Lately, it has really struck me how bad those of us in the Church tend to be at agreeing to disagree. If you have spent more than five minutes in a church then I’m assuming that people tend to disagree. We have a hard time agreeing on all kinds of things. What songs should we sing? What should a pastor preach about? What color should the carpet be? What programs should we do (or not do)? How many sharp disagreements have there been over these things? How many times do we see the unity of believers torn apart over non-doctrinal or non-theological issues?
In my personal experience, I often feel that I have to spend more time smoothing over these disagreements in ministry than I do actually doing ministry. That might be an over-exaggeration, but that is how it often feels. In this post I want to explore a few ideas that are based in scripture. I firmly believe there is freedom to be found in these concepts, though that does not mean that they are comfortable to hear.
Sharp Disagreements Do Not Equal Sin
Disagree with me? Answer me this: which of the following apostles do you consider unfit for ministry… Paul or Barnabas? Hopefully, you would say that they were most certainly fit for ministry; yet, they had a disagreement so strong that they could no longer serve together. Read Acts 15:36-41. These two amazing men of God could not come to any sort of agreement other than that they needed to split up.
This disagreement caused a split of more than just those two. People had to pick sides. Silas went with Paul. John Mark (the source of the disagreement) went with Barnabas. I imagine others had to make tough decisions as well.
Separation Can Be Good
Who was right in the Paul/Barnabas split? Who was wrong? Does it even matter? I will submit to you that I believe that all that mattered was that they didn’t allow this disagreement to impede the mission God had given to them. Instead, they agreed to disagree so that the Gospel could spread like wildfire.
When I’ve seen sharp disagreement in the church I have also seen the leadership become paralyzed as they strive to seek some kind of compromise or agreement. Why? I’ve seen people stay at a church for years in misery because they feel that the church is not doing what they should be doing. Why? Again, what I am talking about here is not a disagreement over doctrine or theology but of PREFERENCE. It could also be a disagreement over how fit a person is for leadership (i.e. Paul and John Mark).
Sometimes we need to let people go with God’s blessing. Sometimes we need to be the one to go. Why does it have to be a unity-destroying, mission-halting struggle? Read the rest of the New Testament and see how God used BOTH ministry teams to do amazing things. Separation actually allowed for a greater spread of the Gospel. I’m sure the separation was painful at times, but God used it as an incredible positive.
Unify Under Christ
All too often, I feel that we try to unify under the banner of our church instead of the banner of Christ. Unity is so much harder to achieve when it has to encompass personal preferences, style, history, and traditions. How much easier is it to find unity when it is about the universe-altering love of Christ? This is why I have no problems serving alongside someone with whom I cannot find doctrinal-agreement on things like infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
We are unified in our belief that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He is the only way to heaven and it is our job to introduce others to him. I don’t have to like your worship song choices to agree with that statement.
Believe me, I often struggle with giving up control by letting others disagree with me. I don’t have to win every debate. Actually, I’m not sure I even need to participate in every debate. Let us stop trying to make everyone agree and instead follow the principles laid out by word and deed in Scripture. Separate when you need to. Let us submit when separation is not needed. Let us put others needs and preferences before your own and focus on Christ’s mission for the Church.
The Church is an Us
As I have been trying to frame this series out I wrestled with how to order things. When having a discussion on what the Church is supposed to be should we start with what the mission of the Church is or a definition of what it means to be the Church? Though I think knowing the mission helps to define the Church, I have chosen to start with a deeper picture of what the Church actually is. I chose this direction because I think that this is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the American Church today. In my opinion, the mission cannot be grasped until the picture of identity begins to form.
Us not Me
American Christianity is markedly different than other expressions of faith around the world. The individualistic idealism tied so closely to the American dream has found a strong foothold in American faith. Here you tend to find a lot of references to “personal Savior” and “personal relationship with Jesus.” Though this post is not one in which we will deconstruct these ideas, I do believe that at best they represent an incomplete picture of what it means to be a Christian. Though there is certainly a personal aspect to any relationship, especially one with the Creator of the universe, there is no question when I read scripture that the Church is and always will be a plural concept.
One of my favorite illustrations that the Bible uses to describe the Church is found in 1 Corinthians 12.
The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 12:12
I want to stop here for a second and focus on the idea that there is only ONE body. I do not see here or anywhere else in the Bible evidence to suggest that Jesus is a floating head that connects Himself to multiple bodies. He has one. That means that as Christians we are members of the same body as every other Christian. The Church is bigger than your local community of believers, your city, your denomination, or your country. We are the Church and that “we” encompasses everyone who is in Christ Jesus.
