Category Archives: Missions and Ministry

The Questions of Declining Churches

Empty ChurchAround the country, Churches of Christ continue to decline in numbers of local churches and individual members. You can read this article from the Christian Chronicle that provides and explains the data. Such decline raises the anxiety among elders and ministers along with raising questions about the reason for such decline. However, sometimes it seems like some people just want to keep asking the same questions that lead to the same answers.

I haven’t seen a copy of the Spiritual Sword in almost ten years but that changed when someone sent me a copy of the April 2018 issue (Vol. 49, No. 3). Dedicated to the legacy of N.B. Hardeman’s Tabernacle Sermons, the editor Alan E. Highers concludes with an editorial titled “What Can We Learn?” Speaking of the Churches of Christ, which in his sectarian view constitutes “the body of Christ”, Highers writes:

Why have some young people forsaken the body of Christ and moved into a denomination, a community church, or back into the world? In all likelihood they have not heard the preaching on the sin of religious division and the identity of Christ’s church, perhaps in their lifetime. Why have some among us minimized the authority of the scriptures and concluded that instrumental music is marginal and unimportant? (p. 47).

The answers he provides to his own questions are unfounded assumptions. That is, there isn’t any evidence cited to support such answers. In fact, I doubt very much that a thorough social analysis on why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and regard opposition to the use of instruments in Christian worship as unimportant would ever yield the conclusions that Higher’s asserts.

Alan Higher’s and his associates are free to regard as important whatever set of beliefs they want to hold on any issue they like. However, the conclusions that Highers assumes reveal just how out of touch with reality some Christians and Churches of Christ are in this postmodern and post-Christendom American society we live among. There are likely several reasons why people are leaving the Churches of Christ and why people, myself included, don’t regard the use of instruments in Christian worship as sin. I can only speak for myself but whatever the reasons are, apart from the person who has just abandoned following Jesus entirely, they have nothing to do with a lack of preaching/teaching on church unity and a minimizing the authority of scripture. I have read the Bible from cover to cover and have a high-view regarding the authority of scripture. I’ve even preached on the subject of Christian unity and on the authority of scripture, it’s just that I’ve reached a different conclusion about what the scriptures teach on the issue of Christian unity and singing in worship.

However, I’m going to push further and say that by drawing the conclusions which Higher’s does is more a means of scapegoating than anything else. Such conclusions allow local churches to blame those who have left or no longer adhere to the traditional Churches of Christ dogma for their decline. By scapegoating these issues, local Churches of Christ by means of their leaders can then ignore the deeper questions about their church and mission. These are questions that might open their gospel imaginations regarding their own contextual theological praxis, resulting in new ways of embodying the gospel as participants in the mission of God. This may be the biggest challenge facing Churches of Christ: Do local Churches of Christ have the faith to ask different questions that would lead them in a new direction as participants in the mission of God? Alan Highers is only one voice but his voice says “No!” and that is lamentable.

If a local church just keeps asking the same questions and imposing the same answers on those same questions, they’ll end up with the same results. In psychological terms, that’s called insanity. Drawing on a biblical metaphor, it is to remain safely in the water even though Jesus is calling the church out into the water. Until local churches by means of their leaders have the courage to step out into the water, which requires faith rather than dogmatic certainty, continued decline will happen as participating in the mission of God gets lost from the safety of the boat.

So let me suggest that rediscovering how God is calling a local church to participate in his mission requires us to ask better questions that anticipate different answers. Ergo, instead of asking “why someone has become a part of a local community church?”, how about asking instead “how is our church doing in the practice of hospitality and charity towards one another?” That question might lead to inquiring about whether the people in the nearby neighborhoods find a welcoming and friendly environment among us (which can only be answered by asking the people in the neighborhoods). Such questions open space for learning and rediscovering ways as well as opportunities for how the local church might embody the gospel among the neighborhoods and begin extending the kingdom of God into the neighborhoods rather than just continuing in decline.

