I unexpectedly found myself on several rural backroads during a recent road trip.
My GPS had rerouted me to avoid an accident on the interstate, so I took advantage of the opportunity to look for locally owned restaurants and to observe church signs, a habit which is both frustrating and informative.
I noticed what appeared to be a new digital church sign framed in red brick highlighting a message that read, “Join us this Sunday for Old Time Worship and Revivalistic Preaching.” The name on the flashing high tech sign was Heritage Baptist Church.
I couldn’t help but smile when I noticed another church next door with a traditional painted sign, which identified it as New Vision Baptist Church.
Admittedly, I don’t know the history of the two churches. But my mind immediately went to a scenario I’ve seen unfold far too often. A church divides between those who hold fast to the ways things have always been and those who want to explore new methodologies. One group stays and the other group leaves.
Interestingly, if the two churches have a shared history, it seems that New Vision remained at the older campus and Heritage appeared to have built a new facility.
Through the years, I have spotted New Covenant Church just down the road from Covenant Church. I have seen Sovereign Grace Church a short distance from Grace Baptist Church. And I snapped a photo of Upper Spring Creek Church just upstream from Spring Creek Church.
As I continued driving on this alternate route, I recalled a painting I saw years ago in restaurant in north Alabama that depicted a beautiful rural scene accented by two churches.
New Hope no. 1 was on the left and New Hope no. 2 was on the right. A creek ran behind both churches, implying converts from both churches were baptized in those common waters. And between the two churches was New Hope Cemetery, where members of both churches were buried.
In many cases, when New Hope splits into two churches, they offer no hope to their community for the long-term. They may survive, but they seldom thrive.
Throughout my years as a pastor, I have tried to nurture a church culture where heritage and new vision collaborate and cooperate in the same fellowship. When heritage and vision separate, both are left lacking.
Historian Daniel J. Boorstin contends, “Planning for the future without a sense of history is like planting cut flowers.”
What causes heritage and vision to separate? Usually, it is not one thing but a progression of influences and actions that converge to cause such a division.
Here are seven factors that I have observed inciting church divisions:
- Decisions are made based on personal preference rather than spiritual discernment.
- Conflict arises when members talk about one another rather than with one another.
- Goals and measurements are based on a dated denominational scorecard rather than missional metrics.
- A church views other churches in their community as their competitors rather than as their colleagues.
- A church adopts a reactionary scheme to reach the missing generation rather than a proactive strategy for multigenerational ministry.
- A church fails to see its heritage and vision as partners, causing the two to become unwitting adversaries.
- A church stubbornly determines that they can deal with their division and conflict without assistance from an experienced and objective consultant and coach.
Churches can recover from fractures and deep divisions. It just takes longer and is more painful and more costly than prevention or intervention.
Community-building is hard work. Consensus-building is hard work. Conflict management is hard work. But they are all types of kingdom work.
My scenic drive became a parabolic adventure.
Interestingly, as I neared the end of my backroads detour and was within a short distance of returning to the interstate, there was another church sign for Happy Valley Baptist Church at one of the final intersections.
I don’t know anything about the history or culture of that church, or whether they live up to their name. But I did note they were still one church.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches. He and his wife, Amanda, live in Brookhaven, Georgia.