15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
There are a number of factors in our day that make it difficult to practice church life together in a healthy, vibrant, interdependent way. In the 21st century in America, most people would say that they are quite busy. The demands of work gobble up daytime (and sometimes evening) hours, and when sports and other activities for kids are thrown into the mix, there aren’t many minutes left in the day. Technology is a great blessing but also a curse, enabling or forcing us (depending on our point of view) to connect to work any time of day. Most people that I know lament that they have few deep friendships, but cannot conceive of a way to make time for them. Hospitality, that wonderful practice of inviting people into our homes, can feel exhausting when accompanied by the perceived duty to present an immaculate home, and understandably so – who wants to clean the house for five hours just to have someone over for a meal that we have to cook? Apart from these hurdles to genuine friendship and community is the fact that Americans are less and less likely to commit to a voluntary institution for a significant period of time (Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone noted this sociological reality a couple decades ago and it has only intensified). Carl Trueman has written that the automobile is one of the most significant inventions to impact the church of all-time: it allows people to move from one church to the next with little-to-no cost or inconvenience. While there are legitimate reasons to leave one church for another (heretical teachings, abusive leadership), the current milieu allows for church-hopping for all kinds of less-than-legitimate reasons, and one of the most prominent recently has been hurt feelings and strained relationships. The pandemic and accompanying loneliness, the political climate, and the recent racial tensions have created an environment where it is truly difficult to maintain relationships across divides in what we believe about all of the above.
Yet, in spite of all of this, I am confident that NAPC will endure and thrive in the midst of a difficult and divisive time. Our members have been steadfastly generous in the midst of tremendous uncertainty over the last year. We are clearing the ground for construction on our new building, the capital of which was, incredibly, committed during the same economically unpredictable time. As we continue to hold worship services, our people are slowly but surely returning in person. Perhaps you don’t feel ready yet for various legitimate reasons based on your personal conscience – no problem. But it is a great encouragement to welcome back with open arms people we haven’t seen in a year, and there is no love lost. I hold out great hope that we can continue to move towards the ideal Paul wrote about to the Ephesian churches: “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
One of the ways this will happen is by spending time together again. Our spring small group study begins April 18th – if you have not yet joined or rejoined a group and are ready to do so, contact us here.
Another way this will happen is by growing in the way that we relate to each other about our differences. This week, Brett Core, a member and leader at NAPC, led our staff in a training called “Crucial Conversations: Tool for Talking when the Stakes are High” based on the book so titled. The training is based on a very important reality: when we are in an intense, high-stakes conversation, it is very easy to move from the rational to the reptilian part of our brain. Flooded with adrenaline, we often unconsciously move to fight-or-flight mode. We tend to either aggressively attack or silently withdraw, which typically results in the conversation ending badly and the issue remaining unresolved and unproductively addressed. This in turn can lead to avoiding the person we had the interaction with, and isolating or breaking the relationship. Brett had us take an online self-assessment where we answered 30 questions and then were given the results of the test. I tested high in both aggressiveness and withdrawal (yay!).
I have often framed this dilemma personally as either wimping out or manning up. If I avoid the difficult conversation, I am failing to do the courageous thing, but if I engage in the conversation in an aggressive way, I must be doing the right thing because I have faced that which is fearful and addressed the matter. One of the most important learnings for me from our training is that in reality, either approach ironically has the same effect – it fails. If we avoid the conversation, we don’t address the matter. But if I come in hot, ready to debate aggressively, what usually ends up happening is the other person withdraws. In either scenario there is gridlock and alienation.
The training helped us see three things. First, if there is to be genuine connection and understanding between you and someone you have a deep disagreement with, it helps tremendously to be aware of your own emotions. If I notice that I am getting amped up over something, I can at least attempt to manage that feeling. Often we aren’t aware that our voice is rising and our posture is like a cat ready to pounce (but our conversation partner undoubtedly is!). Another important aspect of having productive conversations in intense situations is to understand our own goals for having the conversation. Am I trying to win a debate? Am I trying to understand their position? Am I working towards reconciliation? One of our staff noted that this was something particularly helpful to reflect upon prior to having a high stakes conversation. A final area of self-awareness: while we cannot control how our friend or colleague or family member behaves, we can certainly be aware of our own behavior and admit where we have done wrong. We can focus on how to respond well, even if they do not.
None of this means that we will be convinced of the merits of our friend’s position, or that they will convince us. But it might mean, if we practiced these things, that we could hang in there and maintain close friendships, healthy marriages, and mutually edifying church family relationships in spite of differences. If we are one body, united in the Gospel of Jesus and his authoritative Word, we ought to be able to withstand the rest. I trust the Lord will use the last year of trials and tribulations to make us stronger. I trust that He will enable us to “speak the truth in love” to one another more humbly and clearly. And I trust that we will increasingly grow to practice church life together in the way that God intends, sharing our lives together and encouraging one another in the pursuit of Christlikeness.
For His glory,