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Posts Tagged ‘Church Government’

Analysis of Church Conflict Management

In my articleAnatomy of Church Conflict Management“, I suggested that there are some familiar mistakes that churches and their leadership tend to make in regards to conflict and crisis management.  I also quickly summarized what effective leadership before, during and after these events occur might look like.  It is to these leadership needs during conflict and crisis that I would like to return now.

It is necessary for every church to have a conflict and crisis management plan.  This plan needs to include:

  • Knowing the triggers or events that call for the plan to be engaged,
  • Working the crisis management and communication plan,
  • Communicating the unfolding development of these plans to those who need to know, and
  • Identifying the desired stages and outcomes of working these plans, and then, finally,
  • Evaluating how these plans worked and what needs to be adjusted to make it/them work better next time.

Identifying capable leadership to handle conflict and crisis is important.  Not everyone is emotionally and psychologically equipped to deal with them.  At the same time, leadership directly involved may not be good candidates because of conflict of interest or lack of objectivity.  A team of three to five people who are spiritually mature, skilled communicators, emotionally mature, and hold the respect of others in the organization make a great team.  For many churches, this group may be the Board of Elders.

Mt, Adams, Washington State

Clear Skies Over Mt. Adams, Washington State

If this is not possible, then working with a third-party dispute resolution or crisis management team is the best option.  This may come from a hired company, one of the many non-profit dispute resolution centers around the country, denominational leadership, or a team from another church in the community who has developed their own team.  The important point is to know who – what team – you are going to look to before the need arises.  Everyone in the organization needs to be informed of who this team is and what the “triggers” are that call for their involvement.

Not all conflict or crisis is the same.  Some involve only a couple people or a small group.  Others, however, involve a larger portion of the organization and have potential to cause a ripple effect that disturbs the whole organization.  It is important for every leader to know what level of disruption is being faced.  This will be an important trigger that sets in motion the work of a conflict and crisis team and the plan that has been established.

A carefully scripted plan for communication, handling confrontation, and identifying the small-step goals to reconciliation, restoration and peace must be established in the calm before the storm.  In the heat of a crisis is not the time to attempt to develop a plan.  The plan must be clear enough so that steps can clearly be taken to move toward progress.  Getting “stuck” in a conflicted crisis is not to anyone’s benefit.  Every plan must answer simple questions:

  • Who is involved?  Who needs to know?
  • What are the issues and how can they be discovered?
  • How can miscommunication and misunderstanding be avoided as much as possible from those who are on the fringes of the problem?
  • How will the process and its milestones to restoration be communicated to those who need to know?
  • How will “success” in terms of reconciliation and restoration be recognized?
  • What will be the terms in which irreconcilable differences and hurts are recognized and a “parting of ways” a recommendation for the organization to move forward?
  • When will the end of the process for the team be recognized?

Every conflict or crisis event must also involve a debriefing and evaluation time for the team.  This may also included key individuals involved who were not on the team.  This will not only allow the team members to take away “lessons learned” from the experience, but it will allow them to adjust the conflict resolution and crisis management plan in order to be more effective in the future.  Just as important, is the opportunity for the team members to sort through their own thoughts and feelings after handling such an emotionally charged situation.  This helps the team to make sure that as individuals they are not carrying away any unnecessary emotional or psychological baggage.

Low Clouds Surrounding Mt. Hood, Oregon

Cloud Skirted Mt. Hood, Oregon

Every event is different.  Then again, every event is similar.  Where the congregation and its leadership is immature and/or unhealthy, it almost always waits too long to seek intervention.  One thing is clear.  Conflict resolution involves as much art as it does science.  In twenty-five years of pastoral ministry, here are three things that I have come to realize about church conflicts:

  • The “problem” is almost never “the problem.”
  • Change and growth never come without problems (i.e. conflicts).
  • I can be my own worst enemy in that I cause most of the problems (i.e. conflicts) I experience.

Of all places, the faith community should be a place where the practice of our spiritual principles and precepts enable everyone to overcome fears, doubts, misunderstandings, chaos, conflicts, confusion and even anger.  Unfortunately, as I pointed out in my last article, there are myths about itself that the Church must overcome.  Don Bussart, associate professor of interpersonal ministries at The Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, identifies these as:

  • The Church must suppress conflict to maintain its image to as a loving community united in God’s service.
  • Conflict is bad because it threatens the unity of the church.
  • A loving person is always tranquil, stable and serene.
  • The administration, worship and programs of the church are fixed and established thus not subject to change.
  • Individuals and the church as whole should be “spiritual” — that is, should be “above” conflict.

