In a customer-oriented society obsessed with consumerism and entertainment, Western Christians have lost their ability to be content.
Churches are expected to provide products and services, where worship styles, start times, and preaching methods are supposed to cater to our individual wants and needs — we expect perfection, and when it inevitably doesn’t happen, we create conflict.
Our desire to critique and confront everything we view as being wrong, combined with our insatiable appetite for drama, has created the perfect environment for controversy. Since we’re the customers, we assume we’re always 100 percent right — or should be treated as though we are — even when we’re not. Church leaders now spend more time trying to placate parishioners than they do facilitating world-changing ministry.
Church offices have turned into customer service call centers, and church leaders spend much of their time as crisis-management experts. Instead of being valued and esteemed spiritual mentors, pastors and elders are often corporate punching bags for complaints, grumbling, anger, and hatred.
Contrary to having a reputation of being positive and loving, Christians are portrayed as negative pessimists who are anti everything: anti-abortion, anti-Democrat, anti-evolution, anti-environment, anti-women, anti-homosexuality, anti-global warming — the list is depressingly long.
Not only is this unattractive to the secular world around us, but it’s also affecting our spiritual communities. Increasingly, it’s hard to find a church that hasn’t gone through some sort of major internal conflict within the past decade, and almost every church and denominational split has been the result of controversy and division — not inspiration.
Christian blogs read like the pages of gossip columns, where speculation and personal attacks run rampant. The most popular web posts, books, speakers, theologians, and pastors are, well, controversial! In many ways, controversy is a valued commodity within Christian culture — used as a strategic marketing tool to gain publicity.
We love when Mark Driscoll drops in unannounced at major conferences, we enjoy listening to John Piper talk about tornados, we can’t wait to hear the hyperbolic reaction to anything Rob Bell says, we find fulfillment in condemning Westboro Baptist, and we think Pat Robertson’s quotes are horrifyingly — yet we can’t look away.
Theologians and pastors seemingly make a living disagreeing with one another. Instead of being a gospel of unification, we use Jesus to divide and conquer.
Obviously, not all controversy is bad. The Bible was full of it, and Jesus certainly didn’t avoid it, and in many ways he even created it! But his type of controversy was deeper, more meaningful, and revolved around things that mattered — like saving humanity from sin. Jesus promoted service, sacrifice, and love, and condemned anything inconsequential that got in the way.
Avoiding controversy is often just as unhealthy as being addicted to it, and many churches go to the far extreme of presenting a false facade of perfection, holiness, and spirituality in an attempt to hide their problems — hypocritically living a carefully constructed lie.
Recently, many churches — and their leaders — sinfully neglected the very real problem of sexual abuse, and a consistent policy of avoidance led to a horrendous environment of cover-ups, injustice, and suffering. There was no accountability in these cases, and confrontation and conflict should’ve happened but didn’t — until it was too late.
Unfortunately, superficial conflict is so rampant among Christians that the very meaningful, important, serious, and healthy types of conflict get lost in the noise. In a Christian world where maliciousness, complaining, and gossip are commonplace, the bigger issues suddenly get ignored, avoided, or overlooked.
Ironically, avoiding conflict often leads to more conflict. When minor altercations and feuds go unchecked, they snowball into firestorms of destruction, taking entire churches down with them.
Great leaders have the ability to differentiate between what really matters and what is simply fluff — and effectively handling both. Doing this takes an amazing amount of skill, patience, tact, support, and risk, but in the end its worth the time and energy.
The healthiest spiritual communities foster honesty, openness, accountability, an acceptance of interpersonal conflict, and the ability to engage and resolve conflict in fair and positive ways—even if it’s painful and hard.
Many people have abandoned Christianity not because of a disbelief in Christ or the gospel, but simply because they’re sick of a Christian culture inundated with infighting, political bickering, power struggles, squabbling, and incessant conflict.
As wars rage, genocide happens, starvation destroys, diseases spread, abuse continues, violence goes unchecked, and injustice is everywhere, Christians are foolishly distracted by trivial theological differences — failing to recognize or help the hurting world around us. God help us.
Stephen Mattson has contributed for Relevant Magazine and the Burnside Writer's Collective, and studied Youth Ministry at the Moody Bible Institute. He is now on staff at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. Follow him on Twitter @mikta.
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