It is always a tragedy when a church is torn apart by conflict, but the tragedy is compounded when that conflict is splayed all over the news media. It is even more tragic when you realize this scenario plays out the over and over again in church after church after church on a daily basis.
That great philosopher and social commentator Yogi Berra once described a situation by saying, "It's like déjà vu all over again." That is exactly what went through my mind today when I read several articles about the conflict currently happening at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville. As I read I kept thinking, "I know these people. I've heard this before. I've lived this before."
Two Rivers is a large church, but it is not a "megachurch" as it was described in news articles. They average about 1,500 people on a weekend which by modern standards is not all that large. It is well known because it is where many Southern Baptist leaders and executives worship (Nashville is home to the SBC's Executive Committee, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Lifeway Christian Resources, the denomination's publishing and distribution arm). Dr. Jerry Sutton has been the Senior Pastor at Two Rivers for the last 21 years. In 2006 he ran for SBC president and finished third in a field of three that included himself, Dr. Ronnie Floyd and Dr. Frank Page, who was the surprise winner of the election.
According to the news reports, a group of people in the church are trying to force Dr. Sutton's resignation or termination. The group seeking to remove the pastor is led by a former church trustee who was recently expelled from the church by an "overwhelming" vote of the congregation. Despite that action, the group is undeterred and is currently circulating a petition to force a vote to remove Sutton.
Reading the articles - especially those in the secular media - it is hard to discern what the issues are. If you have ever been a part of a nasty church conflict you know that the issues that are identified publicly as the key issues are rarely, if ever, the real issues. The real issues are most often power, authority, loss of trust and issues related to change. The publicly identified issues are most often smokescreens.
The dissident group has a website (which is all the rage now in cases like this) but it crashed earlier this week, a fact which I'm sure is fodder for conspiracy theorists among the group. The site enumerated the concerns of the group seeking the pastor's removal. They included "steady decline in membership," "lack of accountability in finances," "poor stewardship of God's people," "authoritarian style church management," "rapid turnover rate of church staff in the past 10 years," "lavish lifestyle and receptions," "questionable allegations," and "serious communication issues."
The Nashville Tennessean reported that the dissident group is "older, long-term members who attend the traditional service."
Two Rivers has recently started a contemporary service which was scheduled to move this coming Sunday from the Chapel to the main worship center. Pastor Sutton was quoted as saying "We know that because of the demographics in the city, we're having to change some of our ministries. And I suspect that some of the change is part of what is driving the conflict, quite honestly. The contemporary service is at the top of the list."
According to an article on Forbes.com, the expelled former trustee said the crux of the problem is that Two Rivers "appears to have been manipulated from a people-led church to a staff-run church."
The funny thing about church messes is that even when you are in the middle of it, it's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Everyone in the conflict thinks they are right. Everyone in the conflict thinks they are doing God a favor by contending for the faith. Everyone in the conflict thinks that God is on their side. And usually, everyone in the conflict is acting in an unbiblical and unchristian manner toward those on the opposite side.
One thing is for sure: The loser in any church conflict - especially when it is allowed to escalate outside the four walls of the church into the news media - is the reputation of the people involved, the reputation of the church in the community, the reputation of the Gospel, and ultimately the reputation of the Lord Jesus. The world is looking at us to see what Jesus is like and when we act like idiots, the world assumes that Jesus could not possibly be who He claimed to be if His followers are like this.
The statistics are sobering: 75% of congregations say they experience conflict regularly. 40% of pastors report a serious conflict within the church at least monthly. Nearly one-fourth of pastors have been terminated or forced to resign. Nearly two-thirds of forced-out pastors said the church that dumped them had also forced out previous pastors. 41% percent said the church had done so more than twice. Only 20% of terminated pastors said the real reason for their leaving was made known to the congregation.
It is never a matter of if your church will have serious conflict, it is a question of when. Bill Hybels says "The popular concept of unity is a fantasyland where disagreements never surface and contrary opinions are never stated with force. We expect disagreement, forceful disagreement. So instead of unity, we use the word community. The mark of community — true biblical unity — is not the absence of conflict. It’s the presence of a reconciling spirit.”
Our job is spread abroad the fame and renown of the Lord's name. All too often we do just the opposite: we bring shame upon His name. God sent Nathan the prophet to King David to confront him after his sin with Bathsheba. When David confessed, he was assured that God had forgiven his sin, but told him he would have to bear the consequences of that sin because his public failure had harmed God's reputation.
David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan answered, "The Lord has taken away your sin. You will not die. But what you did caused the Lord's enemies to lose all respect for him. For this reason the son who was born to you will die." (2 Sam 12:13-14 NCV)
To paraphrase Santayana, when we fail to learn from church history, we are doomed to repeat it. In literally hundreds of churches in every denomination right now we are repeating it. And as we fail to live out what we claim to believe the world finds itself in agreement with Mahatma Gandhi who said "I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."