Sarah Nicholas of The Colossian Forum introduces resources to help Christian leaders transform cultural conflicts into opportunities for spiritual growth and witness.
Polarization has penetrated churches of every denomination across North America. Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of several books on American religion, recently told Bloomberg, “I’ve been studying religion and religious congregations for 30 years. This is a level of conflict that I’ve never seen.”
So what’s changed?
I serve at a Christian ministry that has been studying this question for a decade (The Colossian Forum, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan). We’ve found a troubling yet motivating reality: Christians in divisions, tensions and conflicts too often forget their faith commitments, reflecting the world’s way of engaging disagreements.
How did we get here?
“We’ve been shaped by political debates and take our theology from CBC, CTV, Fox News or CNN,” says Michael Gulker, our co-founder and president. “So, pastors, despite their best intentions, often find themselves caught in polarized congregations and are not equipped to negotiate these sticky, complicated situations.”
In our research we’ve seen unchecked tensions and disagreements fester and:
- undermine church health
- demoralize pastors, some even leaving their churches
- pull well-meaning Christians away from their faith commitments
- shrink church growth, and
- erode Christian credibility and witness.
Our research reveals that pastors are under immense pressure to manage a near constant flow of controversies. They feel they can’t keep up or win, no matter what they say or do. This drives pastors and Christians everywhere to react in two ways: fight or flight. The resulting divisions tend to blow up or go entirely ignored.
We must – and can – do better. The good news is that the gospel provides us with the tools to face polarization head-on and become the kinds of people who stay in community with God and each other, rather than divide.
We have worked for years to help Christians go beyond accepting tense conversations to practising loving God and one another right in the middle of disagreement. We believe that disagreements provide fertile ground for truer, deeper discipleship in a Christian community. Engaging in tense, difficult conversations can be powerful for spiritual formation, just like sitting together in prayer. Hard conversations can strengthen your congregations’ faith commitments and reinforce your church’s ability to be resilient and unified in Christ despite tensions, whether over policies, personalities or politics.
We’ve spent the last decade building on traditional Christian practices to develop a small-group framework that embodies the hope-filled proclamation of Colossians 1:17: “In Christ all things hold together.” The framework empowers believers with theologically rich, practical tools and skills to have disagreements in ways that not only allow them to hold on to their faith commitments, but to deepen love of God and neighbour as they do.
Small-group participants gather for ten weeks and practise loving God and one another while engaging challenging issues. We do this in the gospel-centred hope that we will witness the Body of Christ built up.
This hope flies in the face of conventional wisdom that talking about divisive topics will only drive us apart. We’ve found time and again that by engaging our disagreements as an act of worship, we invite the Holy Spirit into our deepest conflicts, reframing them as something that disciples us rather than divides us.
A church that does conflict well
That has been a goal for Westside Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Kingston, Ont. Driven by her own experiences of unresolved conflict serving a previous congregation, lead pastor Heidi De Jonge tackled this issue in her doctoral dissertation. “In order to become a church made up of people who are both able and willing to engage conflict well,” she says, “we need to try new ways of engaging conflict.”
So, to engage in that new way, Westside ran a Colossian Way small group on sexuality. This exercise is also preparing them to process and respond to their denominational Study Report of the Committee to Articulate a Foundation-Laying Biblical Theology of Human Sexuality, due to be discussed at their next denominational synod in 2022.
In her dissertation, De Jonge writes, “We didn’t just feel connected to God; God showed up. God showed up through the work that we did to have a good, hard conversation. But, even more than that, God showed up when our best attempts to have a good, hard conversation seemed to be failing.”
What if all churches became places that did conflict well? What if people could look to churches as models – places that engage conflict in ways that honor God and his people? We would see God’s Kingdom bursting forth on earth.
We would live into the gospel promise given in Simeon’s blessing in Luke 2: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
About The Colossian Forum
The Colossian Forum equips Christian leaders to transform cultural conflicts into opportunities for spiritual growth and witness. A decade ago, we grew from one pastor’s highly personal story of conflict. He is not alone. Working closely with thousands of pastors across denominations, we understand the tensions church leaders face between their missional priorities and the financial, practical and cultural pressures surfaced by conflicts their communities face.
Our method is practice-based, theologically rich, and unapologetically Christian. We believe theology matters. We also believe it needs to help pastors and other leaders on the ground, solving the everyday problems of their ministry. That’s why we’ve assembled rich practices of the Christian tradition into practical, hands-on tools they can use when disagreements arise – tools that help them and their community see conflicts as the very occasion for their missional work, not a distraction from it.
We offer leadership development and training and small group curricula on today’s most divisive topics, including origins, politics, sexuality, and women and men. Learn more at colossianforum.org.
To fortify and bring healing to your church, download a free curriculum sample on the topic of your choice: Origins, Sexuality, or Political Talk.
Sarah Nicholas is vice president of marketing and communications at The Colossian Forum. Photo of puppets fighting by Frank Busch on UnSplash. This blog series is produced in collaboration with the WEA PRN. Read all the posts at faithtoday.ca/reconciling.