Change, Conflict, and Church

I suspect that all of us have had periods of time when suddenly, unexpectedly, a topic or theme or idea or things becomes pervasive: you see a model of car for the first time, and notice it, and then suddenly, every time you are driving, you see another one; or you hear someone use a catch phrase or word that is new to you, and for the next week, every conversation seems to feature it.  If you’ve never had that experience, then I imagine that this post will spur it on for you: everyone you talk to for the next week will want to talk about the phenomenon of suddenly seeing something everywhere!

Anyway, I’ve been having relational moments, conversations, and reading over the last couple weeks that have been circling around the issues of change and conflict, particularly in the local church.  Before you start to worry about me, understand that I don’t see this as a bad thing.  Change and conflict can be (often are) uncomfortable, but they are also the path that can lead to growth and definition.

In the book Transformational Church, Ed Stetzer says, “Churches do not change until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”  That statement causes just about every person I share it with to nod in agreement, sometimes while grimacing.  The next step to keep in mind is that when churches then change, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have embraced change, just that they have given in to the unavoidable.  And that is where conflict comes in.

I’ve often thought, when considering how conflict happens in church life, that a significant reason why church conflicts can be explosive is that many of us in churches are conflict-avoiders.  We don’t want to fight, or to have to say something difficult to someone, and we put it off as long as we can.  Eventually, the pressure built up by keeping the lid on the issue explodes, and the conflict is sharp, painful, and a memory we will strive to avoid the next time – probably by doing things the same way.

Yesterday, I heard another angle on the issue though, from a friend, and I think he’s on to something as well.  He suspects that the reason church conflicts often involve someone (verbally) punching someone else in the face is that there are people in churches who know that churches are full of polite people, people who aren’t inclined to fight back or be aggressive in the ways sometimes seen in other communities, and the “punchers” know that they can get away with it.

I hadn’t thought of it his way before, but now that I do for a while, I think he’s got a point.  So, you combine people who know they can get away with being brash, and people who are eager to avoid conflict because conflict isn’t Christian or nice, and people who are sitting on their disappointments and frustrations until they pop – and you get church conflicts, which often seem to turn into holy war over side issues.

How do we begin to change these dynamics?  Well, I think this is the starting place – admitting that we don’t like conflict, and it makes us uncomfortable, and when we get pushed to the point of saying something we don’t always handle it well.  The starting place is confession.  The next step?  Well, that’s for another time.

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