A View from the Pew: Upsetting the Congregation

I grew up in a pastor’s home, so I deeply understand the need to keep the peace in a church.

Most of the time, it’s counterproductive for folks to be riled up over this or that. And, certainly, there are issues that are not worth getting worked up over at all.

But there are times when it’s okay for the congregation to get upset. Like Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers in the temple, every now and then our churches need a good dose of righteous indignation, or at least some elevated awareness.

With apologies to pastors everywhere, here’s one lay person’s perspective on six times it’s good for the church to get up-in-arms:

Combating complacency. My former boss at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship frequently used to say, “There are two things Baptists don’t like—change and the same old thing.” If you surveyed your congregation right now, you would probably find that  most of the people are happy with the way things are. That can be good or bad depending on whether your church is faithfully fulfilling its calling in the community. If it’s not, someone should be upset. Spend some time with Revelation 3:14-22. If the church at Laodicea’s circumstances sound familiar, you may need to stoke the fire a little bit.

Responding to need. As the people of God, we are called to meet needs when we find them. They can be physical, tangible needs like food, clothing, or shelter. More likely in our relatively wealthy communities in the U.S., the needs are intangible: purpose, meaning, affirmation, attention. The greatest need, of course, is to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ. If the church is the hands and feet of Jesus in a community, it must see the needs around it and rise to the challenge.

Fighting injustice. There are times when only the church can effectively stand up and end injustice. If it doesn’t, it loses all credibility to speak to people’s lives in a prophetic way. Sometimes what people identify as injustice is subjective. In those cases, let your discomfort drive dialogue. Take politics out of it. Talk it out together as a family of faith and work through the differing perspectives to reach an understanding. When you understand the injustice and its root cause, you may be upset. That’s okay. Get upset and get busy addressing the injustice in your community.

Healing from tragedy. Churches are not immune to disasters, including natural, financial, violent, or personal. Some of the best work churches have done throughout history has been in the face of tragedy. When it strikes, it is by definition upsetting. If you and your fellow believers do not shed tears and get to work, there are deep, deep problems that have to be addressed. The key is to work through the grief process entirely. Do the work, emerge from the tragedy changed but intact, and look for ways to be a redemptive presence.

Repairing division. People in your church may already be upset, but it may be the counterproductive kind. Don’t let aimlessly angry people derail the congregation. Sit down with those who are upset and hear them out. Be the presence of Christ to them. Work it out. Pray about it together. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it. It’s okay for it to bother you that your church is divided. Do what you can to bring about reconciliation but know that in the end, the outcome is not in your hands.

Experiencing awakening. If there’s ever been a time when you’ve felt like you’ve been sleepwalking through worship, Bible study, or fellowship, then you know what the pre-existing condition for an awakening is like. It should be upsetting when you or your church is in this state. And when awakening comes, it can disrupt the established order of things. When the Holy Spirit is allowed to work, disruption usually results. When you feel unsettled by the awakening of your congregation, lean into the discomfort. Ask yourself what you need to do to be a part of it. Don’t be afraid. God is about to do something through you and your church if you are willing.

So if you think your church needs upsetting, what do you do? We’ll talk about that next month. Until then, pray. Don’t seek to upset people just to cause a ruckus.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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