The fact of the matter is that the pastor (lead or senior pastor) is most often the first line of defense in dealing with conflict and interpersonal crises in the congregation.  Marlin Thomas in Direction Journal astutely puts the pastors role in perspective:

“For pastors of troubled churches, ministry cannot be viewed as “business as usual.” One cannot relate to troubled people as fully rational beings, capable of making and keeping bona fide agreements. And troubled church systems cannot be led as if they were healthy systems. If they are so treated, they will only become less healthy, and the pastoral leader will ultimately be caught by painful surprise and sadly fail in his [or her] heavenly calling.  Pastors of churches under stress must think of themselves as specialists. They must care for people according to the special, “soulish” needs of their wounded pseuche, and not merely conduct “church as usual.”. . . The administrative leadership style of a pastor in a troubled church must be that of a loving but firm parent who presents clear outer boundaries to the children, while allowing them to develop slowly within the parameters of their own ability to grow. Disordered people can serve God, even if they can’t get along very well with each other or even with the pastor. But in such cases the pastor must be more than just a pastor; he must be skilled in the taming of hearts. It is true that only God can ultimately tame the heart, but it is also true that God desires to use sensitive, skilled human agents in that effort.”  [Bracketed italics added.]

One of the biggest needs a pastor must fulfill is to help the congregants become grace-filled, permission-giving members.  This is outlined simply by Thomas as:

  • Give life permission to be the way it is, until Christ changes it.
  • Be who you are—responsibly.
  • Let others be who they are—caringly.
  • Be willing to say “where” you are—kindly.
  • Let others say “where” they are—acceptingly.
  • Care about your sister or brother—appropriately.

This character development doesn’t happen over night.  It is a long journey.  However, the benefit is growing into grace-filled individuals who have an internal agility (i.e. flexibility) to deal with different people and growth and changes that pose potential conflict.  The larger the capacity of a congregation to practice this in interpersonal relationships the better its ability to handle and recover from conflicts and interpersonal crises.

Mt. Rainier, Washington State

Mt. Rainier Behind Safeco Field

It is interesting to note that most statistics tell us the the majority of non-churchgoers in the U.S. consider themselves to be Christians.  Of these, four out of ten have dropped out of church due to a “painful” or “agonizing” ordeal in a church.  I have pastored Assembly of God churches for 25 years and can attest to many encounters with people who no longer attend church because it was simply too emotionally painful for them to return.  Either the people in the church or the building, or both, held such bad memories that even returning to the building proved impossible.

Today, I attend a Central United Protestant Church, which is a trans-denominational church left over from the protestant military chapel supplied by the U.S. government’s Hanford Project during the cold war.  It is under the leadership umbrella of the United Methodist Church but serves five other denominations.  Not surprising, I have discovered similar stories around the community concerning this church.  So, this issue goes beyond denomination labels, church sizes or community settings.

There are many resources for church leadership and their congregations to use.  A perusal of the world wide web will uncover a library of articles, papers and blogs for careful consideration.  Independent consultants and denominational resources are available to most every church.  In a couple of instances from my experience regarding small independent churches, calling in respected and recognized pastoral leadership from other churches to offer guidance and counsel is a possible alternative.

Where there are people there will be conflict.  Where there are people passionate about issues there will be passionate conflict that could lead to interpersonal and congregational crisis.  However, such occasions need not be a debilitating and defeating event.  Instead, they could be transforming events that help individuals grow in grace and help congregations grow in expressing mature Christ-like love and unity.  How we face it will be the determining factor.  The question is whether we will take the time to thoughtfully prepare for it before we face it.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (October, 2011)

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Spiritual Voyeurism

One would think that claims to a particular faith would demand one to actually practice it. This does not seem to be the case for many people in the United States who claim to be followers of Christ or at least belong to a church or denomination.  This will explain why main line denominations can make claims that they have so a large following but so actually bodies in the pews Sunday after Sunday.  Even my own church numbers some 1,000 plus people on its membership rolls.  However, on any given Sunday no more than 500 – 600 parishioners on the best Sundays are ever present.

