In the midst of the pandemic of conflict swirling through local churches in the 21st century, it is tempting to lose heart. Many do.
I have had heartbreaking conversations with scores of clergy and laity who have emerged from bruising local church conflicts filled with bitterness and disillusionment toward ministry and the church. Families that found great joy and inspiration from their local church are left scarred by the discord and brutality they have witnessed. Young people who once considered vocational ministry are now repulsed by the idea. Ministers who faithfully followed God’s leading and invested their lives in the church are left battered and bruised, wondering if they have, or even want, a future in ministry.
Is there a word of hope for such a time? Is there a way to see church conflict redemptively? Can our loss and failure be part of a larger story that is yet to be played out? Is there Kingdom work yet to be done for those who have been victimized by others? How about those who have been the antagonists?
Perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn and relearn in the midst of this era of conflict is that God is in the business of turning hopeless situations into triumphs, of turning our failures into his success, of shining light into darkness and of bringing life from death.
The Bible bears witness to the powerful truth of redemption. It begins with the amazing story of Joseph, which closes with that memorable line found in Genesis 50:20: “what you meant for evil, God meant for good.”
Throughout the story of the children of Israel, hopeless gives way to hope. Whether it is trapped on the shore of the Red Sea or staring into the face of a giant, God shows up with a way out. Later, Paul articulates a spiritual truth that permeates the Bible and our churches today: “in all things God works for good” (Romans 8:28).
Redemption is played out again and again, until finally, on the cross, the worst of the darkness and seemingly final defeat is turned into the ultimate victory.
Along the way, imperfect men and women who fail miserably are reborn to do great things for the kingdom. When it comes to biblical characters, deep personal flaws and shortcomings are the norm. Even so, failure and defeat rarely have the last word. God specializes in taking the least likely, the most dysfunctional, the chief tormentors and through the grace miracle of repentance and forgiveness gives them pivotal parts to play in his divine drama.
When significant conflict visits a local church, one word we must hold onto and cultivate is hope.
Whatever is happening or has happened to you and your church, God is still God. While the dark days and despair may seem to have the upper hand, the witness of the ages is that God is able to accomplish more than we can imagine even when it seems all is lost.
Our family recently had our own personal lesson in this regard. In the early hours of Sept. 11, on a day that is known appropriately as a reminder of loss, tragedy and evil, a new life came into the world to remind us that all is not lost. William Stanton Wilson was born that day, our first grandson, and his birthday will be a constant reminder for years to come that, even on a day that seems to declare that evil has triumphed, the ultimate victory of life is as close as a baby’s cry.
Perhaps there are new and good things being born in the midst of the conflict that surrounds us. God’s people know about redemption. Now we need to believe that it can happen to us. This is not just a story for others. To participate requires that we acknowledge our shortcomings, humbly repent and then avail ourselves of his grace.
When we do, then we, too, can be part of bringing good from evil, light from darkness, and life from death.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.