It is every pastor’s nightmare. Much worse than losing the plot in the middle of the sermon, or forgetting the Christian name of the blushing bride who wonders why you have pulled up in the middle of the vows, or dropping someone mid plunge in the baptistry. It makes the debate over who should have the key to the church kitchen cupboards with the new crockery look like a friendly chat.
No pastor wants to preside over a church split or be seen to be a key player in the mayhem which is all part of congregational self destruction.
Costly But With a Long History
But splits do occur. Too frequently. People are hurt, discouraged and demoralised.
Pastors are almost always bruised and broken, some walking away from the ministry never to return. The wreckage is there for all to see. A few may imagine they have come out on top and feel good about the shake up. It is a delusion of the first order.
There are no winners.
Oh, it is often possible for a pastor and a congregation to pick up the pieces and press on yet there are no guaranteed outcomes. But you would have to say that it is a long march to recapture confidence, vision and hope. That road takes a lot of travelling before the good views appear.
Church Splits In Scripture
Now there is nothing especially new about congregational fragmentation. First Church Corinth was a sorry mess. They had bun fights down to an art form. Their bulletin carried the latest scores. Their small group program prepared strategies for the next big skirmish. No wonder Paul appealed for agreement and unity.
Paul offered similar encouragement to the folks at Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae too. Peter shared exactly the same concerns. They were simply expressing in their own way the prayer for unity which Jesus had already offered. The message is that people still behave like people without regard to any specific culture or century. Christians have not changed too much since those early days.
Harmony…At A Price
Harmony comes at a price; unity simply does not just happen; good will is not an accident. The church split advertises that compassion, kindness and forgiveness have all passed their use by date. The community of love is hijacked by lesser agendas. The Gospel is no longer the Good News. Politics, manoeuvring, gossip and manipulation do their own wretched dirty work behind a facade of piety and a commitment to biblical principles (of course).
Church Splits: A Tale Of Two Types There are various types of church splits. Some churches are simply accident prone. There is a long history of bitterness, division, mistrust and antagonism. Pastors come and go often leaving under a cloud. In some cases this unholy record can be traced back to the very early days of the church. Cyclical trauma becomes the hallmark for decades on end. It is a spiritual cancer which flares (with disastrous results) then goes into remission (allowing the church to regroup, yet again). Usually long on doctrine but short on relationships, it is no wonder that such churches live most of their lives on the plateau.
The sad fact is that these bad advertisements for the Kingdom rarely seem to be able to break out into renewal and revival. There is an underlying illness which seems to be so entrenched, a darkness strangely inconsistent with the light of Christ.
The long-termers bemoan the unnamed millstone which seems to dog the congregation at every turn. The unraveling of this living tragedy seems to be beyond the reach of prayer, conflict resolution strategies, even grace itself. The symptoms of sickness are clear enough but the diagnosis is inconclusive.
The congregation struggles on with the hope that the future will be a little kinder than the past. No one is able to discern the point of breakthrough. These chaotic congregations seem resistant to all offers of help when the chips are down. Another collision occurs and life goes on.
After all, that’s the way it’s always been.
A “Healthier” Type of Split
But there is another kind of split which does offer much more flexibility. It is the division which occurs among sincere people who are not actually out to slash each other’s throats.
There is often great frustration, even exasperation and profound disagreement but not necessarily terminal hostility. Severe roadblocks lead to non-communication, misunderstanding and stand off positions but not all is lost. It has to do with the reasons for the difficulties.
To be sure there are often strong personalities involved and issues of power and control hover in the wings. But the divergences arise from what become vastly differing perspectives on how faith is understood and expressed.
Seemingly harmless spats over music styles in worship, or evangelism and direction (as examples) combine into a constellation of problems which soon dominate everybody’s view. Throw in some healthy generational preferences and a dash of stubbornness and you have a split well conceived and gestating nicely.
A stand up fight to the finish is not appropriate or necessary in this circumstance despite the fact that this is often the outcome. Prayer, charity and mediation will work towards finding the common ground and this is to be applauded.
Behind this approach is the frequently untested assumption that the separate groups which have emerged should stay together but find new ways of getting along. This may well be right in many cases but it will not be right in all. There is a deeper demand that requires attention.
Might it not be wiser and much more beneficial for the Kingdom if significantly disparate approaches to ministry were identified and found to be valid in their own right? Why tussle over responses to the Gospel which may not really admit to easy co-operation? We all know that there are many ways to catch the wind of the Spirit.
Is there not some way in which Christian maturity, reflection and affirmation might just acknowledge that the time has come for a congregation to realise that there are differing emphases emerging within? Could it be that the Lord of the Church is shaping a fresh strategy to reach another corner of the vineyard?
Instead Of Slugging It Out…
Instead of slugging differences out as a conflict, perhaps there is a need for mutual recognition and acceptance of sincerely held convictions regarding ministry. The demand then is to find ways to accommodate and develop these variations. Wisdom may suggest that the time has come for a truly missionary response: that one group should commission the other for a brand new initiative to provide for both (or several) expressions of the Gospel to find full voice.
The benefit of this reciprocal generosity is immediately obvious. In place of spiritually and emotionally exhausting and destructive forces, energy is diverted into building up the Kingdom, not neutralising it through debate and division.
Where churches have split, it is not uncommon for one or other group to launch into an entirely different approach to mission and ministry. Why not set out to achieve this positively in the first place where encouragement and support are offered liberally? All it takes is an alertness to the possibilities.
This sanctified lateral thinking and action necessitates an enormous shift in attitude. Our tendency to hatch worst-case scenarios about others and their motivation has to give way to a much more Christian grasp of the realities. It is a call to charity, to fresh mission, to the creative stewardship of resources, to new ways of being the people of God.
Fresh Ways and The Practicalities
There are many practicalities arising, of course. The outcome is essentially a church planting exercise. It will probably be a very different flavour from the sending church. But the act of commissioning, of warm prayerful and practical support is a rewriting of the encyclopaedia of church splits. It is a crucial chapter and well overdue.
Instead of mediators attempting to locate that mysterious middle ground to settle the tensions down, the need is for mission strategists to help the church promote creativity, identify gifts, establish goals and develop teamwork for the entire congregation as it prepares for the deployment of some of its number. Such behaviour is far more becoming of those who claim to love Christ and represent Him in the world.
Why settle for cheap and tawdry battles where the winners seem to be few and far between?
Why Wait? Consider The Differences Now!
Further, why wait until there is congregational tension produced by differences in approaches to ministry? A truly missionary church will be on the lookout for the full range of gifts with the specific goal of constantly tackling the frontiers and margins of life.
Strangely we have developed this well in regard to the sending of missionaries to other, distant cultures on the other side of the world. We tend to be too close to the many sub-cultures all around us which will not respond to the ministry style of most of our churches.
What We Need
We need variety; we need courage; we need sensitivity. When was the last time a church gathered for prayer and guidance to reach a particular ethnic or religious group living in the same community?
When do we give serious thought to the vast numbers of Australians who love their sport, their leisure, their barbecue lifestyle: people who will not fit easily into our pasteurised church culture with all its inherent foibles?
Is there trouble at your place? Are there disagreements over ministry? Are the power plays developing? May be its time to refocus on the shape of your mission and see if it might just be the time to do a little sending out of the right sort.
Rev. John Simpson
This article is reprinted by permission of the author. It originally appeared in Ministry Perspectives,
a publication of the Baptist Union of Victoria, Australia.