Whether the hurt is caused by the people in the church or leadership itself, pain is inevitable within the church. Really, pain is inevitable in every relationship and every organization, because sin pervades the human experience. Christians are humans too, and not immune to sin. We have a Forgiver, and One who trains us out of sinful thoughts and behaviors, but we are sinners who, as long as we breathe air, will continue to be trained and shaped and made new one piece at a time. We still sin, which means we inevitably, cause hurt and experience pain when others cause hurt to us.
When Church Upheaval Happens
Churches experience upheaval, division, infighting, and even split up, sometimes over small stuff like what color the new carpets should be or whether or not drums are a holy instrument, and sometimes over bigger stuff like a divergence of doctrinal views or differing perspectives on the future direction of the church. Whatever the cause, however laughable something like carpet color may seem, the division and fighting it causes is hardly funny.
Our own church is currently navigating upheaval that burst to the surface this year. The emotional demands of the newly arrived pandemic this spring were complicated by the explosion of our church family at the same time. Normally, the church is meant to serve as an anchor and safe place in such storms as pandemics, recessions, or political unrest. Instead, we were rocked by our own internal storm. Shock, fear, and mistrust rippled through our church body as unexpected announcements were made about leadership being relieved of their duties.
Our hearts sank and our heads spun. Leadership on both sides were virtually silent for months, giving only broad strokes and vague tidbits if giving any information at all. A mediation team became involved, working to bring two sides of leadership to unity. That’s all we knew. In the absence of information, speculation was rampant. Rumors circulated. Finally, after eight months, just before Christmas, the second bomb was dropped: agreement could not be reached, and our lead pastor would no longer be with us.
Emotions run high, speculation sprawls to every corner of the church and invades each home. Husbands and wives discuss their thoughts and opinions, rehashing whatever information they have and come to their own conclusions about what “should have happened”. Factions form quickly, each member feeling pressure to choose sides. Even those trying to hold fast to the middle ground find their actions and opinions being sifted and assigned to a side by others. This is difficult not just for congregants, either. Staff and leadership, perhaps more than anyone, feel a pressure to choose a side and buckle in.
In such emotional times, it can feel immensely difficult to know what to think, who to talk to, or how to talk about it. Should we talk about it? How? With who? How can we know when our conversations are edifying others and honoring God, or when they’re causing more harm than help?
We’re wired to want to talk to each other, and that’s good. Here’s the thing. Words are immensely powerful, affecting people’s thoughts, emotions, and actions, and those effects ripple into the spiritual world and eternity, so it’s infinitely important to consider how we talk to others about anything, but especially about difficult and painful things.
Before we can look at how to talk about church division in a God-honoring way though, we need to look at why we want to talk about it.
Let’s face it, when emotions run hot and our hearts are pounding, we lose objectivity.
Even as the logical side of our brain steps back and lets the emotional take over, the desire to speak can be strong. Especially if you feel like the words will help solve the problem or exact justice, holding them in can feel irresistible. It’s a physiological thing that happens in our brains in reaction to stress like church division and the real or perceived threats to choose sides can activate the fight, flight, or freeze impulse, release adrenaline, and “prime you do to battle.”
Small wonder then that God’s wise advice is that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19,20 NIV)
Before allowing ourselves to speak about the issue, it’s important to assess why we feel the need. The physiological reaction that primes us to fight is not reason enough to mobilize words, nor is it the core reason we want to do it. Beneath the adrenaline and instinct are even more powerful behavior modifiers: the motives of our heart.
Before We Talk About How… Let’s Ask Why
There are lots of reasons we want to discuss church division. Some reasons are good – to understand what’s happening, to know how to pray for the church and its leaders, to make informed decisions about whether or not to take that job at the church after all.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll also admit that when something big like this goes down, other reasons factor in. Let’s face it, we want to be accepted by others. We want them to think we’re in the know, that we have the inside track, or that we have connections they don’t, so they’ll think we’re important. Such a motivation might sound like this: “I spoke with this pastor and that leader…” “I can’t tell you the details, but I called a certain leader and here’s what I think about what’s going on” or, “I saw this coming three years ago…” When we hear these things tumbling out of our mouths, it should alert us to our motives, and make us ask, why did I say that? Was it necessary or helpful to the hearer? Did it serve to puff me up in some way?
Also, if we’re being honest about our motives, we don’t want to be left out, so we choose a side, share an opinion, or participate in conversations to be part of what’s going on. Even when someone outside of the church starts a conversation about it, we can feel pressured to talk lest we appear unaware, disconnected, or secretive for not discussing it openly.
