to measure fruit by building facilities, increasing programs, and growing attendance. We must ask, "What kind of fruit are we forming?"
What Kind of People Are We Forming?
Think for a moment about why people go to your church.
Of the more than 5,000 people we have interviewed during the past eight years, in traditional as well as contemporary churches, most believers evaluate their church positively or negatively in consumer, transactional terms. Christians choose a church for the same inclinations and motivations that they choose a supermarket.
Q. Why do you go to Grace Church?
A. Because I like the music.
Q. Why do you go to Shaw's Supermarket?
A. Because I like the produce section.
Christians have come to view the church with the same habits of thinking and patterns of practice as every other aspect of our consumer culture. We shop for church the way we shop for melons.
Some argue that this is inevitable and expected in our culture. If we are to reach our world we need to speak its language. The church must be relevant if it is to be serious and focused on reaching the lost.
The fact is, all churches employ some kind of marketing, whether it is a sign out front or announcements in the bulletin. Marketing is not evil, but it is not theologically or spiritually neutral either.
There is no question that marketing works in a consumer culture. Many unbelievers have found Christ, and many "nominal Christians" have found their way back to the church. We ought to have the apostle Paul's passion for reaching the lost.
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
The question is whether the methods that are so useful in attracting people to faith are in any way sufficient to grow believers to maturity.
The problem with infant Christians is they are, well, infantile. Like babies, they tend to whine or cry when something they want is changed or taken away. The writers of two New Testament letters cautioned immature, nongrowing Christians:
I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. (1 Corinthians 3:2)
In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. (Hebrews 5:12-13)
Young believers can quickly revert to the values of contemporary culture—insisting on their way by having a vote and lobbying for their point of view. This leads to coalitions, politics, and efforts to control. Lost is a community of righteousness where God's will is worked out through mutual submission, speaking the truth in love, repentance, and forgiveness.
"The Customer Is Always Right"
Means shape ends. Certain methods bear certain kinds of fruit. When the church becomes a place of transactions we make to get what we need or want, God becomes a product made after our consumer tastes and desires. We would never say this, of course, but these habits and practices are woven into the fabric of market-driven approaches. In reality, the credo is "The customer is always right."
Where you start has direct impact on where you end up. If the starting point is self, it is very difficult to end with the lordship of Jesus Christ. Church leadership structures also illustrate this principle. Autocratic structures appeal to people who need and want order in their lives. God is the lawgiver. Democratic structures attract people who want to feel better about their lives and themselves. God becomes the need-meeter. In each, Christianity becomes something we control and do alone. We make God in our image, not ourselves in His.
Contrast this to the Bible's description of the church as a people who gather for and with others at the foot of the cross:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-8)
A church organized around meeting needs breeds selfishness, and it inevitably leads to competition, control, and conflict. The apostle James says as much:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. (James 4:1-5)
Where God Forms His People
Is your church actually encouraging people to think and act like the world? Are you forming believers who are not a "people"?
The church is the spiritual "place" where God forms His people. We are chosen to be people who are being transformed into Christlikeness. The problem is that we have become so accustomed to thinking and acting like individuals we cannot even see or accept that we are forming selfishness, not godliness—until a conflict or crisis arises. God has called us into a kingdom much greater than our selfish needs, dull familiarity, and easy assumptions.
Scripture stands in stark contrast to the narcissistic and autonomous thinking of our self-absorbed world. God wants to remake and redeem our needs before He meets them. He calls us into a culture formed by the Cross.
Excerpted from Making Peace by Jim Van Yperen. Copyright © 2002 Jim Van Yperen. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsTABLE OF CONTENTS
Part 1: The Mess We Are In
1. Root Causes of Conflict
2. Toward a Theology of Reconciliation
3. Leading and Forming Biblical Community
Part 2: Why All Conflict Is About Leadership
4. A Biblical View of Conflict
5. Passive Responders: Why Peacekeeping Is Not Peacemaking
6. Evasive Responders: Why You Can't Run or Hide
7. Defensive Responders: Why Your Conflict Is Not About You
8. Aggressive Responders: Leaving Vindication for God
9. Church Conflict and Counterfeit Peace
Part 3: On Becoming a Redemptive Community
10. Living Under Lordship: A Call to Submission
11. Living into the Light: Why We Must Examine and Confront
12. Confession and Forgiveness: How We Must Respond
13. Discipline and Restitution: How We Are Re-formed