Yesterday I sat in a room with a bunch of pastors as we tried to work out what it meant to genuinely be in fellowship. For a number of years we had met and been warm and polite, but yesterday something shifted, just a little bit, and we were starting to be more real than we had ever been.
Later in the afternoon I sat with another pastor as we reflected on the Christian church, and together we agreed that one of the biggest challenges we faces is that we are generally isolated as individuals. We agreed that this was largely because we avoid the potential for the pain that conflict might bring.
I am increasingly convinced that the big challenge facing the church is not theological so much as relational.
Jesus said that the relationships between the members of his church would be so different to the norm, that people would believe just on the basis of what they were seeing:
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
(John 13:35 NIV)
“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
(John 17:20-21 NIV)
The corporate life of the Christian church was to be the main argument for the truth of the gospel.
Our problem is that we don’t know how to cope with difference and still be one. We don’t know how to allow room for individuality because we don’t know how to have the right kinds of conflict.
I believe there are six sick practises we have developed specifically to avoid conflict, that are like cancers eating away at the very life that is meant to sustain us.
The first sick practise is that, as we have over-reacted to the controlling religious practices of the generations that have gone before us, we have chosen to avoid commitment. Instead of loving and being committed to each other, we prize our individual autonomy so whenever something doesn’t go our way, we leave. This is actually a surreptitious strategy to avoid having to work through conflict. This is true of churches, families, businesses and even our own bodies.
The second sick practise to avoid conflict is gossip. Jesus lays out a very clear plan for dealing with conflict in the church in Matthew 18, but time and time again we choose rather than to “go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matt 18:15), we go and point out their faults to anyone who might agree with us.
Gossip is an insipid imitation of relationship. Instead of me telling you about me, or you telling me about you, we both talk about “them”. It helps us feel good about ourselves , but gossip is like a neon sign that tells everyone who hears it “don’t ever, under any circumstance be honest with this person.”
Gossips end up needing to revert to talking about the Kardashians because they become so out of touch with what is really happening for real people.
The third sick practise that we have developed to avoid the conflict at the heart of healthy relationship is distraction. We know we are lonely, and we know there is painful and unresolved things in our existing relationships, so we look for ways to escape reality. Sadly, the people we pay the most in our society are the people who help us do this.
We want distraction. If I am to be honest, I can track my emotional health by the amount of time I watch television shows or movies that I don’t care about. I know for other people it will be other things, but each of us has sick practises we use to avoid the complex reality of our relationships.
The fourth sick practise is that some of us either explicitly, or implicitly, make threats in order to avoid conflict. Some people make threats to “blow up” or get “upset” if someone doesn’t comply with their will. Others make threats to withhold something (usually money, sex or power) if someone doesn’t do what they want. Most often these threats are not made openly so they can’t be directly challenged. Either way threats are a way to avoid conflict, and are a form of oppression.
This fourth practise only works if people submit in the face of threats. Paulo Friere in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, pointed out that whenever someone is being oppressed, then in order to do that both the person who is being threatened an the person who is doing the threatening are actually being de-humanized.
Friere believed that those who were being oppressed were actually the key to freeing both themselves and those who were doing the threatening. It is a little counter-intuitive but I believe Friere is right. Allowing yourself to be controlled by threats is actually the fifth sick practise of conflict avoidance. Not once did Jesus, Paul or the other disciples let threats set their agenda. Every time we bow to a threat, a little bit of us and a little bit of the person doing the threatening, dies.
The sixth and final sick practise of conflict and relationship avoidance is superficiality. We remain overly polite and no-one actually gets to know us. We avoid really listening and we avoid really disclosing. We bounce off each other like billiard balls, never really meeting anyone. We have a thousand friends on Facebook and no friends in real life. We put on an act, desperately hoping that no-one ever catches on to the reality behind the mask.
Most of us gravitate to at least one, if not two or three of these sick practises kind of like a “home base.” They are our shelter from the perceived storm of conflict.
The outcome of all of this conflict avoidance is that we remain immature. The Apostle Paul made the connection between “speaking the truth in love” and becoming “the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” in Ephesians 4:15.
We need more people of character, but without real fellowship. without stepping into conflict, we remain superficial. N.T. Wright points out:
Human “character,” in this sense, is the pattern of thinking and acting which runs right through someone, so that wherever you cut into them (as it were), you see the same person through and through. Its opposite would be superficiality: we all know people who present themselves at first glance as honest, cheerful, patient, or whatever, but when you get to know them better you come to realize that they’re only “putting it on,” and that when faced with a crisis, or simply when their guard is down, they’re as dishonest, grouchy, and impatient as the next person.
As I saw the beginnings of fellowship emerging at the ministerial yesterday, and as I reflected with my fellow pastor on how we as the church move forward, I have a sense that God is inviting us to a new chapter in the life of the church.
I am fascinated that 18-25 year olds are generally hyper-sensitive to the question of integrity. They care deeply about individuality, but they also long for community. This impulse for Trinitarian relationship is the core D.N.A of the church at its best.
If we can re-discover Jesus’ original vision for his church and put aside our six sick practises, the future will be a lot more enjoyable than the past.