One particularly alarming signal we should pay close attention to is if the current church division is activating some old resentments we didn’t even realize were lying dormant all this time. If every time we think or talk about the strife in our church family we can hardly resist taking out that old rusty axe and grinding it on this new, yet similar problem, we should recognize that impulse as an indicator of healing that needs to happen in us.
When any of these are even faintly and distantly possible motives for our speech, the most appropriate way to talk about it is with God, and our request to Him needs to be first and foremost that our motives are purified. Only after that purification and healing has been addressed in us should we dare to consider how we can help solve the current troubles by talking about them.
How Can We Talk About It?
If we’re wired for communication, and need help sorting out our thoughts and feelings about something, we definitely should talk about it … right?
Not necessarily. Not at first, anyway.
As a Jesus follower, our first and final duty is to align our thoughts and emotions with God’s thoughts. We cannot do that by verbalizing our unfiltered thoughts to others. The first place we need to bring our worries, wishes, and wit, is to God.
This is absolutely not abstract or trite, this is highly practical and requires the same thing talking to a human about it does: sit down one-on-one with God in a way you can talk privately and uninterrupted. Then, verbally or in writing, tell him your thoughts and feelings. Let Him listen patiently and remember He delights in those He loves. Tell Him what you need, letting it come out of you like lava. Then, having spent yourself, turn your mind toward Him. How has He provided for you personally in the past? How has He protected? Intervened? Guided? Breathe deeply and let your mind count the things. As you do, a miracle will happen in your heart – maybe even in your body: as you remember God’s trustworthiness and how He walked with you through so many trials, you’ll remember you can trust Him even now. Your heart will feel lighter, your shoulders will unclench a bit. You will experience a degree of peace. I promise. Actually, God promises. Right here. (For more on God’s 3-step process to peace in the midst of anxiety, see that post here.)
Processing church chaos with God isn’t something that happens on Monday for fifteen minutes, and then you’re ready to blab to friends about it the next day. This is not a box to check, it is a process. Before we go off halfcocked shooting words around, we need to make sure our own hearts and motives are clean. As we spend time with God, He inevitably shows us where we need to first address the logs in our own eyes before we go about pulling specks out of others’. (Matt 6:42) Let that process take place. Be willing to look in the mirror, acknowledge the log, and work with Jesus to get it the heck out of there.
All the while, it may be very wise to avoid joining in conversations about the chaos your church is in.
Does That Mean I Can’t Talk About It? To anyone? …EVER??
Absolute silence is not the answer. We need to talk about things to work through issues - and should! - but with wisdom and extreme caution. Because when words are as powerful as they are, and can infect people’s hearts, and affect their eternity, we’d better be sure we’re doing our best to care not only for our personal relief of pressure, but for their well-being too. Besides all that, Jesus will hold us accountable for every careless word we speak.(Matt 12:36 NASB) This is important, and worth careful consideration.
If we need to talk out messy things that requires our spilling of doubts and resentments to another human, it should only be done to a very limited number (1-2) who are known for their rock solid faith (so they won’t be rattled or confused by our doubts) and who know not to pass along our comments thereby spreading our confusion and hard feelings we share with them. Also this person needs to be one who will not only listen and understand but will intentionally point us to God and His word as the source of wisdom as to how to move forward.
Even in the strife and chaos of church division, there is much to be hopeful about. Every challenge is an opportunity to embrace whatever newness God will bring through this. It is an opportunity to learn and be purified as individuals and as a church.
It may encourage us to remember that God is not surprised by any of the church upheaval that’s happening right now. Even while we were all celebrating the places God was leading us and the good things he was blessing us with, He knew this was coming. And, in the words of Job, should we accept only good things from God’s hand and not bad? (Job 2:10 NIV) Of course we should accept this as from God, and to address it that way - not resisting or resenting it, but being willing to let it teach and shape us more into his image.
The first opportunity to be shaped and transformed more into the likeness of Christ lies in our own desire and ability to control our minds and tongues, making them obedient to Him.
PS: If you're on the listening end of such a conversation, and wondering how to encourage your friends when they're pouring out their heart to you, this post will help you meet them where they're at in a way that really helps.
 NCBI, Amy Arnsten, Carolyn M. Mazure, and Rajita Sinha, 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4774859/
 Leon F Seltzer, Psychology Today, 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/%C3%A9volution-the-self/201507/trauma-and-the-freeze-response-good-bad-or-both