It is a rare church today that defies ‘The Pareto Principle’ or ’80/20 Rule’ at work in its own organization. There are too many variety of reasons why this is the state of things.  I suspect that it different for each congregation and its setting.  Likewise, there are no easy answers – no ‘magic bullet’ – to overcome this problem.  The multiple of factors and possible solutions are what gives pastors and church leaders spiritual fits.

However, I would like to suggest one factor that seems to go unnoticed and unaddressed by most churches and their leaders. It is our own propensity to make spectators instead of participators out of our religious constituents.  We have essentially trained them to sit back and watch – sing if you want to, bow your head for prayer, on occasion take communion, and follow along in your Bible or the multi-media presentation.  We invite them to drop off their kids or youth so that we’ll do all the work of spiritually training them.

Hot Rods, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010

Hot Rods, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

What if participation in a church demanded, well, participation? Suppose you attended a church that required you to go with one of your children at least, their discipleship process and take an active part in helping to disciple them?  Suppose you attended a church where you knew that you were going to have a chance to participate with others in planning and providing the congregation’s worship service?  When prayer took place, what if it required everyone to interact and pray for others, their church and community?  What if part of worship required individuals to regularly share their faith stories in front of others?  What if mission and service to the world required, actually going into the world, even if it is the surrounding neighborhood and serving others in the name of Jesus?

Sounds exhausting?  Sounds complicated?  Sounds messy? I suppose so.  However, these are the very things we expect our paid clergy to do week-in and week-out for us.  As such, we have become mere spiritual voyeurs.  We are hoping to vicariously enjoy someone else’s spiritual journey and growth by watching them.  We get excited about their stories and their accomplishments.  Like sports fans sitting on living room couches watching their favorite teams and players, we gain our identity through what they do.

Somehow, I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind for his body left behind to do his work. I suspect that he did not make available the infusion of his Holy Spirit into his followers just so that they could sit back and watch.  Something tells me that he is not satisfied with a church full of Sunday morning lounge-chair quarter backs telling the 20% actually doing something how they could be doing it better.  He did not intend his followers to simply be excited by what they see going on like they are in some cheap-thrill peep-show.

Perhaps it is time that we really consider how we do church. After all, it is as much the fault of its leadership as it is of its followers.  We only need to look at the fruit we are producing to see that what we are doing is not producing the right fruit.  And this should not surprise us.  Church history is replete with instances where the church changed methods and strategies to be more effective.  While staying true to its message, these changes have often brought renewal and revival that introduced the body of Christ to a new era.

Spiritual voyeurism will only continue to increase spiritual apathy and lethargy. This is because spectators are not invested in the outcome except emotionally.  And, when they are emotionally disappointed, they often will quickly switch allegiances and find some place else that will entertain them.  In short, we in most American churches have created our own ‘sleeping giant.’  Dare we rouse him/her?

For myself, I cannot be content just watching. I must find an outlet for service and using the spiritual gifts the Lord gave to me.  We all need to ask our selves now and again, “Are we a part of the team or just the fan club?”  You can satisfy yourself with only being a spectator, but a higher calling is to be a participator in what the Lord is doing.  After all, he created us to take a spiritual voyage with him, not to just become a spiritual voyeur.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Ecclesiatical Darwinianism

Many churches and denominations depend upon an entrepreneurial spirit in its leadership to grow. This has its strong points and its weak points.  These types of leaders provide innovation, creativity and are more likely to start church ventures.  They are not adverse to risk and often lead congregations and their churches through transformations.  Unfortunately, these leaders and their churches also tend to become personality driven around the dynamic leader.  This has its own challenges for churches and denominations.

On the other hand, these types of leaders are rare and successful ones not all that common. Many who answer the call to ministry operate with much different personalities and giftings.  In these churches and denominations, they do not usually fair too well since their support is dependent upon how well they can grow their own congregation.  There is no denominational or broader church support.  This is not always a bad thing, particularly when the church and its leadership are in a community context where growth is a possibility.  However, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches in medium to small size communities.

