August 29, 2016

Why Can't the Church Just Get Along? A Review of Redeeming Church Conflicts

Perhaps nothing is more stressful to a pastor's wife than a conflict within the church. Not only does she have the heart-wrenching experience of seeing her Christian sisters, spiritual mothers, and precious daughters-in-the-faith quarrel and fight with one another; not only does she hear murmurings (or, worse, sudden silences) as she walks down the hall on Sunday mornings; not only does she have to carefully guard her own tongue and actions at every minute to promote peace and avoid escalating the problem; she also helplessly watches conflict's toll on the church's pastor, her beloved husband.

Thankfully, over my years in various churches, the conflicts have been few. But every church faces conflict to some degree, and each of us could use help to navigate those situations.

This is why I was so thankful to receive a copy of Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care by Tara Klena Barthel and David V. Edling. This recent reprint (it was originally published by Baker in 2012) is a gift to the church for its clarity and biblical wisdom.  

To someone in the middle of a church conflict, the complex knot of spiritual and material issues, contributing factors, and personalities can appear impossible to understand, let alone untangle. As emotions rise and hope sinks, everyone in the church experiences distress, and, amid the confusion and hurt, a positive path forward often seems unclear. In this book, Barthel and Edling (both experienced conciliators/mediators) offer a warm, biblical, and careful roadmap for navigating church crises.

Although we might be tempted to think of church conflict in terms of the immediate crisis (or what Barthel and Edling call "the presenting issues"), the authors encourage us to see conflict through the lens of God's bigger purposes for his church:

"Redeeming church conflict is less about resolving specific problems than it is about seeing conflict as a means by which God is growing his people into true saints, true eternal children who are being continuously conformed to this holy image." 

While not ignoring the specific, material concerns that are the public face of church conflict, the authors very helpfully remind readers that much more is actually at stake. Lest we begin to think the expensive new building project, the Sunday school curriculum, or the feuding individuals are the biggest issue we need to consider--and then "solve"--they constantly point us to the greater importance of God's glory and the good of our neighbor.

Only with this eternal perspective can churches begin to untangle the knot of obvious issues. To do this, each chapter uses the pattern of the church in the book of Acts (especially Acts 15) combined with specific contemporary examples from the authors' mediation cases to define and illuminate a path toward church healing.  Readers of material from Peacemaker Ministries will recognize many of the same helpful principles, applied here to a church setting.

As a pastor's wife, I was particularly challenged by the authors' reminder that no one is "neutral" in a church conflict. As righteous (and safe) as it might sound to say, "I'm just staying out of it," Barthel and Edling admonish their readers: "You are either part of the solution or part of the problem--there can be no fence-sitting. Avoidance may feel better in the short term, but it will never help any of the people involved to grow in grace. . . ."

Perhaps surprisingly for a book about sin and its fruits, these pages are filled with hope. Through the words of Barthel and Edling, church members and leaders will begin to see their conflicts as opportunities for the glory of God. And whether your church is currently in the midst of strife or proactively seeking to avoid it in future, this book is an excellent guide.

Barthel, Tara Klena and David V. Edling. Redeeming Church Conflicts: Turning Crisis into Compassion and Care Reprint: Hendrickson, 2016.

August 8, 2016

I Have the World in my Backyard

As I see athletes from all over the world gathering in Rio for the Olympics, I am reminded of the visitors from abroad that live not far away from me. Many come to my region from around the globe for employment or a university education.

Some internationals are from places none of us will ever be able to visit. I ask myself what I am doing with this opportunity to mirror Christ and His love to those I meet.

Some of my church's members recognize this migration as a chance to minister. For example, they held English as a second language (ESL) classes at the church. Many of their Asian, European, Middle Eastern and Latin American students were associated with a nearby university.  Now, our church is changing directions slightly and becoming friendship partners with international graduate students via International Christian Fellowship (ICF) at the same school.

In the past, individuals in the church were paired with students from other countries, through a process similar to ICF's. Activities included inviting them to a home cooked meal, teaching the adults to drive or taking them to an international food store. My husband and I were friends with a Korean couple as part of that effort. One main avenue of testimony was to share our lives with the two of them. We also tried to show them, by example, what a Christian lifestyle looks like because internationals might equate the words and actions of actors on American TV with what Christians do.

In another type of outreach, one church member developed relationships with some internationals who visited his produce stand. After he got to know them better, he gave them God's word in their own language when they expressed interest.

A training class that I took for international ministry stressed showing Christian love, but it did not recommend encouraging our friends to depend on American Christian friends for everything. Instead, it advocated praying for opportunities to point others to Christ; he is the only one who can meet the deepest needs of people from any nation.

Having a heart for internationals is worthwhile, but it requires a shift in thinking for some of us. I, for one, grew up in a very homogeneous culture, eating only Middle American food, seeing no other skin colors beside white and believing there was no reason to live anywhere else in the world. However, through the small steps I have taken to reach out to other cultures in the name of Christ, I have been blessed.

I am thankful for itinerant missionaries who went out of their way to make occasional visits to my small home church. Although I was a child at the time, I could see that they had a genuine faith. Motivated by a love for God and an understanding of the plight of man, the missionaries had a vision for a world that needs the Gospel. These men and women gave me an excellent starting place to leave my comfort zone and get out into the "world" in my backyard.

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