This is something to think about. However, by all means, let’s quit scapegoating the reasons for why Churches of Christ are declining.

Romans, Reconciliation, and The Gospel

People ReconciliationOne doesn’t have to look very hard to see the problem of racism is a difficult issue in America. Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the dream that got him killed still has yet to be fully realized. Now I don’t make any claims of fully understanding the problem of racism or knowing how to fully address this very complex issue. However, I am a pastor who believes that local churches should be communities where racial-reconciliation is practiced because these churches are called to be a living embodiment of the gospel. Sadly, that’s not always the case. Nevertheless, following my previous post Racial Reconciliation and the Romans Road to Salvation from a couple weeks ago, I want to sketch how Romans instructs us on the practice of reconciliation.

The Racial Tension Among Churches

I had just begun a new ministry with a church that was very diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. So here I was sitting at a table outside an ice-cream parlor where folks from the church were meeting for some milkshakes and fellowship. Sitting at the table with me, a White person, was a elderly man and his daughter who were both Black and another woman who was White. At some point in the conversation, the White woman sitting next to me mention how her dog did not like Black people.

Though I can’t recall the context of the conversation that preceded that comment, I can recall the look on the face of the Black woman sitting across from me. The offense and hurt was plainly evident on her face, and understandably so. Though the White woman wasn’t trying to discriminate or make any racial insults, her remark was unwise and lacking in any sensitivity. I could only imagine how such a remark aroused the memories of those times when this Black woman was given “the look” when she walked into a boutique full of White women, when she heard co-workers laughing in the break room at a “harmless” about Black people, and so forth.

As a fairly young minister at the time, I wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. However, I knew something like this had the potential to become very divisive, disrupting the Christian unity that God was forming among this diverse church.

But there’s also another point to be observed from this story: reconciliation in a church is much more than the fact that people of different skin colors and ethnicities worship and fellowship together. As I said in my my previous post:

The fact of the matter is that racial integration and racial reconciliation are not the same thing and worshiping together in the same church building and living as a unified church body that practices reconciliation with each other is not the same thing.

So even though worshiping and fellowshipping together is important, reconciliation that springs from the gospel of Jesus Christ is much more. Reconciliation is the embodiment of the gospel vision and that means that it is the practice of the ideal.

Putting The Gospel into Practice

In my previous post I was trying to show that we miss the point of Romans when we reduce salvation to the individual justification of sinners. Such reductionism comes from asking the wrong questions when reading through Romans which then obscures us from how Paul is trying to instruct a divided church of Jews and Gentiles to live as the people of God. Ergo, the church, where a person’s statues as justified before God is experienced, is a community. So even though salvation is a gift from God to each individual believer, the gift of salvation is fellowship within the community of God and his people. However, the embodiment or practice of reconciliation is necessary for this vision of salvation to exist as a concrete reality.

While a large portion of the New Testament speaks to this very issue, I will briefly draw our focus in this post on Paul’s letter to the Romans. In doing so, let’s assume that we understand that we all are guilty of sin and thus lack any foundation for passing judgment on one another. Let’s also assume that we are humble enough to know that it is only by the grace of God that we have been justified as sinners and are being sanctified. In making these assumptions, we not only embrace are large portion of what Paul has addressed in the first eight chapters but we are humble enough to have made the commitment of living as obedient children of God (baptism into Christ).

This is good. Now we are able to continue in presenting ourselves as living sacrifices while also recognizing that we are just a portion of the body, in need of the other portions whose skin color and ethnicity may differ from our own. But what happens when we encounter tension, when we do something that causes injury and offense, as I recalled in the story above? This is where Paul’s instructions about practicing love and equality with each other is so necessary. to hear again. Romans 12:9-10 says, “Love should be shown without pretending. Hate evil, and hold on to what is good. Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other” (CEB). Then in chapter fifteen Paul instructs with the admonition to “welcome each other, in the same way that Christ welcome you…” (v. 7).

