Church is a family. Families fight. It’s a reality. In the old days it was over the color of the carpet. Twenty years ago it was over worship style. Sometimes it’s little stuff, other times it’s big time. Every church goes through it. You can run, but you can’t hide.
If you’re on staff at a church and wonder how to navigate it, a member of a church and wondering how to survive it, or a non-church goer wondering what it all means, here’s a handy 3-step guide to make it all make sense.
1. What It’s Not
It’s not a war. We use terms like “worship wars” to describe it among ourselves, but that’s not wise. In wars people die. Blood is shed. There are casualities. What we’re talking about is the decibel level in the room and whether or not a drum set is used. No one’s personal liberties are at stake. It’s not a war. It’s an argument about preferences.
It’s not division. Disagreement and division are not synonyms. Disagreement can become division, but that’s usually for one of two reasons:
1. Leaders are disagreed with and don’t handle that disagreement with humility and transparency and concern for their congregants.
2. Two non-leaders disagree and leadership does not step in to assist in reconciliation.
Note the commonality: disagreement becomes division when leaders don’t handle it well. I’ve seen churches do both. I’ve also seen churches (like the one where I currently serve) that handle disagreement in a healthy way.
So don’t assume your conflict is a church split waiting to happen. Most arguments between spouses do not end in divorce. With solid pastoral leadership, your argument doesn’t have to end in people parting ways. It’s not that kind of thing…or at least it doesn’t have to be.
“The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out.” Proverbs 17:14
2. Be Humble
Being humble is hard, especially when we think we’re right. In conflict, we almost always think we’re right, otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a conflict. I recently re-discovered some notes I took a long time ago on a sermon about humility. Here are some key questions you can ask yourself to check your humility in conflict:
- Are you teachable?
- How do you respond to correction?
- Do you repent quickly & thoroughly?
- Are you considerate of others?
- Can you serve others and be served?
- Can you disagree agreeably?
If all you can do in the midst of conflict is get defensive and yell, you’re probably not being very humble. If you aren’t reasonable, if you only pursue your own selfish interests, and if you refuse to give ground, then you’re probably not being very humble.
Church conflict comes in many shapes and sizes, so how this applies varies. But ultimately, we should be about conversation, asking good questions, and listening about twice as much as we speak.
“If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Proverbs 18:13
3. Blessed Are The Peacemakers
Making peace and there being an absence of conflict are not the same. There can be a cease fire in the Middle East, but Israel and Palestine still have a lot of tension between them. Just because there aren’t bombs flying doesn’t mean there’s peace. It just means people are ignoring real issues.
Sometimes making peace takes the hard work of conflict first. When there’s something wrong — a preferential thing or a huge scuffle, the process of working it out takes time. That is the work of peace making. Ignoring problems does not make peace, it perpetuates the issues at hand.
Sometimes being a peace maker means raising tough questions and slogging through the ensuing conflict. Think long and hard before you do so, because to quit in the middle does not serve your community well.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” Matthew 5:19
In the premarital counseling I’ve done as a part of my ministry, we spend a whole session on fighting. Why? Same as money and gender roles and family of origin — fighting is a real dynamic when it comes to marriage.
The same can be said for churches. If you are a part of the people of God, there are going to be disagreements. Realizing what it’s not, staying as humble as possible, and working for peace are huge factors toward making it out of the conflict in one piece…not just as an individual, but as the body of Christ.