Tuesday, October 24, 2006

How To Prevent A Church Split, Part 1

I have a new and growing conviction. It's occupying a lot of my thoughts these days... good thoughts, I think. I don't know why it hasn't always been a conviction, at least not quite in this way. But, nonetheless, I am convinced that one of my fundamental objectives as a pastor is to prevent church splits from happening.

I don't mean that it's my responsibility to make sure no one leaves, or to settle every dispute in a way that preserves unity at all costs. No, there'll be times when a "split" will humanly speaking be inevitable, and I trust that the Lord has good purposes in causing or allowing them to happen.

What I mean is this: I have some basic responsibilities as a pastor. I must teach and preach God's Word; I must pray; I must be an example; and, I must carry on a visitation ministry. That's basically what I think a pastor is to do (admittedly a bit oversimplified). But I am increasingly convinced that I am to do those things with a particular perspective. I'm to do those things with an eye toward the developing and continuing unity of the church. Said negatively, I'm to work in such a way as to prevent the splintering of Christ's local body in my charge.

It seems to me that preventing splits is a bit like preventative health care. Most of us trolly through life without caring much about our health. We eat any and most everything. We don't exercise regularly. Our sleep habits are terrible. We overwork ourselves at high-stress jobs, and we seldom take vacations. Then we go to the doctor for a checkup or because some pain or another won't go away. That's when we hear the news: our bodies have actually been carrying on a covert coup against us. We're told that our blood pressure is high. Cholestorol is clogging up blood flow. And then there is the dreaded "O" word that seems to be wreaking havoc on youth in particular--obesity.

We react with surprise at the news. Not the kind of surprise that's completely unsuspecting; we knew that neglecting ourselves could result in these things. No, we're surprised because it happened to us. "High blood pressure... that's aunt Annie's problem. Obesity... that's uncle Bobo's issue." The reality of the problem--completely preventable if it had been at least a part of our focus--comes crashing home. We're sick and now there is only the drudgery of changing life-long habits and/or undergoing some radical procedure.

I think church splits are a lot like that. Churches adopt lifelong bad habits, deny the warning signs (the sleeplessness, headaches and chest pains), and then are surprised when part of the body carries out the silent coup. They don't think it will happen to them no matter how bad things get. And then it does and the pain is great.

There were early warning signs:

  • Growing numbers of cliques and factions. Cliques present themselves as "natural friendships," groups of people who "get along" because of some shared interests, backgrounds, or ideas. But without care, these groups will harden into impenetrable factions that use their common interests as a rallying cry against the rest of the body.
  • Low concern for the church qua church. We live in a Christian era that stresses the individual like no era before it. Most people think Christianity is about me and "my personal relationship with Jesus." That littly phrase, "my personal," acting as a kind of double possessive, is deadly to the body. And it's often compounded by the next warning signal.
  • Self-interests dominate group interests. If life is all about "my personal relationship" then I'm likely to be quite self-seeking. I want to be stimulated. I want to be served. I want my preferences met. I... I... I... till there is no "we" left. And where that exists, there will be little concern--certainly not ultimate concern--for the needs and mission of the larger group, the church.
  • Isolated and absent members. It's understandable, given the first three symptoms, that some number of members will be isolated in the body, without any meaningful relationships, or absent altogether. Large numbers of isolated and absent members actually have the peculiar effect of making it more difficult to pastor those who are attending. Isolated and absent members make it more difficult to know who is in your care and who is not. And at various points they will cause you to expend a lot of energy trying to "catch up with them" and diagnose their spiritual state. But there's another problem. These isolated and absentee members actually undermine the very fabric of fellowship and relationships in the body. They make it normal to be a part of a church and simultaneously anonymous and uninvolved with others. So, there becomes no relational context in the church to support a wider concern for the church, making splits easier to ponder.
  • Lack of humility. Pride is a lethal foe. Combine pride with any of the symptoms above and you can just hear the emergency room attendant yelling "STAT" into the loud speaker. Pride surfaces itself in an unwillingness to hear feedback, be it a word of correction, instruction and even encouragement. Pride in the cliques says, "we've got it all together and those folks over there need to get with us." Pride in "lone ranger Christians" contends that she/he doesn't need the church. Absent members exhibit pride when they say, "Leave me alone; this is my life." This pride is deadly serious.
  • Mixed allegiance to the pastor(s)/elders. Sometimes some members feel a fierce allegiance to the pastor(s), while others feel fairly opposed or indifferent to him/them. And when church members clump together on the poles of love and dislike, you can just about be certain that some significant number of them have taken their eyes off the true Head of the Church, Jesus. One cries "I'm with Appollos," and another cries "I'm with Paul." The fact that everyone is not crying "I'm with Jesus" and "We follow our pastors as they follow Jesus" should be of real concern.
  • Low emphasis on the Word of God. I can't state this problem better than David Wells' observation (HT: Mark Dever). Quite simply, if we lose the centrality, sufficiency, and authority of the Word of God, we unravel the church as we abandon the only rule of faith and conduct.