The effect upon the church, then, is that small-town churches often become training grounds for pastors hoping to one day lead a church that can be self-supporting, which includes a livable wage for him and his family. Some pastors are able to make the transition to larger churches; others are not.  Some are given an opportunity to “move up” to larger churches; many are not.  After all, about 80% of American churches are congregation under 100 people and that vast majority of them are in rural settings.

More to the point is the pressure this places upon the individual pastor and his family. For example, I pastored Assembly of God churches for many years.  This denomination fits this scenario well.  Its churches are governed congregationally and considered to be a part of a “cooperative fellowship” with other Assembly of God churches.  (I would always joke that while this is true, our independent nature made it so that we did not cooperate very well with others.)  While Assembly of God pastors are governed by a presbyterium – church elders – at the denominational level, each church governs itself.

I like to call this method of church governance “Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.” It is simply the approach to churches and pastors that says, “If you are called of God, then you will succeed.  However, if you fail and do not survive, then you were not called of God in the first place.”  In a theologically Arminian denomination like the Assemblies of God, it is a very Calvinistic approach to the call of God concerning churches and pastoral leadership.  At its core is “the survival of the fittest” or most able.

At the same time, the Assemblies of God in particular, is able to send missionaries fully funded and supported to the farthest reaches of the earth. The same care and concern is not provided for those planting or pastoring churches in their own soil in the United States.  This is changing today with a more proactive approach on the denominations part in planting churches and equipping church planters.  However, for the vast majority of pastors who go to their small and usually rural churches, they are largely left on their own with congregations and churches buildings that are aging.  It is no wonder, then, that their pastoral candidates who come out of their Bible schools or seminary training are unable or unwilling to go to these locations.

I started out in ministry in what the Assemblies of God called a “Home Missions” church. This is a church that is being planted in a community, may receive very limited temporary support and is not yet fully independent in its governance.  As a bright-eyed and optimistic young pastor, I expected the church to grow and do well even though it was located in a small Pacific Northwest logging community of only about 1,200 people.  In retrospect, while the years there were extremely tough for my family financially, they were some of the most rewarding times of ministry.

Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, when other pastors congratulated on small spiritual victories I would share with them with something like,Boy, that’s great, Ron.  I can see that someday the Lord is going to place you in a thriving, larger church.”  Maybe I am wrong, but it always came across to me as, “Someday the Lord will reward you with a real church!”  However, as my young family grew, it became more and more evident that I would not be able to support my family in that community despite my several attempts at earning other income: working at the local hardware store, coaching at the school, chopping and delivering firewood, picking oysters, digging clams, etc.

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, the Presbyterian Church in town had a pastoral change. The 100 year-old congregation was looking for a pastor.  Imagine my surprise to find out that the pastor was guaranteed a salary, with benefits, and a parsonage.  The starting salary then was $36,000.  I contemplated the idea of switching denominations to stay in the community and pastor…well, only for a brief moment.

I remained loyal to my denomination and local congregation. However, as my pastoral experience has broadened over the last 25 years, I have had an opportunity to look at numerous church governance models.  I came to a conviction that the “Ecclesiastical Darwinian” model is not the most successful or most healthy.  I see other denominations that do a much better job at helping a congregation match a pastor with a congregation, rather than leave it up to the “luck of the draw” or a weekend pastoral song-and-dance routine.  I also see other denominations that do a much better job at supporting the local church pastor, not just financial but also spiritually.

When I was involved in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model, I rarely heard from district or national leadership unless it was initiated by me or unless there was church trouble. Other than demanding my tithes and desiring my attendance at their sponsored events, I did not have much support.  Any spiritual support I had while in ministry came for friends in ministry, some who were other Assembly of God ministers but most who were not.

Congregations in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model do not fare much better. They are expected to ‘make it on their own.’  Many of them, particularly in rural areas, are surviving just above life support.  Their pastors are bi-vocational and their facilities decaying and outdated.  When it comes time to select a new pastor, the best they can expect from district leadership is a list of available pastors or pastors seeking changes.  Otherwise, they must sort through the resumes they receive, pray about it and pick one.  They may as well tack them to a wall and throw a dart at them blindfolded.  If they choose well, then they and their new pastor are congratulated.  However, if they choose badly, well, they either did not pray enough or the pastor wasn’t called of God to go there in the first place.