As people committed then to loving each other, treating each other as equals, and extending hospitality to one another, we realize that at times we will have disagreements. We also recognize that because we are still sinners, we will at times say do things that offend each other. However, our love unto, equal regard for, and welcoming of each other regardless of race and ethnicity means that we are humble enough to repent and forgive each other. That is, when we offend, we go to those we have offended and confess our sin against them. We remain humble enough to listen so that we are able to learn from our mistake rather than repeat them same sin over and over again. Likewise, when we are offended and the offending person comes to us confessing their sin against us, we remember the we too are sinners forgiven by God and so we forgive the person who has sinned against us.

A Final Word…

This is what it means to practice the ideal of reconciliation and embody the very gospel of Jesus Christ through which we have been reconciled to God and each other. By embodying this gospel in the practice of reconciliation, which Romans provides instructions for doing so, we demonstrate what a true community of people belonging to God looks like. We show the world what love, equality, and hospitality truly are and then we are poised to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ, explaining to the world how this good news is received from God. And we all know how much our neighbors among an increasingly diverse America, where racism and discrimination continue, so desperately needs to see and hear such good news.

Back East: A New Ministry With The Newark Church of Christ

We’re on the move. That is, this coming spring my family and I will be moving back east to Newark, Delaware where I will begin serving as the senior minster with the Newark Church of Christ. Those of you who follow me on other social media networks like Facebook and Twitter likely already know about this news but I wanted a chance to say more about this move.

IMG_E2700Since we only moved from Columbia, Maryland to Chillicothe, Missouri last July, some people have asked why we are moving back east so quickly. I don’t want to go into a lot of details but we moved to Missouri so I could serve with a church but things didn’t work out as we anticipated and I was let go rather quickly. This had nothing to do with any illegal, immoral, or unethical activity on my part, so it came as quite a shock and with a lot of questions for my wife and I as it pertains to our family as well as the vocation of ministry. In fact, I actually began giving a lot of consideration to leaving the vocation of Christian ministry as a full-time occupation all together (note: not giving up on following Jesus, just serving as a church pastor/minister). However, the Lord had other plans.

While I was still uncertain about my future in the vocation of Christian ministry, my name had been recommended to several churches as a candidate to consider becoming their next minister. Most of these churches were working with Interim Ministry Partners, a ministry partnership I highly recommend if your church is seeking a new minister. One of these churches was the Newark Church of Christ, who contacted me back in early November of 2017. As I began a conversation with the search committee, it became clear that God is at work in some amazing ways among this church.

To begin with, after much discernment, the Newark Church of Christ embraced a new vision form God of being people who invite people to experience Jesus together. This vision was clear in their support of ministries such as Blue Hens For Christ, the campus ministry at the University of Delaware, The People’s House, and the monthly Saturday morning pancake breakfast where guest can also acquire goods necessary for daily living. This was even more clear in church’s decision to transition their traditional Vacation Bible School to a summer outreach week and the begin a second contemporary and instrumental worship service that will attract new people seeking Jesus.

But there’s more… More importantly, as I talked with the search committee and later with elders, the passion for Jesus was palpable. I could hear it their prayers and see it in their faces when they talked about what God was doing in your church. As I spoke with the search committee and elders it was apparent that the Holy Spirit is the one breathing life into this church, filling it with a passion for the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.

Throughout the conversation, the process required much prayer and discernment. Remember, that there was a part of me considering that my time serving in the vocation of Christian ministry was over. So I was simply praying that the Lord would reveal if serving with this church was his will. As the conversation continued and as it became evident of the way God was working among the Newark Church of Christ, the Lord kindled a desire to serve with this church. In fact, I don’t know how else to describe it except to say that my desire to serve with this church increased so my that in my prayers I simply began petition for the Lord to open this door so that my family and I could become a part of the Newark Church of Christ and I could serve with them as a minister of the gospel.

I am beyond excited to announce that I will begin serving as a minister with the Newark Church of Christ later this month. I am also confident that God will continue leading us forth, filling us with the Holy Spirit, as followers of Jesus who invite people to experience Jesus together.