These are some of the early warning signals for a church split. Imperceptible at their start, they grow very slowly in most cases. When you feel mild discomfort from them, they've usually rooted themselves to some extent. And by the time you feel real pain, those roots have formed huge balls and arteries that wrap themselves around the foundation of the house. Excavating them will be painful and costly. But in many cases, by the time you feel the pain, the conditions for a split are quite abundant.

I'm convinced that it's my job to pastor in such a way that I try to ward off, retard, uproot or cut out these problems before they give birth to greater sin. I need to approach the basic task of pastoring with at least one eye toward prevention. And I need to look beyond the horizon of this present congregation to consider those who are coming after us, to take the long view with the hopes of leaving a congregation that would be healthy for generations should the Lord tarry.

Since pastors tend to impress upon their congregations something of their own personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, and that impress tends to linger through subsequent generations and pastorates, for good and for ill, I need to work hard at being an example of one that loves like Jesus loves and one that encourages and teaches others to pursue unity and peace. That's my task, I think. That's the task of every Christian. In the next couple of posts, we'll explore some ways of thinking about and living out this task.


Anonymous said...

I've been reading your blog for several months now. Today, I especially appreciated it. The Church that I am a member of is in the midst of such a time. In fact, this Sunday marks a vote that has no positive outcome. My prayer as of late is that the Lord has good purposes. Even though I can't see any positive coming from it, God does.

In The Word said...

Very timely. The church we have been affiliated is going through this trouble as you write.

My wife and I had to leave due to doctrinal differences and lack of leadership.

The "following" the pastor at all costs is a major source of trouble here. Very much pride and definately the cliques, especially in the church leadership.

Emotionalism and lack of a solid Biblical foundation is the major cause for what is happening in this church and what is causing the division or split coupled with the above mentioned troubles.

Paul said...

Thanks Thabiti,

Excellent thoughts. I have a little bit of experience working with the aftershocks of a split (we talked a little about it at Young Chow)and everything you said rings true. As I began to gradually learn what happened, every warning sign you mention was there.

Keep sharing your wisdom. I look forward to the rest of this series.

Steve Weaver said...

Great post! I really appreciate/enjoy your blog. Keep up the good work!

Chase said...

Sir, I am blessed by your postings frequently, as is the case today. My wife and I have been grieved to see a Church we were once part of in another area of our state has split twice in 3 years. Our hearts have ached over this and I pray that this is a resource that God will use in pastors' lives to strnghten and unif Churches.

redeemeddaughter said...

I am so sad to say that this happened at my church just this very week. We had all of the warning signs that you list and as I read these I am thoughtfully convinced that I am guilty of taking part in some of these things... but I can't reconcile the fact that the "other" side is Biblically ignorant and defiantly will not submit to authourity. How can we live and worship together without a split? I think that this is where we fall short in the church. What prevents a split when 2 sides are so opposed?

FellowElder said...

Redeemeddaughter (like the blogger name!),

I'm so sorry that you all have experienced this painful situation in your church. Know that I'm praying for you all.