For churches and denominations stuck in this model, change will be difficult; perhaps impossible. However, speaking personally for myself and my experience, I believe that a much better job can be done.  The same care we take to match a missionary to an overseas calling and assignment, ensure that they are fully supported and cared for, and given accountability and spiritual support, could and should be applied to the mission field we know as the United States of America.  How that transition in involvement takes place is another issue.  All I know is that there has got to be something better than ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.’

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Disabling the Spiritual Default Setting

A while ago someone gave me a new laptop computer. Even though a computer is a complicated piece of machinery, I did not have to go to school or a special class to learn how to use it.  I simply turned it on.  I did not have to learn how all the hardware pieces work and communicate with the motherboard.  Neither did I have to learn the computer’s programming language that runs the system so smoothly.

The operating system was already familiar and so I was able to navigate around pretty simply. I was able to pull up and run the programs I needed plus add a couple I use that did not come with the computer.  There were a few things that I did to the computer to personalize it to suit my needs, but most of the settings I left in the default position.

The default setting is set by the manufacturer or maker of the hardware or software. It usually is the setting that fits most applications or users’ needs.  These can be changed at the user’s discretion or desires.  Most people just leave them alone and do not play with them.  It is a real frustration to use someone else’s computer when they have dramatically changed many of the settings.  Suddenly, what was supposed to be familiar becomes very unfamiliar.

This got me thinking about many of the changes we see taking place in the church today. Change is always a part of remaining tuned to cultural needs to work and communicate the good news about God’s Kingdom.  However, in today’s world, change is coming at us more and more quickly.  It is like someone has gone into the world’s operating system and changed all the settings.  For many people, this can be very disorienting.  It is even more disorienting when the spiritual default settings have been changed and the once familiar church is no longer familiar.

As a former church leader, I witnessed this take place over the last 25 years. Some changes that took place during that time were good.  Others have yet to tell us what the long term effects will be upon the church and the followers of Jesus.  There is a heartfelt search going on in many Christian communities of faith for a genuine, authentic spirituality that impacts the individual believer as well as his or her world.  Of course, this is not something with which only our generation just recently came to grips.  It’s been around a long, long time; almost like it is a part of the Church’s spiritual DNA.

One thing that I have noticed is the blending and generalization of evangelical Christianity. At the grass roots level anyway, denomination distinctives in faith and practice are largely ignored, denominational and doctrinal differences are played down, and a pluralism of Christian belief and practice is broadly accepted.  I realize that this is not true for every sector of American evangelicalism, but on a broad basis I believe it is accurate.  Still, it changes the spiritual default setting that many people are used to when they are a part of a church or denomination.

For instance, one can attend any number of conservative evangelical churches and witness the same type of worship that focuses upon modern music styles, personal expression in worship such as raising hands, and preaching that seeks to emulate the style and messages of larger church models and their leaders.  While each individual congregation retains its own distinct character and nature, in a broad overview they are all starting to sound and look alike.

Some of this has to do with what could be called the ‘cross-pollination’ of churches. More and more, believers across denominations with all their doctrinal and faith practice differences are gathering together for conferences, seminars, worship, missions and outreach events, as well as prayer.  Likewise, in many communities across the U.S.A., church leadership and denominational leadership is gathering to pray, worship and strategize together for Kingdom building.  There are still many places where this is not happening, but the tide is quickly shifting in America away from exclusivity to inclusivity.  This is a good thing, I believe.

Of course, some churches and denominations may fair better in this cultural shift than others. I have no prophetic insight or spiritual crystal ball to foretell how this will all turn out.  However, it is an unavoidable outcome.  There is already some indication that non-denomination and independent churches are growing faster than denominational ones.  However, it is still too early to tell what the American evangelical church will look like in another 25 years.  How this will affect individual believers will vary.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I can only speak from my personal experience. Having been involved in Assemblies of God churches all my life, I now find myself attending and becoming increasingly involved in an United Methodist Church that is part of the Confessing Movement in its denomination.  The contemporary worship service is the same as what anyone would experience in most Assembly of God churches.  I have found in this congregation many practicing Charismatics/Pentecostals.  There is a healthy discussion of spiritual gifts and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  One Bible class I attended had a robust theology of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology).

