By Barney Wells
The church is different from any other organization in that it is the body and the bride of Christ, the only organization designed and created by God. Therefore anything the church does is essentially theological.
If we want to avoid conflict, our first question should be, “What does God want us to do?” Seeking God’s guidance begins in prayer. One may think it goes without saying that a congregation would pray about the decisions it makes, but unfortunately what goes without saying also often goes without doing.
When Jesus had a decision to make, such as choosing the Twelve, he spent the night in prayer (Luke 6:12). When the church in Antioch wanted to undertake a new ministry, the leaders spent considerable time in prayer and fasting (Acts 13:1-3). Walnut Grove Christian Church has found that the more time they spend in prayer about what to do and how to do it, the better things work out. This prayer for direction is not just the work of the leadership. Involving the entire congregation in praying for God’s guidance gives everyone a heart to hear his answer and makes conflict less likely.
In Matthew 5:37 Jesus tells us to let our “Yes” be yes and our “No” be no. His injunction against taking oaths is also good advice for making conflict-free decisions in the local church. Starting with the first building project at Walnut Grove, members learned that sometimes an elder or board member may give assent to a decision in a meeting, but then reverse the position when confronted by a church member who disagrees with or misunderstands the decision. This is a recipe for conflict. A church cannot be unified if its leaders are not unified. There may be discussion and even argument in a meeting, but once a decision is reached, the leaders should speak with one voice.
A helpful tool is to make the final decision by a roll-call vote, where each leader goes on record as supporting the decision. When questions or objections from members of the church arise, each leader should be willing and able to explain why he supports the decision. It is nearly impossible to have a unified church without a unified leadership.
When a major decision or change faces a congregation, the leadership may and should study the Scripture in order to reach a biblically informed conclusion. The leaders may feel they have good biblical reasons for the decision they make, yet forget that the congregation has not gone through the same study. Conflict can be prevented by sermons that prepare the congregation to think theologically about the change that may be coming.
Before Walnut Grove began their second Sunday morning service and before they changed the Sunday morning format, several sermons over a period of more than a year dealt with topics that helped the congregation build a theology of the church gathered. The sermons looked at questions about what could change and could not, addressed issues and attitudes, and presented the same Scriptures the leaders had been studying.
Don’t wait until two or three weeks before a change and then rush in a barrage of sermons. Treat the topic as it comes up in the normal course of preaching through a book or series over several months. The bigger the change, the further in advance you should start preaching about the issues involved. Conflict can be prevented by making sure the entire congregation understands the biblical basis behind a change the church is making.
Barney Wells ministers with the Walnut Grove Christian Church in Arcola, Illinois, and serves as adjunct professor with Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College. His articles in this issue are adapted from a chapter in the new book Releasing the Power of the Smaller Church. Order number 40035 from Standard Publishing or your local supplier.