Evangelism: The 72 Includes You

Evangelism is a ministry task that many churches struggle with, for various reasons. Beyond such reasons, evangelism sometimes has been relegated to the job of a revivalist preacher going from town to town preaching the good news. With all appreciation to such preachers like Billy Graham or my own tribe’s Jimmy Allen, evangelism isn’t their responsibility alone. Similarly, evangelism is neither about standing on a street corner preaching a hellfire and brimstone sermon to other pedestrians nor can it be reduced to knocking on some unknown person’s door.

4517So what is evangelism? If that’s a question you’ve wonder about or if the subject of evangelism interests you, then perhaps the book I am writing to tell you about can help. A few weeks ago IVP Books was kind enough to send me a copy of The Power of the 72: Ordinary Disciples in Extraordinary Evangelism. This book, authored by John Teter, who serves as Pastor for the Fountain of Life Covenant Church in Long Beach, California, is a very easy to read book of 162 pages in length. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about this book is that the author has written in a manner that is accessible to any reader, whether they have a theology degree or not, and has done so without dumbing down the theological content of the book.

After an introduction, the book divides into two sections, with the first made up of three chapters laying a theological foundation and the second made up of five chapters on application. Throughout the book, the author works through the story of Jesus sending out the 72 to proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in Luke 10:1-20. Overall, the author asks of the Christian reader to see himself or herself as one of the 72. That is, Christian readers are challenged to consider themselves as people Jesus is sending out to proclaim the good news — evangelists engaged in evangelism. To that end, the author offers a fourfold purpose of 1) providing a theological foundation for evangelism, 2) presenting his theory on the process of conversion, 3) call the reader to master ministry tasks pertaining to evangelism, and 4) prepare the readers for rejection (p. 14).

The author is not offering a step-by-step “how to” manual for evangelism, which is good since I have always found problems with such manuals (which is beyond the scope of this post). However, besides presenting a solid theological praxis for evangelism, I found the book inspiring and encouraging. Without any guilt trips, I found myself wanting to be better at evangelism as I read through the book. Though there didn’t appear anything of significance to dispute in this book, there were a couple of places where I thought the author was trying to hard to make the biblical text support his conviction. However, I’m sure the same could be said for any pastor-theologian, including myself.

One point the author makes in the book does warrant some further discussion because it is such a good point for churches and individual Christians to remember. In discussing the work that God is already doing, the author says:

“Evangelism is not going into newly formed relationships doing all we can to create a hunger for God. Evangelism is becoming flesh in a situation where God is already at work. The hard work has already been done” (p. 97).

As with every aspect of Christian ministry, the task begins with discerning where God is already at work so that we may join in as participants in the mission of God. Likewise, because evangelism is participating in the work God is already doing, we can trust God to bring forth the harvest among those who are seeking him. Consequently, evangelism does not and should never be a coercive or manipulative tactic on our part. We simply share the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God, allowing the Spirit to convict and call those seeking God to respond.

If you’re seeking to gain more confidence in evangelism yourself, here’s an easy book to read that God can use to equip you with more confidence. Perhaps you’re looking for some material on evangelism that can use to facilitate a discussion about becoming more evangelistic among your church or small group you’re part of. If so, I think you’ll find this book a helpful place to begin that conversation.

The Pastor and Theology

Pastors, or ministers, are those who serve in local churches as minister of the gospel. Their vocation is primarily one of proclaiming the word of God in order to equip the believers to live as faithful witnesses of the gospel. While the aim is not to become a good theologian, the pastoral vocation is a theological enterprise. In other words, serving as a pastor is to serve as a pastoral theologian. The questions then is what kind of theologian should a pastor be and what does that involve?