When people discover my background, they invariably ask, “How did you end up at a Methodist church?”  There are a lot of different reasons, but the main one is my own discovery and acknowledgment of how big God’s House is and the wide variety of theologies and spiritual practices he tolerates.  Yes, there are certain doctrinal truths that cannot be deviated from and sin that he deals with and asks his Church to deal with among its members.  Outside of these things, the boundaries of God’s tent are pretty wide.

Another thing that has struck me in recent years as a leader in Assembly of God churches is how quickly we were willing to abandon our “Pentecostal distinctive” to be included in the broader evangelical movement and accepted in the larger American Christian culture.  By this, I am specifically referring to the Assemblies of God stance on the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.  Not only is this largely not taught but it is also not practiced.  More revealing is the broader elimination of the use of prophetic verbal gifts in the congregational setting all together.

Whether out of a desire to not appear the ‘weird uncle’ in the evangelical circles or because teaching and facilitating spiritual gifts in a congregation is necessary but hard work, most Assembly of God pastoral leaders that I associated with opted to avoid their use completely.  The recent ‘seeker sensitive’ movement has also put pressure on Assembly of God churches to do away with any expression of spiritual gifts that might scare off seekers.  This, in essence, disables the spiritual default setting for long-time Assembly of God members.

I came to the conclusion that if I was simply going to be a part of an evangelical church, it would probably not be an Assembly of God church.  Besides the issue of having integrity between doctrinal faith and practice, I desire to be a part of a congregation that recognizes the wide range of places that people may be on in their spiritual journeys and not demand that they all be on the same page or in the same place spiritually.  Having led in Assembly of God churches, I am not a fan of their church polity or congregational governance.  I think there are better accountability and support systems out there for church and pastoral leaders.  I will grant, however, that there are no perfect ones.

All that being said, I found myself in Assembly of God churches that seemed familiar to me but felt like someone had changed the default settings. The denomination label may be there somewhere, overtly on the signage or covertly hidden in internal papers, but the practice of using Spirit-led prophetic verbal gifts is gone.  Spirit baptism for Spirit empowerment to take the Gospel to all the world is missing in many places.  This may be a good thing, I suppose.  Abuse and triumphalism of its doctrinal emphasis on Spirit baptism and glossolalia has done much damage.

At the same time, if denominations are going to disable their spiritual default setting, then they should expect a shift and movement among their congregants. For instance, in my case, if the church I am attending is not really going to preach and practice its stated theology and rather move toward being just like any other evangelical church, then I have to ask myself, “Is this the type of evangelical church I want to attend or is there another model out there I would rather be a part of?”  My answer led me to another church model.

I suppose that there will be many like me who will choose to use their own personal spiritual settings to navigate around the changing landscape of the American evangelical church.  On the other hand, many will also stay because they cannot dream of going to a different building or location.  Let’s just hope that some do not simply get frustrated and turn the church setting off completely.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Religious Refereeing

We live in a world who likes to define right from wrong, who’s in and who’s out, as well as those we like and those we do not. Everyone becomes their own personal referee, making judgment calls on the life and behaviors of others.  It is so much easier to identify the error and slippery slope in another person’s life than our own, however.  Plus, it seems our rule book is always changing according to our own whims, likes and dislikes and morphing philosophies of life.

I recognize this painful reality in my own life. For example, I had a wonderful time with some friends the other night.  Greg and Cindy Holman had me and my family over for dinner and we attempted to catch up on 30 years of history, which is ever since we were all in college together at Northwest University in Kirkland, Washington (then, Northwest College).  Of course, that is an impossible task in one evening.

The conversation turned to how much we have changed, not just age wise but also in thinking, religious beliefs and practices. Life experiences have shaped or reshaped our philosophies and theologies.  How we view, interpret and apply certain Scriptures and religious beliefs we grew up with is drastically different.  We all recognized that our world has expanded; we see God’s tent as much larger than the narrowly defined one we grew up with in our families and churches.

The painful reality we have discovered is that we spent too much of our time in our younger years trying to define the boundaries of God’s household of faith rather than helping those on the journey towards faith. Whether Baptist or Pentecostal, High-Church or Low-Church, liturgical or non-liturgical, Charismatic or Dispensationalist, Arminian or Calvinist, presbyterian/episcopal or congregational/independent in church government – we all believe that we are the heavenly Father’s favored child because we are more correct than our brothers and sisters.  Even the best among us can be paternalistic in our attitudes towards those we accept: We tolerate them even though we consider them to be in error or deviant in faith and practice rather than whole-heartedly accept and embrace them as brothers and sisters in the household of faith.

