This post was originally shared in Evangel, the tri-annual newsletter of Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference.
By Jeryl Hollinger
Being church together is a spiritual discipline. But it can be messy. Several factors make it so:
– The church, including Mennonite Church USA, and area conferences, including Pacific Northwest Mennonite Conference (PNMC), is institutional in nature. Jobs, structures, reputations, and lots of money are involved in helping us accomplish our common mission. But money can be withdrawn, reputations can be destroyed and jobs can be lost when difficult issues divide people. Thus the church becomes political in nature, often resorting to finding the best way to keep most of the people together most of the time.
– The church is a place of nurturing faith. Faith is primarily about the meaning of life and how to live faithful to that meaning. This is the most important issue for every living person and without it we cannot have a meaningful life. Our churches are committed to nurturing us along the Jesus path because we believe Jesus is God’s Word to us about life’s meaning and value. This is a wonderfully healing and strengthening journey to be on together. But since faith is so important to our lives we can feel very uncomfortable when people on this journey with us come to different conclusions about specific issues in life and faith. So it is easy to get caught up in heated arguments and even walk away from those with whom we disagree.
As a leader in the church for over 30 years, these two factors have often tempted me to take my eyes off my faith and to get caught up in trying to please people who are unhappy about something in the church. That unhappiness usually concerns someone else in the church.
As a leader I am sometimes approached by someone who has a concern and I am asked to straighten out that other person or in some way or to publicly condemn their action or view. Sometimes a threat accompanies this request – that unless I fix it, they will leave the church. That is a tough position in which to find one’s self as a leader and it is easy to cave into that pressure.
My faith, however, cautions me from trying to solve things through the use of political power or institutional authority. Did Jesus work that way to save and heal the world? Did he instruct us to work that way? Did he not empty himself of all that? And did not that type of thinking and acting in God’s name crucify Jesus and cause the Apostles so much pain and persecution?
Dealing with Jesus through political and institutional condemnation accomplished nothing. The powers were not able to stop the new work of God’s Spirit. When we are tempted to try and get our way in the church by using institutional power, we might well ask ourselves why we find this path so appealing when it is so antithetical to our Lord?
Difficult issues and conversations will always mark the journey of God’s people as we seek to follow Jesus. These conversations are extremely important. They go to the heart of what it means to belong to Jesus. Sometimes we will rejoice in new insights gained. Other times fear and anxiety may make us want to stop the conversation or to walk away. But this is the spiritual discipline of being church: of listening carefully to those with whom we disagree, of humbly waiting in prayer, and of joyfully letting the Spirit of Jesus lead his church. In his hands all will be well. All will be well.