Can I be really honest for a moment?
Sometimes I feel discouraged.
As part of my role here at 95Network, I follow and interact with pastors on social media. I love pastors and I love the ministry to support churches that our team gets to do. But if I’m honest, as I see conversations taking place on social media every week from leaders of churches, there are times when the weight of disappointment starts to take its toll.
Maybe that sounds extreme, but it’s true.
I get tired of the division I see. I get tired of the name-calling I see. I get tired of the obsession of being associated with a certain camp (theological, cultural, political, etc.). I get tired of opinions being proclaimed as if they were the Gospel message.
Now, I wholeheartedly believe that the leaders taking place in these conversations are the minority. But it doesn’t always appear that way to a watching world. (And they are watching.)
Here’s the truth: When we get caught up on differences that really don’t matter in the long-run, we are limiting our effectiveness for ministry.
Remembering Jesus’ Prayer for Unity
We all know the narrative in John 17. But let’s revisit it.
Jesus is praying right before He goes to the cross. Of all the things He could have talked to the Father about, here’s what He prays:
“And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” (v. 11)
This was the last thing on Jesus’ mind before he went to the cross. He could have been praying about anything, but he chose to pray about unity.
What does that mean for us? It means we have to be willing to break down barriers that exist among us.
Because if we don’t, here’s what happens:
The separation becomes more important than the story. The conflict becomes more important than the command. And the division keeps us distracted from accomplishing anything that actually matters.
Before we jump to some specific sources of division, I want to also remind us of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). There’s one thing that each of these things require: unified community. The essence of the evidence of the Spirit working in our lives requires us to live in unity.
So let’s get specific. Here are 6 distractions plaguing the Church today:
1) The Distraction of Preference
We all like things done a certain way. It’s part of our nature.
We like the service to be in a particular order. We like the music to be a particular style (and as we all know, some people are very particular about the volume of that music). We like our schedules to look like they’re supposed to. We like our community to feel a certain way.
It’s okay for us to have preferences. But the moment HOW we do ministry becomes more important than WHY we do ministry, we’re in big trouble.
Methods should never guide our ministry or our interactions with others. Mission should.
2) The Distraction of Being Right
A friend of ours in ministry likes to call this “rightolatry” — the idolatry of being right. Whew!
Paul communicates this when he tells Timothy, “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Tim. 2:23). How much should we have to do with controversies? Literally nothing. Stay out of them. Walk away. Exit the browser. Leave.
Let me just say this: There are times when we will disagree with people. And that’s okay! It’s okay to disagree without feeling like you have to break ties.
Jesus sums up Scripture with two commands: love God and love people. A lot of church leaders feel like they have a justifiable reason to separate from people within their church or outside their church because of differences. But does that typically reflect Jesus’ command to love?
Let’s strive not to be right in all the wrong ways.
3) The Distraction of Doctrine
Some of you just let out an audible gasp when you read this. If that was you, let’s walk through this point together.
Good doctrine is absolutely important. So don’t read this as me saying that what we believe doesn’t matter.
But sometimes we get bogged down in the details outside of what’s most important to our faith. Sometimes we start to identify more with the theological group we associate with than the One who saved us. Sometimes our denomination starts to take precedence over our faith.
And when that happens, we quickly work our way down the slope away from Jesus’ prayer in John 17. That’s when arguments start. That’s when division takes its foothold. And that’s when we waste our efforts arguing amongst each other, rather than wholly pursuing the mission Jesus laid out for us.
4) The Distraction of Political Opinion
I don’t think it’s any secret that there is a wide political divide among people in the United States. No matter where we stand politically, it’s important for us to remember that being American and being Christian are two different things. (I saw a great sermon on this recently if you’re interested — you can watch that here.)
Here are a few reminders for each of us:
- Choose your words wisely. As a pastor, not only do you represent your own opinions, but you also represent your church and our Savior. Be careful about the words you choose, especially around political topics. Words influence perceptions. And they have the power to encourage unity or solidify division.
- Be intentional about what you take a stand on publicly. With politics often being polarizing, remember that what you promote publicly has serious effects. This isn’t to say that you should never stand for political issues, but that you should simply be careful. You can read more on that in a recent article on social media.
- Our mission should stay in focus. No matter where you align politically, please don’t let politics become a distraction to your mission as a church. Does the Gospel have political implications? Absolutely. But as soon as our political convictions become more important than the humanity of the person we’re speaking with (or speaking about), we are no longer able to interact in a way that reflects Christ.
5) The Distraction of Personalities
“For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?…” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13)
Pastor, it is our job to ensure that people in our congregation don’t love us more than they love their Savior. That they don’t identify with us or our church more than they identify with Jesus. This can be especially difficult for pastors with big personalities.
In the same way, as church leaders we have to protect ourselves against becoming more enamored by the other leaders we respect than by our Lord.
A lot of ministries are built around personalities. If managed well, this can actually be effective for ministry. However, if managed poorly, that engaging personality can become a hindrance and a distraction to effective ministry.
I love Paul’s question in that 1 Corinthians passage, so I want to pose it here as well:
Is Christ divided?
6) The Distraction of Tradition
The past is not our enemy. But it can be.
It’s important to recognize and build on the past, but we can’t live in it.
As time goes on, the temptation for every organization is to rely on methods that were effective in the past. This is where you often hear the phrase “this is how we’ve always done it” presented as a legitimate argument to maintain the status quo. This mindset cripples our ability to effectively (and honestly) evaluate old and outdated ways of doing ministry.
Tradition can be a beautiful aspect of church life.
But a church that is distracted by the past will continue to keep ineffective ministries around for fear of rocking the boat. These ministries drain resources, people, and time that could be better spent on methods that better connect with the community outside the four walls of our church.