Conflict makes life interesting.
For a lot of my friends, that sounds like a ludicrous statement. Most of them are either employed by or deeply involved in church life, and the word conflict dredges up images of interminable board meetings and Sunday school revolts. Conflict in that setting is a hindrance to ideals like peace and unity, not to mention another wearying factor to manage in a congregation.
Nevertheless, conflict in a broader sense makes life interesting. Every human culture at every point in recorded history has played games—two or more opponents trying to win a competition in which something is at stake, from bragging rights at the daycare to the honor of being sacrificed to the gods. In true American fashion, entities like ESPN and the NFL have parlayed friendly conflict into cash machine empire.
And who wants to read a book or watch a movie in which everyone gets along? Jerry Seinfeld’s show about nothing (which, if you watch closely, really was about much more than that) notwithstanding, a good story needs conflict. A character has to want something that is not simply handed to her. The interest of the story lies in the overcoming of the conflict.
Still, not all conflict is created equal. An argument over which brand of toilet paper to buy may be conflict, but certainly not of the attention-grabbing sort. For a conflict to really be interesting, something big has to be at stake. Otherwise, we end up with the same bizarre, petty script that gets played out day after day on reality television.
And in churches.
I have lived with churches in conflict, sometimes as pastor and sometimes as Joe Pewsitter. In both cases, I often wonder if our biggest problem is that our conflicts are too small. Members of the same ladies’ circle will come to blows over flower arrangements. Grown men will bare their teeth over carpet installation in the sanctuary.
Or, as we saw earlier this month at General Conference, otherwise sane Christian leaders will grandstand and finger point over ordination and sexuality, as if the very salvation of the world hinged on that one question. Or bitterly fight with one another over language involving job security for pastors.
These are conflicts, but they are not (or at least no longer) interesting ones. We still fight diseases of poverty, most notably malaria. We still respond well when natural disaster strikes. But the amount of time and energy we spend on such things pales in comparison to our arguments over who has jurisdiction over the parlor.
Our conflicts, by and large, are far too small.
Perhaps what we need—in both our churches and individual lives—is not another mechanism for coping with conflict. Perhaps we would be better served by looking for a greater conflict, one that matters.
This Sunday, four people were baptized at the church my family attends. Each one was asked, among other things, “Will you seek justice and resist evil in whatever form it presents itself?” It was a reminder to me of the scope of our pledge as Christians: to refuse to incorporate with evil, to fight it with every fiber of our being.
And to fight it collectively, as a church. Regardless of the color of our new carpet.