Ultimately, two camps opposed to one another in this way must both submit to the authority of Scripture. I just finished preaching Eph. 4:1-16 and Paul's words are still ringing strongly in my heart. He says "be completely humble" and urges them to "make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

Mark said it in an earlier comment... every split comes basically back to someone's pride. What we can do is appeal to everyone to submit to the Lordship of Christ through His Word and the appointed men to teach His Word, pray and work to be "completely humble" ourselves, and spare no expense ("make every effort") to preserve the unity in peace. Beyond that... truly doing this... we must entrust our brethren to the Lord's care, know that the Lord uses dissension to spread His people, and labor to prevent it from ever happening again. I'll pray for you all's reconciliation, humility, mutual forbearance and submission, and the healing of Christ's body.

Anonymous said...

"Emotionalism" and "I".... How do you keep these two from splitting a church? I have been through a church split before and vowed I would never again, but here it is again.... the pastor pushing emotionalism and the few "I" seekers feeling empowered.... What do you do??? Especially when you are married to the music director?

S. Smith said...

Our church too is guilty of cliques, which have hurt many people, myself included. The church has been thru one split and after weathering that one (we were members there for 13 years), we finally left for 3 years, but returned, hoping that things had changed. Unfortunately, things are still the same.
Sadly, the pastor has said publicly that he sees nothing wrong with cliques.
It leaves the group of us who are not in the "inner circle" however, on the outside looking in. Another way of describing it is that if you aren't in their little group, haven't been to their little "Encounter", don't want to go to an "Encounter", then there is something wrong with you.
This fall they are embarking on a program where if you have not been to one of these "Encounters", then you can't be in leadership. Some of the ladies who have been to these all wear little red shoe lapel pins, like they are members of a special club. There is much secrecy about these "Encounters", and when asked about them, they all say "what goes on at Encounter, stays at Encounter".
Needless to say, we are considering looking for a new church AGAIN, and dreading it.

Anonymous said...

I just got done reading your post, and your words are "spot" on with the Word of God. I too have seen far too many Church splits in my time. As the son of a preacher, i can tell you first hand that nothing, absolutely nothing, hurts the church greater than a group of people stirring up divisions and strife. It comes in both forms, from off the wall ideas in leadership/ doctrine, to groups of people who make it their life long passion to dissmantle the pastor and tear the church apart at the seams on their way out the door. Pride is the root of most of it and peace is all but never found with unforgiving hearts. There was one perfect man that walked the earth....His name is Jesus!!! All of us stive to be like him but we all fall short, but with forgiveness we can be!!!

I'm not perfect, your pastor is not perfect, and yes, even those reading this....are not perfect. We live in a unperfect world only to be made rightous with the Grace of God. People who have a true revelation of the Love of Christ will always sit down at the table and acknowlege this, those who won't are simply the folks Paul speaks about in scripture; It was the same back in Paul's day as it is today.

Everyone at some point or another will make a wrong choice, or an ill advised statement. Pastors are not exempt from this, and neither or we that make up the Body of Christ. It is though the Grace of God, that we overcome these shortcommings.

Before we all take our pastors out to the "woodshed", let us ask a simple question.....Is what i'm about to do going to glorify God? If the answer is yes, than by all means proceed. If the answer is no.....It would be prudent that you spend more time in prayer over the matter. Your probably wrong and the "click" your running with has another agenda. What you are about to do will change peoples lives forever. I have watched this twice in our Church, and can tell you that within a short period of time, most will not be part of any chuch, and the "click" you left with will hold no special place in your heart. In short, you are looking for something that does not exist...."The Perfect Church".

Some situations can only be resolved by a separation, but most can heal with the following phrase......I'm sorry, could you please forgive me.

God Bless all of you, and each of us should pray for the unity of our Church daily!!! Amen!!

Anonymous said...

I'm not involved in our church split (just a member) but I'm so hurt by what happened I have seen the true character of these people who left our church. I have sinned by judging them.