We Need Each Other
This passage in 1 Corinthians 12 presents a lot of challenges to the way we express the Church in America. Let’s be honest. I don’t care how many “unity events” your community might do, we very much tend to operate as though our community of believers is all that is needed for our mission. Wrong.
Yes, there are many parts, but only one body. The eye can never say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” the head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you.” – 1 Corinthians 12:20-21
Do we really operate that way? I mean, does my student ministry operate under the mentality that we cannot succeed or even really function without the student ministry up the street? We are all interdependent.
Let’s take this a step further. When I reach to pick up my coffee mug (which I need to do quite often during this massive transition!) does my head have multiple conferences with the various parts of my body? Does it talk to my shoulder first, then have a pow-wow with my elbow while trying to setup a meeting with my wrist? No. It just tells my body what to do, and it does it in a (mostly) coordinated, smooth process. Let’s be honest. Does the American church work that way? Our own local church structures rarely can do that let alone the church of a city, state, or nation.
Who is the Head?
Yes, every decently trained Christian knows to answer “Jesus!” quite emphatically with probably even a forced smile. But is that the reality? I can tell you this much: it is very easy as a leader to place myself as the head of a ministry and ask Jesus to support my leadership. It is the temptation of every leader, every Christian. Your pastor is not the Head. Your denominational leaders are not the Head. Your political party is not the Head. Jesus is the Head. If He is not, the body is no longer the Church. We will look at this more in an upcoming post.
I could write an entire series on the implications of 1 Corinthians 12 (maybe I will in the future). The Body of Christ is a universal “us”. We succeed together. We suffer together. We are interdependent. And we all follow the lead of one Head. To me, the true definition of the Church starts with this understanding.
Questions? Thoughts? Comments? How does 1 Corinthians 12 help you understand what the Church is?
previous posts in this series:
Part 1 – Introduction
After a decent amount of research into the subject I have decided that I am not a fan of pain. It’s no good. On Monday I was enjoying my day off with my wife and son. Normally I head into Starbucks to work on homework and my writing, but I was pretty well ahead so I decided to hang with the family. Things were going quite well when all of a sudden I went from happy to in excruciating pain. The source of this debilitating pain was what I, as an amateur doctor (hey, I watch House and Bones so I’m down with anatomy) determined to be a pinched nerve. Again, let the record show that I was and am still not a fan.
I’m used to back issues, but this is a new pain. It feels like someone is stabbing me just to the right of my left shoulder blade. It’s brutal. When I awoke this morning with the pain still very much present I decided to head into work. I figured I was going to be miserable either way so I might as well be productive. I found myself having a very hard time concentrating and doing anything worth talking about. Finally, I gave in at 3:00, returned home, and crawled into bed.
The frustrating thing about pain is that it usually emanates from one small part of my body. I mean, come one, my body is made up of many parts. Why can’t my brain function at work when my shoulder blade says, “nah…I’ll take today off”? As I laid in bed in my misery (ok, now I’m milking it) I started thinking about the Bible’s description of the Church as the Body of Christ. I look around and see a Body in pain. Sure, the Body is being relatively productive all things considered, but there is pain and distraction having a hey-day with Christ’s body. Why is that?
When I type the word “church” into the Maps app on my iPhone a bevy of red pins fill the screen. My community is covered in churches. Yet, despite the plethora of unchurched people in my community, many if not most seats remain empty every Sunday. Why is this? What is wrong with the Body?
Why are so many churches struggling to pay their bills? Why is hunger even remotely an issue in America? Why are our jails filled with people lacking visitors? Why are families disintegrating at alarming rates? Why are there children suffering in loneliness and darkness on the streets and in corrupt foster homes?
America, the richest and most church-heavy country in the world is in trouble. Why is the Church so ineffective at leading people to the answer? One could point out the pockets of ministries doing an amazing job. However, to go back to my analogy from earlier my tongue did a pretty good today. I didn’t drool. I tasted everything I wanted to taste. Heck, my tongue did a pretty stellar job. Despite the mega-star job of my tongue today, my body was still crippled by that one nerve in my back. Much in the same way, the Body of Christ is crippled by that one church, that one part deciding to do its own thing.
Consider Paul’s words on the subject:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” (1 Corinthians 12:12, 18-21 NIV)
The Bible is is pretty clear, yet perhaps one of the most “outside-the-box” thing a ministry can do is actually choose to work with other churches in their community. Let’s be honest. How many churches actually operate as if they need the church up the street?