I believe that this is a changing reality in many churches today. At the grass roots level, Christian believers are recognizing more and more that every follower of Christ is on a different spiritual journey.  There is a desire to allow others to listen and follow their own spiritual walk with God.  This attitude, however, scares many other Christians into thinking that such a consideration would allow for a “slippery slope” into error, heresy or sinful behaviors.  Unfortunately, this has led to a tendency to want to define with hard categories and boundaries “who is in” and “who is outside” the tent of faith.  This has been a problem through all of church history.  It was endemic of the church from the start and continues on down until today.  Consider, for example, the first century flap between Jewish believers and Gentile believers.

The early American colonies were brutally divided by such thinking and behavior. Anglicans were at war with Congregationalist; both of them despised and persecuted the Quakers, Baptists and Lutherans.  Everyone held the Unitarians and Deists in suspicion.  Depending upon which state or county you lived in, you may not have been able to openly practice your brand of Christianity.  You could have been jailed or worse for preaching or holding cottage meetings outside the state recognized church.  If you were a free-thinker, agnostic or atheist then there seemed to be no place for you in early America except the far reaches of western settlements; just as there was no place for the Jew, Hindu or Muslim.

It seems to me that much of the church has concentrated on the minutiae of doctrines and doctrinal distinctives and forgotten Paul’s injunction to consider one another’s conscience. More important than correct theology, according to Paul, was the living application of faith, hope and love in the life of the community of Christ followers.  As much as Paul expounded upon what the early church was to believe about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and glorification, the bulk of the content of his letters to the churches concerned acceptance, forgiveness, bearing one another, mercy, grace and love for all Christ’s followers.

I am not addressing those things that Scripture points to as obvious sin or error. Those are quite clear and even the apostle Paul was willing to expose and expel unrepentant persons from the family of faith for such things.  However, it seems that there is a lot of room left for things that are not clearly identified or settled as sin and error.  The Lord and the Scriptures left to us seem to allow for a great diversity of opinion and practice in one’s faith journey.

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002

Mount Saint Helens, July 2002 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Our proclivity to want to don the referee’s jersey and blow the whistle on fellow believers has left a sour taste in the mouths of non-believers as well as many believers who have left our churches. Christians and their churches today as in other times in human history are more likely to be identified by what they are against than what they are for or have in common.  Just as likely, they have left those outside the faith completely baffled and bemused by our divisive spirit over nearly unintelligent doctrinal nuances.  Our hostilities towards one another over spiritual practices (communion, baptisms, congregational worship, Bible translations, etc) devoted to the supposed same God are confounding.  If we cannot love one another through our different opinions and practices, what makes us think the world would believe the God and gospel we preach could ever accept them?  No wonder so many do not join the church because they are afraid of picking the “wrong” one.

More importantly, I believe, it speaks to our complete lack of faith in the Lord to build his own house (as we are told in Scripture he would do) and for his Holy Spirit to convince, convict and conform his own children in his own way (as Jesus assured us his Spirit would do).  We honestly do not believe that if everyone loved the Lord enough and loved one another enough that he is strong enough or faithful to bring us one day to all the same conclusion and same place – which is before his throne and in his presence.  No, we would much rather try and second guess the Lord and identify for ourselves who will be there and who will not.  The stark, naked truth is that it is not our job.

As someone wisely observed, “It is not my kingdom and I’m not the King.” It is not my household of faith and I’m not the Father who chooses who is in it or who is outside of it.  Jesus’ parable to The Tares and the Wheat may be worth another study for us who want to blow the religious referee’s whistle on others.  It may be time to put those away and, instead, embrace anyone on a spiritual journey towards God, encourage them and share with them what we know and our stories and, most importantly, allow and trust that God is at work in their life just as he is in ours.

It must have been an elderly and wizened Jude who learned to put away the religious referee whistle and uniform when he wrote in his New Testament letter, “To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy— to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen” (Jude 24, 25).  In these words is an understanding of a grace greater than all our sin.  There is recognition that it is all God’s work, not ours and that he is able to take care of what is his.  As such, it allows us to put away religious refereeing because God is able to make his own calls.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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