Churches, Covenants, and Hard Conversations

Wedding

It’s the season for weddings. Kate and I have been to four in just the last month, including the wedding for Kate’s sister, which we hosted in our backyward.

My favorite part of a wedding — besides the cake, obviously — is when the bride and groom read vows that they have prepared themselves. They reach into their pockets and pull out a folded-up piece of paper, from which they read handwritten lines that strain to articulate just how much this precious person means to them. The words are from the heart. But in truth there’s not enough paper in the world to capture everything they’re feeling in that moment.

Last weekend we attended the wedding of two dear friends. What impressed, especially from a couple so young, was that they both included in their vows a commitment to having hard conversations. This struck me as remarkably clear-sighted, since, based on my own experience at the altar, it’s easy to believe that there will only ever be bliss and contentment. In that luminous moment, it’s possible to believe that the struggles that plague “ordinary” couples will somehow pass you by.

When they got married, my two friends made a covenant with each other, before God and their community. That covenant doesn’t exempt them from difficult conversations — it sanctifies those conversations. The covenant relationship binds them together, even during the inevitable hard times. Their covenant keeps them mutually accountable to the health of the relationship. And it makes it safe to disagree, even profoundly disagree…because they know the other person isn’t going anywhere.

 

The Power of Difficult Conversations

We have arguments in the Church, too, of course. On this side of heaven, we will never all agree on everything. Many of our disagreements are about small things, but some of them are about very big things.

I used to think that the Church disagreed too much. But lately I’ve been thinking that we disagree too little. Or, more accurately, I’m starting to believe that having hard conversations needs to be part of the day-in-day-out life of a Christian community. There are at least three reasons why (none of which are that I love a good argument):

  1. Difficult conversations imply proximity. Scripture says that followers of Jesus constitute a new family. Something in my spirit isn’t satisfied with only seeing this family for two hours on a Sunday morning. I want more. I want us to find ways to weave our lives closer together into a Christ-centered community characterized by everyday generosity, hospitality, simplicity, equality, healing, risk, beauty, and peace. But the closer we get the more likely it is that we will annoy and offend each other. And yet I don’t see disagreements as the “flip side” of community; they are part-and-parcel with it. Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, has said that “God does not call together groups of people who are naturally adapted to one another. He calls people who are very different in their origins, customs and ways of thinking and He asks them to live together because they believe in Jesus Christ.”
  1. Difficult conversations provide opportunities for reconciliation. Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder wrote, “To be human is to be in conflict, to offend and to be offended.” But “in conflict” is not where we have to remain. Though we live in an age where everything that can be shattered will be shattered, Christians are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation — a word derived from the Latin meaning “to bring back together.” In a throwaway society, the Church’s commitment to putting back together relationships, souls, neighborhoods, watersheds, etc. that might otherwise be abandoned as irredeemable is a prophetic witness to the Love and Mission of God.
  1. Conversations are at the heart of the life of faith. More and more, I think of the spiritual life as a series of overlapping conversations: with God, Scripture, Christian tradition, the natural world, other believers, our neighbors, culture and ideas, history, and with ourselves. As an introvert, the thought of so many conversations should exhaust me — but somehow it doesn’t. It’s actually thrilling. My favorite passages in the New Testament are the ones in which disciples have gathered to talk in low voices — walking on the road to Emmaus, in a house behind locked doors — and then Jesus suddenly appears. And one of my favorite scenes from pop culture is Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, talking to God as he works in his barn: “Oh, dear Lord. You have made many, many poor people.” (I want that kind of conversational relationship with God.) In fact, in some ways, I feel like I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to recapture the kinds of conversations I had when I was younger — conversations that closed down coffee shops, waffle houses, fast food joints, and pubs; or sitting around a campfire talking with friends about things so true that they can only be talked about around a campfire with friends.

 

How Churches Usually Handle Disagreements

Without a commitment to having hard conversations, and without healthy outlets for them, disagreements can be terrifying. They can seem like the end of the world, especially in the rarified atmosphere of our churches.

Here are some ways Christians often deal with disagreements in their congregations. I have seen them all firsthand and been guilty of them all too.

  1. We disagree only in public. We lob “truth bombs” at each other on blogs, on social media, on mailing lists, in listservs, and through open letters. We create and sign petitions. We organize boycotts.
  1. We disagree only in special forums. We keep things bottled up until an annual denominational gathering. In the meantime, we form coalitions.
  1. We talk only to our pastor. Whether our issue is with the sermon, worship music, seating arrangements, or the food at a potluck, we bring it all to the pastor. So the pastor (and the pastor’s family) becomes the dumping ground for all our squabbles and complaints.
  1. We talk only to the people who agree with us. We form cliques and organize factions. We hold secret meetings. We gossip. Gossip is a termite that undermines the foundation of trust in a community.
  1. We let our money do the talking for us. We withhold our tithes to send a message. We hold the ministry of the church, and even the livelihoods of its staff people, financially hostage.
  1. We don’t say anything at all. Sometimes it’s for the sake of unity. But other times, it’s for the sake of personal safety. Who wants to be the squeaky wheel?
  1. We split. We leave or we are kicked out. One way or another, fellowship is broken.

 

Covenants and Conversations

It doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to form strategic alliances or send veiled messages. We don’t even have to dis-member the Body of Christ. We can create a culture of rich dialogue, even around our disagreements. We can cultivate community conversations marked by gracious space and spacious grace.

This unity is possible because we are bound by a covenant, just like my newlywed friends. Not only have we committed ourselves to each other as members of local churches and denominations, we are bound together and with God by a covenant stronger than anything we can form on our own. Jesus is the mediator of this new covenant. Forsaking all others, God has become our God and we have become God’s people. What God has joined together let no man tear asunder.

This doesn’t mean that we will agree on everything. We hope for consensus. We wait expectantly on consensus. But until that happens, we love each other. Our covenant relationship makes it possible for us to have conversations that are vulnerable, leavened with tenderness, and accountable to one another…because we’re not going anywhere. It’s only in this safe space that we can do the hard, holy work of learning to talk and listen to each other well.

 

Image Credit: Flickr user Timothy Marsee

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