Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

Church Split Revisited: The Demonic?

A couple of conversations recently have me thinking about the GracePoint situation again. I’m thinking about the supernatural…of the evil sort.

The story behind how the GracePoint folks decided to leave the United Methodist Church reminds me of conflict I witnessed years ago between a missionary couple and the trustees of their mission organization. The missionaries and the board members were all deeply committed disciples of Jesus. They all prayerfully sought God’s guidance for resolution. They tried diligently to communicate with each other over a period of several months. The more they tried, the more entangled and confusing the conversations became and the more heartsick everyone felt. Finally, the missionary couple resigned, with resentment smoldering in their hearts over their sense that the board had misunderstood and misjudged them. The board felt exactly the same about the missionaries’ view of them.

I remember, at the time, saying to Joni, “I have never seen a situation in which Christian brothers and sisters tried harder to resolve conflict and yet grew further apart than this one.” It was mystifying to watch. And then the thought came: “Perhaps we are witnessing the activity of the demonic.”

More than 30 years ago I read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, so I risk a bad paraphrase (somebody correct me). In order to sabotage the new Christian’s faith Screwtape suggested a two-edged tactic to Wormwood: he could accomplish the aim either by getting the subject to see the Devil everywhere or by enticing him to think that the Devil doesn’t exist at all.

As I have learned more about the GracePoint situation, I’ve thought of that missionary conflict several times: sincere, sensitive Christians simply unable to gain clarity in conversation and to stay together. Such a result is truly tragic and, I think, an example of the manifestation of the demonic. No villains. Good people trying hard while watching things go south.

Now, I’m not trying to get anyone off the hook by attributing cause to the Devil. We are always responsible to God and to one another, whatever role Lucifer may or may not play. That caution in place, what might we Christ-followers gain during a church fight by taking pause and asking, “OK, what else might be going on here besides mere human misunderstanding? Is there an invisible, malevolent third party in the mix?”

There is no better tool to cause people to doubt the truth of the Gospel than an ugly church fight. We target and blame each other (actually, I’ve heard no blaming from either side re: GracePoint, but I have heard plenty of misunderstanding and heartache). Talking about instead of to people becomes a beachhead for speculation and suspicion. And this is precisely where the demonic does its best work.

I believe in the demonic. Sometimes, when we are squared off against each other, if we could remember the common enemy and check to see if perhaps its influence is being felt, we might make progress in the church conflict. (“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…”) And perhaps we could learn to be better witnesses thereby.

March 18, 2009 Posted by | General, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Another Church Split

I’m having a hard time writing this blog, because I have not yet talked to people involved in what I am about to cover. If you’re familiar with Kansas United Methodism, you’ve probably heard about the pastor, staff and bulk of the membership of a new church – GracePoint – leaving The UMC. The pastor turned in his credentials and took, according to Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, about 3/4 of the congregation to form a new church.

So, now there are two GracePoints: GracePoint Community Church and GracePoint United Methodist Church. There is a lot of hearsay about why the leaders and members did what they did. I have some ideas (that I think are pretty sound), but I’ll forgo that speculation and get to what I think needs attention.

I should also say that I have some extra-strong feelings about this matter because recently I have become interim pastor for two small congregations in Arkansas City, Kansas. Most of one congregation and about half of the other one left their UMC congregations in anger over perceived mistreatment of their pastor (who had been removed by official denominational action) and the annual conference’s lack of concern for these two congregations. I am witness to the fallout from church splits. That said, here are my thoughts:

1. Nobody wins in a church split. Nobody is helped. The Body of Christ is depleted and demoralized, period.

2. The people who leave think they’re leaving problems behind. They aren’t. Inevitably, every congregation has conflict and when that happens, the folks who left won’t be able to blame the United Methodist Church, the annual conference, the bishop, some board, or anybody else. I hope, when that moment comes, that the leavers will be able to look themselves in the eye and consider their ways. It is the only way they’ll grow.

3. When people leave, they leave behind wounded, confused friends. They leave their friends! How people leave makes all the difference in the world. If you’re going to leave, talk to your friends and authority figures before you do. Have some courage. Be honest. Take care for the Body of Christ, even if you think God is calling you to leave and especially if you think the other parties (including the bishop, the annual conference, et. al.) are at fault. Let me repeat: how people leave makes all the difference.

3.a. Years ago, while in graduate school, I was on staff of a UM Church in a Chicago suburb. Some of the younger leaders were having trouble with the senior pastor and one by one, couple by couple, they began leaving. I had poured my heart into some of those people. When one more of them threatened to leave, I shouted (yes, I shouted), “You’re not just leaving ______ (the pastor’s name and the object of their anger). You’re leaving us!” Do relationships matter any more?

3.b. People who think of themselves as biblical Christians better pay attention to the whole Bible when deciding whether or not to leave. Have I said this already? How you leave matters. My biggest concern right now, given the fact that the recent split made the front page of the Sunday Wichita Eagle, is that we Christians are offering a bad witness to the world. Our words about unity and love are hollow, hypocritical. Shame on us.

4. People who leave angry need to check, double-check and check again the status and condition of their hearts. Bitterness is self-destructive and will affect the quality of their spiritual lives, their lives in Christ. If they harbor anger, pride, arrogance or any other unholy affection, they will pay a spiritual price for the way they have handled this matter. God is not mocked.

Oh, Lord, by your mercy, heal the broken hearts.

March 11, 2009 Posted by | The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 3 Comments