Driving down White Plains Road, motorists see the street sign for the Trumbull Congregational Church. One of our deacons is in charge of updating the sign with quotes to entertain passing motorists. Once the sign said, “Don’t worry, Moses was also a basket case.” Another read, “Autumn leaves, Jesus doesn’t.” Right now the sign says, “God blesses us, even when we don’t sneeze.” I remember a moment about one year ago. Driving by the sign with a friend, my passenger read the latest message and groaned. It said, “Warning: Church may induce extreme bouts of happiness.” My cynical passenger turned to me and said, “It should be more like, ‘Warning: Church may cause extreme bouts of frustration.’ ” I laughed, knowing that his comments echo the response that many have towards church.
As a pastor, I am also frustrated by a religious institution that exists within twin realities. The first reality is that the church seems to fail in its mission. As one Christian theologian writes, “That the treasure of God’s grace reaches us surrounded by garbage will not seem surprising to anyone who is personally familiar with life in the church. Church history provides ample evidence of that garbage.” His words affirm something that I love and hate about the church: it is a human institution. We in the church make mistakes. We act like hypocrites. Idolatry tempts us as we seek to honor the values of God’s reign.
Another historic church document expresses the second reality of church existence. It states, “The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity.” This is an amazing thing to say, isn’t it? God is using us, here and now, to show our community what God intends! Though the church may slog through its garbage, we also embody Christ’s redemptive presence in the world. The church remains a place of haven, the bearer of living traditions and the unlikely body of Christ. However, like the passenger in my car, you may hear this affirmation of the church’s purpose and be tempted to say, “You gotta’ be kidding me! Can’t the church do better?” Welcome to the church, folks.
The Good News is that you just heard an invitation: right now, as you are, you can be a part of something -- specifically, a member of the Body of Christ. The tricky part is that the Body of Christ includes a lot of people who are every bit as difficult as we are.
A recent study claims that most churchgoers who abandon their weekly worship do so because they have had a dispute with a fellow member of the congregation. A disagreement on a range of issues, from the way the organ is played to the content of the sermon, was the reason that nearly three quarters of respondents to a survey gave for why they felt people had left the Church. People don’t usually leave over big doctrinal issues. Typical arguments take place over types of buildings, styles of worship, youth work. If not that, then they argue over the flowers.
Once people start arguing, it’s easy to keep it going. There are some simple steps you can follow if you want to turn disagreements into full-fledged feuds. Here’s what to do:
- Be sure to develop and maintain a healthy fear of conflict, letting your own feelings build up so you are in an explosive frame of mind.
- If you must state your concerns, be as vague and general as possible. Then the other person can’t do anything practical to change the situation.
- Next, repeat these words to yourself regularly: “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts.” Assume you know everything and you are totally right. It will help if you can misquote a Bible verse to clinch your case. Just make sure you do most of the talking.
- With a touch of defiance, announce your willingness to talk with anyone who wishes to discuss the problem with you. But do not take steps to initiate such conversation.
- Latch tenaciously onto whatever evidence you can find that shows the other person is merely jealous of you.
- Judge the motivation of the other party on any previous experience that showed failure or unkindness. Keep track of any angry words.
- Always view the issue as a win/lose struggle. Avoid possible solutions and go for total victory and unconditional surrender. Don’t get too many options on the table.
- If all else fails, pass the buck! If you are about to get cornered into a solution, indicate you are without power to settle; you need your partner, your committee, whatever.
Jesus gives some practical advice on how to handle arguments and conflicts within the church. Listen to what he tells his followers: “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church.”
The first thing we learn is that we're to approach the person whose behavior hurt us directly, and privately. That way, the person you're speaking with has room to listen without losing face. And you have room to listen to other person, just in case your behavior has contributed negatively to the situation.
The quiet conversation isn't just a necessary step to a juicy public drama, nor is it solely an opportunity to try to get one's way. Our goal is reconciliation.
In other words, church conflict doesn't have to be a distraction from the mission of the Church; it can be a training ground for mission. It can even BE mission. As Christians, we believe that Christ is reconciling the whole world to God and to one another. So when two Christians take their conflict as an opportunity to practice reconciliation, the way they handle it can stand as a visible sign for we believe Christ is doing in the world. We are doing what God intends. Get it? We become an outward and visible sign of a grace that we believe is happening in a broader and more mysterious way in the world.
The bottom line is that Christian community -- all community, really -- is, as St. Benedict said, a “school for souls,” in which we learn not just how to live, but also how to experience abundant life. Jesus knew something that experience has affirmed for me: we understand best and deepest how God loves and forgives when we are, in our limited but growing way, extending that kind of love and forgiveness to others.
So when you meet people who are really difficult, stay in touch, and stay focused on God's love. Rejoice and be glad in that day. You get to love them. In the process you get a sense of how God loves you, and those who are watching get to see how much we mean it when we acclaim that the church is the demonstration of what God intends for humanity.
Trust me on this one: as long as you need everybody to be happy and agreeable, you'll always be anxious, but once you find and keep hold of the joy and peace the Spirit brings in the midst of working for reconciliation in a tense situation, you'll know a bubbling fountain of energy and freedom that can bring healing. Being human means that we will face times when we are angry, confused, or blind. Faithfulness to God can lead us to gratitude – an ability to focus on the good things God does in our midst, and not just on the ways we separate from one another. As Paul writes
... love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. ... Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. ... Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.