/ Church problems / Gentle Reformation

An Ancient "Problem-Solving" Technique

My friends speak of it.  I hear distant reports of it.  And I have seen it with my own eyes, more than once.  It seems that wherever I turn, the same problem runs rampant in the pop Evangelical church.  It is this: A segment of the leadership (and especially those who are looking to “enter the ministry”) begin criticizing another segment of the leadership, typically the pastorate.  No, not quite.  It isn’t full blown criticism, at first.  Rather, it begins as merely a “concern.”  “Holy sighs” are wed with anguished looks.  Problems in the church as discussed and dissected at great length.  Motives are scrutinized.  Past incidents are exhumed and thread together into a tapestry of intrigue.

This always begins behind closed doors.  And it is never done alone.  Little birdies don’t whisper to walls.  They whisper to other little birdies- those that share their plight and grunt with similar disapproval.

These meetings aren’t necessarily calculated either.  They’re friends getting together, brothers and sisters spending time in fellowship.  They’re at a restaurant or a in a living room.  And since church life resides at the center of their life, conversation about church life comes easily.  As do the “concerns.”

Soon strategies are formulated.  Their ideas are compared and contrasted with those of their church.  They isolate specific problems.  Lament it.  Chew on it.  Speak of how they would do it... How it might be done... How it should be done.  Whispering grows.  Anxiety builds.  Frustration takes root.  The problems intensify in their minds.  Emotions stir.

None of this happens over a brief period of time.  The couples continue to meet.  The “concerns” continue to mature.  The little birdies “problem-solve.”

Soon, however, their “concerns” take on a new shape.  Emotional depth is added to their new found frustration.  Somehow what was once more distant, more abstract, becomes personal.  They feel the need to seek out change.  Or is it plot?  No, it’s change, they assure themselves.  Change for the better.  An advance in ministerial care.

Sure they leave the meetings feeling a little unclean, a bit dirty, perhaps.  They know they’ve crossed the line a few times, smearing names or being a bit too gossipy.  But they confess it and ask God to help them, which means, of course, help them to help the church.  A few moments of impropriety doesn’t negate the validity of their insights, after all.

As the little birdies continue to whisper, they become emboldened.  They talk about the church’s problems to others, carefully no doubt, merely hinting at the issue, testing the waters.  “Have you noticed that the pastor does...?”  “Does it ever concern you?”  “It makes me wonder if...”  It’s a conversation here, a phone call there.

The pastor usually doesn’t have any idea what is occurring behind the scenes.  He has no idea that a coup is forming, that mutiny is astir.

Now here’s where things get ugly.  Once the man[1] who is looking to “enter the ministry” has raised enough concerns, and once he has gathered sufficient strength, a confrontation of some sort is initiated.  Usually by this point the pastor has caught wind of the problem, and so he quickly gathers the loyal to his side and begins to think about “damage control.”  Emails are sent.  The situation is assessed, but from a distance.

Soon there’s an initial skirmish that is more emotional than anything.  Words are misinterpreted.  The pastor is said to have mishandled the situation.  He feels threatened, and so he probably does mishandle it to some extent.

There follows a complex explosion of actions and reactions, motives and double intents.  Everything moves so quickly and with such confusion and with such emotional fervor (seeing that frustration and eventual disgust has been festering in the hearts of the malcontents for months) that it is hard, if not impossible, to take a step back and understand how the problem got to where it is at.

In the end, a segment of the church leaves in anger.

The little birdies now do one of two things.  They either aim high and attempt to do things the “right way” and, yes, you guessed it, start a church, or they merely scurry off to another congregation, one that happily welcomes them with open arms.  No need to inquire into why they left.  It’s all about numbers.  It is families coming in.  And look!  They’re ministry-minded people!  They will help man our programs.  Yes, they’ll fit in nicely!  Yes, very nicely.  In fact, they see the potential for leadership...

I truly lament this.  Like I said, it seems like I’m constantly hearing reports resembling something like the above.

It isn’t new, of course.  This has been going on for a long time.  One might call it the Diotrephes effect.  Listen again to how John describes it:

“I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority.  So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.”  (3 John 9-10)

Diotrephes loved to be first.  And he apparently loved to talk trash, speaking “wicked nonsense” against the apostles.  He also had a hard time getting along with others.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

So what is the long and short of all this?  Much can certainly be said.  Much should be said.  But I’m just going to bullet a few points.

  • If you love to sit around and lament the problems of the church with others (which means that you love to talk about what others have done or have failed to do), you are flirting with serious trouble.  Listen to your conscience.  It is telling you to stop.
  • Avoid those backroom discussions.  But more than that.  Shed light on those backroom discussions.  I wonder what would happen if just one person would say, when things are starting to smell a tad foul, “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:19).  Or how about this, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers” (James 4:11a).  Stop the festering before the festering has a chance to spread.
  • Beware of relishing in the art of whispering.  Search your heart.  Do you find great pleasure in whispering?  Do you secretly delight in the downfall of others?  Oh, how deadly a poison!  Repent quickly if you find this within you.
  • And don’t forget what God says about those who hurt the church.  1 Corinthians 3:17a says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”
    There is another side to this coin.  Sadly, sometimes leadership does fail.  Sometimes they are shallow, or unwise, or lacking in zeal.  Mistakes are made.  There are poor leaders.  And this certainly complicates the matter.  But this isn’t about the leadership.  That’s for another day.  At the end of the day, such issues are no justification for evil.  So instead of whispering, go to your brother in private.  Stop being a coward and go, if you really think the situation warrants it.  And when you go, esteem them as better than yourself.

[1] It could very well be a woman as well.