The issue the above question asks is raised in the book The Pastor Theologian: Resurrecting An Ancient Vision by Geral Hiestand and Todd Wilson. Before getting into this issue more, there is a related concern that needs some attention. Within the Churches of Christ there are still some who think negatively of theology. This sentiment is rooted in the Restoration vision of just going back to the Bible without realizing just how indebted such a vision is to modernity and enlightenment thought. As the C.S. Lewis quote in the picture above suggests, everyone has a theology. So the only question is whether we have a good or bad theology… a well informed theology or a theology formed by ignorance.

While theology proper refers to the study of the Christian doctrine of God, the task of theology is more expansive in that it deals with how the Christian faith is understood and practiced. So I agree with Hiestand and Wilson in their description of theology as attempting to “make sense of the world in which we live, of God, and of ourselves. It teases out the connections between ideas and actions and helps to create new ways of imaging reality — ways that are distinctly Christian, or, we might say, distinctly real” (p. 55). So when we declare the Christian doctrine “Jesus is Lord!”, the task of theology is expounding on what it means for Jesus to be Lord, how that shapes our understanding of history and the way we live as followers of Jesus. We do this theology, of course, by engaging the Biblical text in conversation with Christian tradition and our located culture (more on that later) even as we draw from our abilities of reason and experience.

The question then is to what end is the task of theology? This is where I differ with Hiestand and Wilson. Their vision of a pastor theologian is what they refer to as the restoration of an “ancient vision” where the pastor “constructs and disseminates theology for the broader church” (p. 80). Their vision is anchored in their belief that there is an unhealthy gap between academia, where many academic theologians serve, and the church, where pastors serve. The ideal is a return of pastors doing academic theology for other pastors rather than leaving that work to the academic theologians and thus filling the perceived gap between theology and church. However, I’m not convinced that this is as big of a problem as they think. While there are some academic theologians who seem uninterested serving the church and some pastors who seem uninterested in theology, there are plenty of academic theologians interested in serving the church with their academic discipline (e.g., Walter Brueggeman, Miroslav Volf, N.T. Wright) and plenty of pastors interested in theology (myself included). The need is for a culture among local churches that embraces the theological enterprise and encourages their ministers to serve as pastoral theologians.

“…good pastoral theology is contextual theology.”

So let’s briefly hone in on the questions of what kind of theologian should a pastor be and what does that involve? Hiestand and Wilson suggest “the renewal of the church depends on the renewal of the church’s theology” (p. 123). Church renewal actually depends on much more but good theology is certainly an imperative. However, I believe the pressing need for this theological work is on the local. That is, every local church exists within a particular cultural context that must be considered if the church is to embody the gospel in a meaningful way among the local community. So it is within this local cultural context where scripture and Christian tradition must be engaged along with reason and experience. Why? Because while good theology is expressed in beliefs and practices that are faithful to Jesus, the local church must also contextualize this expression to what God is doing among the local church and local community. The pastor’s theological task is to help the community of believers to both understand and articulate these beliefs in concrete practices so that there is congruency between how the local church lives and what it proclaims as faith. In this sense, the task of good pastoral theology is contextual theology.

Let me offer two hypothetical but very real examples of contextual theology. Let’s say that there are an influx of Muslim refugees who have very little in terms of basic physical needs (food, clothing, etc…). How will your local church respond? Beyond generalities, I can’t answer that question because part of that question will depend on how your church understands the gospel (or not), how different people view Muslims, and so forth. However, answering the question of how the church should respond involves doing theology for the sake of the local church. Likewise, the same is true when a church is having to navigate the waters of conflict when two or more believers are in sharp disagreement with each other and where there may be potential offense (sin) involved. How the church responds and engages in this conflict, ideally toward full reconciliation, will involve doing theology and this is part of the pastor’s task whether it be in preaching, counseling, or just reflecting in silence for the sake of gaining clarity.

For the record, I don’t think Hiestand and Wilson would disagree with me on the need for pastors to be engaged in theology among the churches they serve. Where we differ is on the need for more pastors to be engaged in academic theology. It’s not that I’m opposed to academic theology and value greatly from those who are blessed with a Ph.D and a seminary position to teach and research from. I just believe local churches need pastors who are also contextual theologians for their local church and community.