What would happen if the Body worked together? For the most part my body worked well together today. All it took was that one nerve to ruin my day and my effectiveness. The problem is, we usually always assume that we are the ones working ok. It’s “that left arm” that just won’t cooperate. I wonder what would happen if every church decided they were the ones that needed to start working with the rest of the body? I call it the “other guy” syndrome. Every church says it’s the “other guy” that is the problem. So…we just go about our normal routine, ignoring the hand up the street. Meanwhile the Church is slowed by pinched nerves, pulled muscles, and ligament strains from every appendage pulling the body in different directions.
Today was a day that I had the privilege of experiencing what happens when my body decides to stop working correctly. It was frustrating and annoying. Is that how the Head of the Body feels about me when I am off doing “my own thing?” What am I missing out on? Has the pain that I am causing the Body become so common that I don’t even know what a glorious pain-free day feels like? Like it or not, the Church doesn’t not have the luxury of splitting into individual factions who have little to do with each other. A body that won’t unite is a body in pain.
Death by Isolation
Loneliness. Not exactly a pleasant word. I have never studied psychology (not including that gen-ed requirement in college), but I’m pretty sure that humans crave connection…community. It’s in our DNA. Sure, there are those few strange people who enjoy being a lone wolf. A small part of me is that guy. I quite enjoy the stillness and silence of solitude; however, even the lone wolf needs the pack every once in a while. To be specific, the lone wolf always needs a pack when it comes to fighting a battle.
Though I often cringe at the “Jesus Army” references to being a Christian (no offense to the Salvation Army) I still recognize that we are engaged in battle. Everyday that I wake up, grab my iPad and coffee, and head into work I am preparing to enter the front lines. My enemy is not always easy to define. Some days it is myself, insecurity, burnout, budgets, worship wars, myself, personal expectations, apathy, myself, etc. Regardless of the enemy, every youth leader, pastor, secretary, and worship leader have one thing in common…battles. We all fight them and we often lose. The profession of church work has an incredibly high burnout rate.
Burnout is a hot-button topic for me because, well, I really struggle with it. In some of my research on this topic I came across a web article on PastorBurnout.com He lists several statistics that were fascinating. Here are a few key stats:
- The clergy has the second highest divorce rate among all professions.
- 25% don’t know where to turn when they have a family or personal conflict or issue.
- 25% of pastors’ wives see their husband’s work schedule as a source of conflict.
- 33% felt burned out within their first five years of ministry.
- 40% of pastors and 47% of spouses are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and/or unrealistic expectations.
- 50% feel unable to meet the needs of the job.
- 70% don’t have any close friends.
- 80% of pastors say they have insufficient time with their spouse.
This is just a few of the stats that he listed. Do you see yourself in this list? I know that I do. So what is the answer? I wish I could tell you, but I have discovered one thing. Being the lone wolf makes all these far more likely to apply to me.
I don’t think that all lone wolfs intend to be isolated. Our profession encourages it. We work in small, closed offices for long hours. Sure, we have volunteers but they have “real” jobs. If you work in a small church (as I do) you probably spend many hours every week secretly dreaming about the day when your church can hire additional staff to help carry the burden. My pushback to this is why does “your” church have to hire anyone else? Don’t they already have you? Don’t you own a phone, a computer, some sort of device that connects you to the outside world?
Here is what I am getting at. If we (Christians) are all one body, then how can we be “alone”? I don’t think the Bible encourages this type of mentality. Quite the opposite.
If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” – 1 Corinthians 12:19-21
For the first two+ years of ministry I was the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Sure, I “believed” in the one body concept, but I didn’t act on it. Then, through a series of events, I found myself sitting at a table with two other youth leaders from the area. We all lead small, under-staffed, under-resourced ministries. We were all burning out. We all had a similar vision for mentoring students. It finally hit me (I can be a little slow). Why were we doing it alone? Three years later, I am part of a ministry that says “Hey, hand, I need you.” I went from a staff of one to a staff of six. Our impact is growing. It all started with three leaders realizing that the lone wolf gig was getting old.
Do you feel isolated? Do you feel like your burning out? There are a ton of factors to burnout, but I can promise you that minsitering as a team is a huge step in the right direction.
I am passionate about multi-church ministry. It is certainly not all “rainbows and unicorns”, but man, is it exciting to not be alone! I could write forever on this topic, but for now I am going to leave it at this. What are you saying to the “hand”? Are you burning out because of “lone wolf-in it” for too long? My church still cannot remain solvent if we were to hire additional staff for the youth ministry, but honestly that isn’t crucial right now. There already is a staff in place thanks to multiple churches working together. Isolation brings death to ministry and ministers. Are you dying?