“ It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us,. . . .”
–Charles Dickens, “Tale of Two Cities”
Many people can quote those famous opening lines from Dickens’ novel. From the beginning, the reader understands this is going to be a tale of contrasts and conflict. With due apology to Dickens, I invite you to a Tale of Two Churches. It is filled with conflict and contrasts. These are both true stories that occurred a number of years ago. If you happen to recognize one, be assured that my purpose is to teach, not to embarrass.
Like many churches in America, Church A, a mid-sized suburban church, had peaked in the early 1960’s. By the mid-1970’s chronic financial shortages were a source of constant tension. Moreover, changing demographics in the neighborhood were not embraced by the members of Church A. Disagreements between deacons and the pastor were not unusual. But still she struggled on, until one ugly day. On that day, in the church offices, the pastor hit the youth minister in the face with a fist. The youth minister defended himself momentarily, until he could flee to his car. He drove a few blocks to a business owned by a deacon of Church A. Moments later the pastor arrived and continued to seek a fight with the youth minister as the deacon restrained the pastor.
Church A died that day. Members took sides over the fight, and all of the other issues in that struggling body. Oh, the doors stayed open, the organ played each Sunday, and a new pastor even came to preside for a few years. But Church A closed its doors about three years later. A small group of strangers from the neighborhood briefly used the building as a church, but it, too, soon closed. Within a few years the building no longer had a steeple. A community agency ran a food pantry and part-time dental clinic for needy people. Recently I drove by and noted the large ‘for sale’ sign in front.
Now, consider the tale of Church B. It was an old well-established downtown church. It, too, had seen better days in terms of both enrollment and finances, yet because of its legacy in the community, it continued to draw just enough new members to be stable. But the cancer of gossip, jealousy, and snobbery was present. These manifested in feverish arguments at deacon meetings and church conferences. The final argument centered upon the pastor’s leadership style and certain business decisions attributed to him. Ugly anonymous letters were mailed. The day came when that pastor was terminated. He immediately moved across town and started a new church. Almost half of Church B’s congregation followed the pastor to Church B2, much to the gall of members remaining at church B. Many of the people in the now-split congregations had been lifelong friends and neighbors. In the next several years, slowly, many members in both congregations began to reconcile. A few in the new congregation moved memberships back to Church B, and a few from that church transferred to Church B2—but not in anger as the first round of moves had occurred. Today, both churches (B and B2) are alive and continue ministering in that city, with each reaching different neighborhoods and groups in that City.
There you have it. Two churches, each with a pastor-centered crises. Similar hurt feelings and deep division. Yet, very different outcomes. Church A closes its doors and disappears from the community. Church B remains despite a significant loss of members to breakaway Church B2. But there was notable reconciliation between many members of Churches B & B2. Even without unanimous reconciliation, that city now has two active churches filled with godly people…many probably unaware of the bad blood that once existed in their joint history.
Why does one troubled church experience the spring of hope and another the winter of despair? Why does wisdom eventually prevail in Churches B & B2, but foolishness in Church A? Why do the lights stay on at Church B while Church A goes dark? The answer will seem elementary, but it is really quite profound.
Church B was humbled and stunned after the split. They undertook a Bible study entitled, Five Principles of Unity. They deeply embraced such notions as: the Church really is the Bride and Body of Christ, therefore each member must be respected. They recognized that there is an Enemy of the church, but it is not the person at the other end of the pew. They learned to keep a focus on and to lovingly relate to the Christ who indwells fellow believers. And when the body is sick (i.e., members not behaving properly), then that problem must be lovingly but firmly tended to, rather than ignored. They rediscovered that holy power enables the church to accomplish kingdom work, despite personal differences. With these fresh perspectives, they began to rebuild personal relationships and thereby, their church. They changed their approach to problem-solving as issues arise. And they forgave the members who went to Church B2. (Certainly not everyone in Church B experienced this transformation, but enough members did so that these others were no longer able to direct or control the church conversation in unhealthy ways.)
Church A had the same opportunity—for three years—to humble itself and return to Biblical notions about how to relate to one another. Instead, they clung to their same attitudes and patterns of behavior. They thought that the problem was “the finances” or “the pastor,” or “those people sitting over there,” instead of examining themselves and their relationships. There is no known reconciliation among Church A’s scattered former members.
Every church encounters issues. The outcome will always be determined by how members deal with one another as they address the issues. When I rightly value fellow church members as God does, then it will impact how I manage those relationships and deal with the problems. I will handle church members with kid gloves –with the greatest of care and tenderness—not with gossip, neglect, harsh criticism, suspicion, or worldly attitudes and methods. Instead, I will strive through prayers, tears, humility, and perseverance to do all that I can to first repent of my own failings, and then to be reconciled with my brothers and sisters, for the health of the Church and sake of Christ.
It is our choice. The spring of hope or the winter of despair? We have everything before us.
–Marcus W. Norris