What say you?

Seeing Again: A 20/20 Kingdom Vision

It’s not any secret than many established churches find themselves struggling and in decline. Facing different challenges, one wonders if there is hope for renewal or if these church must just hang on until than can no longer continue and then decide to close. While I’ve helped close a church and believe doing so is the right decision in some cases, I also believe that renewal is very much possible but it begins with seeing again. Allow me to explain…

2020_vision

Getting Older: A Brief Story… A Point

More than a few years back, my wife and I were driving during the wee hours of the night from Indiana to our home in Searcy, Arkansas. In the bootheel of Missouri US HWY 412 makes a left turn as it enters the town of Kennett and heads southwest for a few miles before turning and heading towards Paragould, AR.

It was at this left turn in Kennett where I accidently turned into the path of a semi-truck and nearly had a head-on collision, one that surely would have killed my wife and I. It was my fault too, as I had turned into this truck’s right-hand turning lane. Frightened and perplexed then as to how this happened, I began noticing that I was not able to read the street signs until I was just about to pass them. So I decided that it was time to visit an eye doctor and when I did, I learned that I was only able to read the top three lines of the eye-exam chart. The doctor told me the obvious, that my vision was bad and that I needed eye-glasses and/or contacts in order to see with 20/20 vision again.

As of today, I wear contact lenses and the difference is huge. It’s not that I’m blind without corrective lenses but that I cannot see well enough to engage in tasks that are necessary to living a healthy and productive life, such as driving or reading and writing. Of course, this is not some shocker to anyone. In fact, many people will resonate because they too wear glasses or contacts. Poor vision is a fact-of-life, a part of aging and getting older, and if we’re fortunate enough, we’ll make an appointment with an optometrist in hopes of restoring our vision to 20/20.

Eyes and Ears: But Do We See and Hear?

In my experience established churches begin suffering from poor vision as they age. This has to do with a kingdom vision, one of understanding what following Jesus involves as participants in the kingdom of God. Such was the problem the fist disciples of Jesus were suffering from and why Jesus asked if they had eyes and ears but failed to see and hear, if they still failed to understand (Mk. 8:17-18, 21).

This is exactly when we read the story of a blind man who Jesus had to touch twice in order to fully restore his vision. Here is the account in Mark 8:22-26:

They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?”

He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.”

Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, “Don’t even go into the village.”

The point is that the disciples of Jesus see the kingdom, which is why they have followed him, but they have yet to see the kingdom clearly. The Jewish faith of these disciples has aged and in that process of aging, their 20/20 kingdom vision is impaired and they are the ones who need Jesus to touch them again that they might see the kingdom of God with clarity.

As a minister of the gospel, I believe this is the problem facing many established churches. That is, many local churches suffered from an impaired kingdom vision and because these local churches are made up of individual believers, the problem is both individual and communal. An impaired kingdom vision is something that every follower of Jesus, including me, can suffer with and for a variety of reasons. Here are a few examples I have encountered…

  • Our understanding of church (ecclesiology) is reduced to a worship gathering.
  • Maintaining traditions are more important than embodying the gospel.
  • Sharing our political views are more important than sharing the gospel.
  • Doctrinal dogma obscures and openness to scripture and Christian Tradition.
  • Safety and security, rather than faith, guides decision making.
  • The wisdom of the cross is subtly replaced with conventional wisdom.
  • Avoiding conflict and appeasing critics is more important than change.
  • Anxiety and quick-fix solutions trump dealing with the underlying difficulties.

Like the disciples who needed to be touched by Jesus again in order to see the kingdom of God clearly, aging local churches also need Jesus to touch them again. How this happens is the work of the Spirit but I would like to suggest that it begins with prayer.

Can We Pray?

I want to end this post with a prayer historically attributed to St. Francis of Assisi and suggest that when such a prayer becomes the cries of our hearts, Jesus will come touch our churches again.

