It’s a big issue anywhere, but I reckon helping people deal with conflict has got to be up there as one of the big issues for discipleship on council estates. Anger, violence, harsh words, lack of self-control has got to be one of the most destructive sins we see again amongst friends and family. Of course, on the other hand, I don’t want to suggest that middle class self-control and ‘restraint’ is any more godly. We’re not talking about polite passive-aggression as any solution!
Firstly, let’s think about conflict amongst Christians. Surely, resolving conflict peaceably has got to be one of the key counter-cultural elements of the church community. This is a key way in which we are different from the world. How do we do it?Turning to the New Testament it seems to me that being “in Christ” changes everything about how we deal with one another. This is the starting point for how Paul views other believers e.g. Rom 16:2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11b, 12, 22. When there’s conflict in Corinth, what does Paul ask Euodia and Syntyche to do? they are “to agree with each other in the Lord” (Phil 4:2). Not just get on with each other, but to submit their conflict to their both “being in Christ”. This is the framework or atmosphere in which we are to view each other as Christians, and how we are to view conflict with one another. What implications does this have?
1. I cannot distance myself from you as if you are a thing or an object because we are united in Christ. Whatever issue divides us, it is smaller than Christ.
2. When I look at you I must remember that I am dealing with a member of Christ, yes even Christ himself. When I wound/lie to/manipulate/rage at/hate you, I am doing all these things to the body of Christ.
3. All Christ’s promises are as true for you as they are for me.
4. The Cross saves you as much as it saves me.
5. When I speak truth, righteousness and goodness, I am honouring Christ in you.
6. When I am cowardly before you or avoid confronting your sin I dishonour Christ in you.
The point is: being in Christ does not mean that we stop having conflict or diasgreeing with one another. It does not mean that we avoid open and truthful discussion. Nor does it mean that visible, immediate harmony is the ultimate goal. But, rather, it means that we handle these issues in a unique way amongst ourselves. We remember that we are “in Christ” right now and that sets the parameters for how we deal with the conflict. Look here for an excellent article on creating healthy peace within the church community.
A very uncomfortable challenge for wealthy Christians from the great Scottish preacher, Robert Murray M’Cheyne:
“Your haughty dwelling rises in the midst of thousands who have scarce a fire to warm themselves at, and have but little clothing to keep out the biting frost; and yet you never darkened their door. You heave a sigh, perhaps, at a distance; but you do not visit them. Ah! my dear friend! I am concerned for the poor but more for you. I know not what Christ will say to you in the great day….I fear there are many hearing me who may know [now] well that they are not Christians, because they do not love to give. To give largely and liberally, not grudging at all, requires a new heart; an old heart would rather part with its life-blood than its money. Oh my friends! enjoy your money; make the most of it; give none away; enjoy it quickly for I can tell you, you will be beggars throughout all eternity.” (p.483 Sermons of M’Cheyne)
It struck me a while ago that church planting is a bit like surfing. The big thing with surfing (I imagine!) is that you can’t control the waves. The size and frequency of the waves are created by things outside of your control. In the same way, there are many things you can’t control in church planting and many challenges/opportunities you have no responsibility for and which you can take no blame/credit for. Your are dependent upon the waves God sends you. On the other hand, when the waves do come in surfing you have to get up on your board and surf. They don’t magically flip you up and balance you on the board. In the same way, in church planting you have to grasp hold of the things God gives you. You have to do the best you can to get up on the board and ‘surf’. You can’t just sit back and think things will ‘magically’ happen. God calls us to act – and His sovereignty works itself through our acting.
A simple analogy, I know, but this has really helped a number of times. When I look at my ministry it:
1. humbles me (when I think I’ve made things myself) because every ‘wave’ is in God’s hands
2. comforts me (when I feel ‘nothing is happening’) because I can patiently wait for God to send a ‘wave’
3. challenges me (when I become apathetic and lazy) because I need to ‘get up on my board’ and do the best I can to stay on.
Now I guess that this might seem like a rather obvious kind of question to ask! Surely the point is to build a new local congregation in an area where there wasn’t one?!!But as I think of it, that can’t really be the goal because it would seem to imply that any old congregation would do. As long as people are gathered together in ‘church’ that would be enough…. even if there was much sin, heresy and unbelief!
I find it personally helpful to keep asking myself this question because it clarifies what we are really about in church planting: we are about the glory of God. We want to see the worth and wonder of God displayed to the local area through the congregation. And, of course, this affects everything! It means that simply gathering people (i.e. the growth of the congregation) is not really a true indication of whether the goal is being reached. Yet, how often am I tempted to assess our ministry in regards to that issue!!
The real question we need to keep asking is whether or not the gathering is glorifying to God. Do we have a congregation that is becoming more mature and holy and pure? Do we have people who are serving and loving each other? Do we suffer with joy? Now, of course, people are always growing and many have to hear the gospel many times before they trust in Christ. But, we need to remind ourselves, for the sake of our own spiritual sanity, that the success of a church plant can only be assessed by the spiritual fruit it produces in the lives of new people – and not simply by the presence of new people. It’s even conceivable that numerical growth might, at times, even be a bad thing (!) if a church is only gathering in the long term and not converting. It may, conversely, be good for a congregation to diminish in numbers so that Christ will be honoured.
For leaders in big congregations this is perhaps easier to practice. But when your congregation is small and you’re desperate for it to grow there is a very subtle pressure to compromise on this. You just want to show that something’s happening where you’re working!!! Those of us trying to pioneer new work need to learn to bite the bullet on this and trust God for His church. We want real spiritual growth and not artificial growth through numbers.