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Posts Tagged ‘reconciliation’

This is the eighth in a series of posts from research I have done about lay leadership training in the United Church of Canada. In the previous two posts and this one, I have been considering the context in which that training needs to happen — a context in which many churches are struggling to serve faithfully while their numbers (attendance, finances) are declining.

Some of the reasons for declining participation are rooted in broader cultural trends. Some, however, are self-inflicted.  Some people have left because they were bored or frustrated. The worship and programming that were offered did not engage them at a level to inspire their commitment to the church or its gospel. The governance structures were cumbersome. People wanting to take bold new initiatives were discouraged from doing so. They were told that they might upset those who held the reins of power or supported the budget. The superficiality of the issues and projects with which the congregation was pre-occupied gave them no compelling reason to stay. They left because they were looking for something profoundly more challenging than maintaining a social club.

Particularly devastating to a congregation’s ability to keep or attract people are church fights. If you were to ask a group of mainline Christians, “What is the heart of the gospel?”, they will tell you “Love one another.” Ask them, “What do you value most about your church?”, a majority of them will say, “The friendships I have there.” Nevertheless, most congregations have not developed constructive ways of dealing with the conflicts that inevitably arise in human communities. As congregations get more anxious, they tend also to get more reactive. The results are often conflicts that turn very ugly. People stay away.

Recently, a group of people from different congregations were discussing ways in which they could get young people to participate in their churches. Some of them were singing new styles of music in their worship services. Others spoke about the different kinds of programmes they had tried in their efforts to attract the interest of younger generations. Finally, one woman said, “We can try all sorts of things, but the real issue we have to face is that our young people see how we treat one another and they don’t want any part of it.” The young people did not expect congregations to be perfect. However, they were not going to get involved in a community where they have seen conflict descend into viciousness.

From the beginning of the church, communities of faith have experienced conflict. Much of the New Testament was written to congregations in trouble because of profound disagreements. Those conflicts provide a congregation to move more deeply into God’s grace and the gifts of forgiveness and reconciliation. Those are gifts that the world desperately needs as well. A church that understands itself to be participating in God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation can be a ‘demonstration project’ for others of the new life and the new kind of community that the Holy Spirit makes possible. As the church seeks to be an instrument of God’s peace, it will need to begin with learning what that means in its own relationships. Whatever training is provided for lay leaders will need to include ways of dealing constructively and responding creatively to the anxiety and the resulting conflict.

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A prayer based on John 20: 19-31

Reconciling God,
You invite us into life ruled by resurrection,
into your new country shaped by your grace,
into your transforming presence.
Break into our lives and speak your resurrection words
again and again until we receive your life-changing breath.
Break into the places where we need reconciliation;
into the places where we hide wounds that will not heal;
into the places where we cannot find peace.

Faithful God,
meet us with your Spirit’s healing power.
Restore your image in our lives and in our life together,
so that, through us, other may see the new creation
You make possible.
Let your peace flow among us and through us
into all the world.
We ask these things in the name of our crucified and risen Lord.

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