I was reading the book Worship in the Way of the Cross. I turned a page, saw the section title “Interpersonal Cruciformity,” and wondered “Why does a book on worship have a section on interpersonal relations?” I thought, “I guess this is a topic the author is passionate about, so he stuck it in. I wonder how he will make it look like it fits?”
John Frederick’s book is a practical book rooted and framed theologically. He is scholar-practitioner, a Ph. D. in New Testament with extensive experience as a worship pastor. He leans heavily on Michael Gorman’s excellent work on Paul’s theology of the cross. I don’t want this to turn into a book review. I will just mention one thing that may entice you to check the book out yourself. He writes about the role of worship in challenging the myth of redemptive violence and reorienting us to an alternative. Okay, back to the interpersonal section.
I began the section thinking it was a tangent—assuming it would be well done because John is a good writer, but still a tangent. I ended the section saying, “John is right. It is not a tangent. Actually we need chapters like this in most ministry books.” What caused my perspective to change? To answer that I need to, briefly, share a recent experience.
Grace Spencer, a current student, is also a scholar-practitioner. She is involved in a church plant, high school ministry, and practices restorative justice as a mediator for VORP. She is an MA Theology student passionately exploring connections between atonement theology and attitudes and practices of justice. One question she has brought up is: Why are so many Christians conflict-averse? Why do they view conflict as inherently sinful?
As I work on a book on bounded, fuzzy and centered approaches to church, I have interviewed many practitioners, including a weekend of focus groups at The Meeting House in Toronto. A group of pastors and home church leaders there were recounting experiences of loving confrontation done in a centered way. One of them said, “People are afraid of conflict. One of the things that pulls our groups in a fuzzy direction is aversion to conflict.” I immediately thought of Grace’s question, and made a note: “Have a chapter on conflict aversion in the book.”
A few pages into John’s section on interpersonal relationships, I thought back to that moment in Ontario and Grace’s question. My perspective changed. He has recognized that conflict-aversion, passive-aggressiveness, and heavy-handed coercive leadership hinder churches’ worship experience. He writes about relations between the worship leader and others on the worship team, others in the congregation, and others on the pastoral team. He shares positive and negative examples. He states:
“Holy Scripture beckons us not to the cultivation of politically correct discourse and dishonest communication but instead to its crucifixion so that we can live according to a new narrative of truth-telling. We are called . . .into the new creation culture of compassionate, charitable honesty. . . Yet we continue to promote as a virtue dishonestly withholding truth as a mechanism of avoiding interpersonal conflict in the church” (108-109).
I write this blog for a number of reasons. First, as an exhortation, let’s do what John has done and reflect on conflict-aversion in relation to an area of ministry we are involved in. Second, I hope it might stimulate further thought for you as it has for me. Third, I want to share two of those thoughts, and then lastly ask for your help and input.
John Frederick writes, “Far too often, in the name of what I thought was Christlike deference and being laid back, I allowed volunteer musicians in the congregation to engage in problematic and immature behavior without any critique or consequence” (115). For instance, a drummer, on the schedule for a particular Sunday, had come to rehearsal, but did not show up that Sunday—and gave no indication to anyone that he would not be there. John makes clear he is not advocating for a heavy-handed approach to dealing with situations like that. He asks what is the way of the cross? He shares some examples of well thought-out, carefully-worded, centered responses to situations like this. As I read I thought, most readers will probably agree, conflict aversion and fuzziness are problematic in a situation like that. I also think, however, that many will put a drummer not showing up in a different category than most things going on in the everyday lives of people involved in church. Yet, I wonder how many actions and attitudes that go unaddressed are in their own way more problematic to the life and mission of the church than the drummer not showing up. As Michael King points out, shadow impulses easily run amok, and fuzzy groups too readily allow destructive expression of those impulses (Trackless Wastes & Stars to Steer By, 128).
In the discussion at The Meeting House we equated conflict aversion and fuzziness. Rightfully so. As I think about it, however, a bounded approach and conflict aversion also go together. A bounded church must pay attention to things in the line, but it does not have to address other issues. It allows, even encourages, not confronting things not forming the line. Also, although at times some confrontation is demanded in a bounded church, it does not have to be the loving confrontation that John described. He was concerned not just about the line, the infraction, but about the person, the person’s relationship with the center and with the community.
I am conflict-averse myself. This blog is a challenge to me. I will write a chapter on it in my book not from the standpoint of expertise, but with the conviction that it is important. Like other chapters in the book, it will be short. I will raise the issue and point to resources. I know of books on methods of conflict resolution, but I also want to point readers to resources on dealing with the fear of conflict. Back to Grace’s question. Why do so many Christians view conflict as a bad thing, and what can we do to change that? Please let me know if you are aware of resources I can recommend to readers.