Lord, make Lord, make us instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen!

Caging The Tiger: Church Leadership and Toxic Christians

The Church of Christ my family and I were a part of when I was a child was a small congregation. Most of my church experience, especially as a minister, has been with small congregations. By small, I mean congregations of less than one-hundred people and that includes children.

If you talk to members of these congregations, they’ll usually talk about the closeness the members have with each other. The local church is like an extended family, which seems good. In fact, one of the challenges that larger churches face is trying to retain this sense of close community so that all members have a sense of belonging and deeper relationship with at least a few others in the church. This is one reason why small groups have become so popular. Another thing about small churches is that most of them want some numerical growth. So generally, there is an excitement when someone decides they want to place membership and for various reasons, these small Churches of Christ are always happy when a person from another Church of Christ wants to become a part of their church. However, there’s a real danger in that sometimes there is such a desperation to welcome a new person or family that someone toxic person is welcomed without any reservation or qualification.

“If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

– Edwin H. Friedman

Who is the toxic person I have in mind? Typically he or she is a Christian who every few years gets upset about something in their church and leaves for another church (note: they’ll always has a “scriptural” reason that justifies their reason for leaving). This person is toxic because he or she is an argumentative and divisive bully who thinks they are smarter than others. They’re eager, too eager, to assert themselves as a leader which has more to do with their own ego than it does with serving. They are quick to correct others and will even insult others as a way of demonstrating their diluted sense of superiority, especially when it comes to knowing the Bible and matters of sound doctrine. However, there’s a reason why such a person has left the last church. Though not always the case, sometimes such a toxic person leaves is because the others of that church had enough and someone rightfully stood up to them. Like any bully, the last thing this toxic Christian can handle is anyone who will not cower to their coercive and intimidating pressure.

So what should be done with such a toxic person among a church? In Friedman’s Fables, the Friendly Forest fable ends with these words, “…If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don’t try to make them communicate. You cage the bloody tiger.”

Cage the tiger?

Yes!

Let me say it again… Yes! Cage the tiger!

Caging the tiger here takes some courageous and wise leadership so as not to create further conflict, if that is possible. So ignoring the problem until either other people begin leaving the church or become so frustrated that they lash out will not work. The only way of caging the tiger is to confront the individual  and speak the truth in love, candidly explaining the problem. If the person will not listen and change, then you must lay out the resolution for them (which is no longer up for discussion). If the tiger is not caged and a toxic person is passively empowered then there more problems will surface. I know of one church where most of the adults stopped participating in any Bible classes because they were tired of always being corrected and insulted by one particular toxic individual. I once witnessed people get up and walk out of a meeting because they had reached their limit for tolerating the lecture they were about to receive from another toxic member (who had acted like this many other times). That shouldn’t happen and it doesn’t have to if someone will have the courage to lead by wisely caging the tiger.

Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

When I was serving with the Columbia Church of Christ, a man started visiting our church. He had previously served as a minister with several other Churches of Christ but was now on disability and our church was the nearest Church of Christ. So he showed up but made it quickly known how much he disagreed with our gender-inclusive practices. So for the next two weeks when he showed up to Bible class, he promptly told the women how wrong they were and you could see the hurt and frustration on everyone else’s face. It was rather obvious that he was here to create division. So I met with him and explained to him that though he was welcome to be a part of our congregation, gender-inclusiveness was a part of who were as a local church and if he could not accept that then there were other churches in the community for him to visit. He never came back and that’s ok. The following Sunday, the atmosphere of our Bible class was back to normal with a lively discussion fostering an an encouraging conversation about how we live as followers of Jesus.

That’s one example of caging the tiger. It’s not the only way, just one way. But by all means, if you’re a church leader then have the courage and wisdom to confront the toxic people and cage the tiger. Cultivating a healthy culture in your church depends on caging the tiger!

So again, I will say it and close with these words… Yes! Cage the tiger!