The Impact Of Church Conflict On Church Growth

The Impact Of Church Conflict On Church Growth
Thomas Hammond and Steve Wilkes

Conflict can start at any moment in any church. A disagreement over the color of carpet, program schedule, or a committee’s role can result in a dispute that reaches biblical proportions.

A 2004 Christianity Today survey of pastors revealed the top six sources of conflict as:
* Control Issues….85 percent
* Vision/Direction….64 percent
* Leadership Changes….43 percent
* Pastor’s Style….39 percent
* Financial….33 percent
* Theological/Doctrine….23 percent

Sadly, conflict is a common occurrence in congregations of every denomination across America. It happens to traditional, blended and contemporary churches for a variety of reasons, with the capacity to reach extreme levels of intensity.

In a recent national survey of more than 14,000 congregations, 75 percent reported some level of conflict in the past five years. While the conflict experienced in each of these churches might have varied greatly, it was still significant enough for church leaders to remember it, even after five years.

Leadership losses

A minister friend of mine (Steve) was pastor of a thriving church in Arkansas. The church used “ministry-evangelism” to help people and to win them to Christ. The church doubled. They started a daughter church nearby. Then, lay people rose up against the pastor, and he resigned. For a while, he helped the new church, but today he is not in full-time ministry. This is a great brother who was wounded by conflict-after church growth-and today he is working in the secular world.

I’m afraid his story is common. A church grows, conflict occurs, and preachers and lay people are hurt deeply. I can sometimes spot the “walking wounded” when they visit our seminary after graduating several years earlier. They, too, are victims. Some members leave their churches disillusioned, while others lose trust in church leadership and become less faithful in their attendance and service. These casualties may find it difficult to become personally involved in another church for fear of another disaster.

Ministers are leaving the ministry and their pulpits in record numbers. An estimated 1,500 pastors (all denominations) leave their positions each month.

Churches struggle within their fellowship to regain a sense of stability and harmony. Leadership must cope with a damaged reputation, possibly in the church, but certainly in the community.  There is also the unavoidable reality that they are not fulfilling their purpose for existing.

How does conflict affect evangelism?

Several years ago, I (Thomas) began serving as interim pastor with a church that recently had forced their pastor to resign. During the first meeting with church leaders, I asked to see their numbers for the past several years. Needless to say, they were not good. Money…down, attendance…down, baptisms…you guessed it, down as well. One significant fact about this church is that they were located in the second-fastest-growing county in America. In the middle of a population explosion, they were in a terrible freefall.

As I looked closer at the numbers, I noticed the chart did not go straight down. In fact, there were several high peaks over the years. After questioning one of the lay leaders about the reasons for the decline after the growth, he pointed to each and embarrassingly admitted that the growth stopped because of “fights.” He was even able to recall what the different “fights” were about. While these “fights” left emotional scars across the congregation, they also served as a deterrent.

To say it plainly, conflict stops evangelism. Any momentum a church might be experiencing through outreach almost always comes to a screeching halt at the slightest hint of a brouhaha. In Acts 6:1, we find the early church still exploding with growth. However, we know that the church stopped evangelizing when conflict arose because of one word in verse seven “then.” Verse seven says, “Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.”

So between verse one, “the number of disciples was multiplying,” and verse seven, “the number of the disciples multiplied greatly,” a conflict “arose.”

Why do conflicts stop evangelism?

There are many reasons why the disease of conflict prevents a church from growing. C. Peter Wagner identified a classic growth problem. He called it the “Pioneer vs. Homesteader Conflict.” The pioneers are the people in the church who have been there for many years. The homesteaders are the newcomers who have joined the church within the last few years. When the homesteaders begin to grow because the church is growing, the pioneers often feel threatened. They know that soon they will be outnumbered and lose control. Thus, some of the pioneers cause trouble in the church, causing the growth to slow down or stop.

A conflict also diverts the focus of church members from the fields of harvest to discovering who is on whose side. The energy that is needed for ministry, missions, and witnessing is siphoned from the body and spent on forming battle lines. Communication breaks down and critical decisions are made in secret, causing mistrust and alienation. The unity of the fellowship is broken into factions of “us” and “them” and prevents anyone from inviting a lost person to a ministry event or Bible study. Morale plummets with staff members and lay leaders as evangelistic events are canceled or poorly attended. The hope of impacting the community with the gospel in the future fades as word of the fight begins to seep into the community. It is hard to save a drowning man if everyone holding a life preserver is arguing so loudly they cannot hear his cry.

Conflict management or resolution?

Managing conflict is only a part of a leader’s responsibility. This job is not complete until there is resolution! This is exactly what “the twelve” did in Acts 6. They did not ignore the complaint, hoping it would go away, or label the widows as troublemakers. They asked the church in Jerusalem to choose men to deal with this task. What task was that? Was it just to oversee this distribution of food as many believe? No! The task was to deal with the conflict at hand the conflict between the Jewish and Greek widows. Talk about an explosive issue! This has to be at the top of the list of problems which could keep the church from growing and making progress in other areas.

The leaders of the church in Acts worked together to carefully develop a plan and communicate it to the entire church. After sharing it with the church, “the saying pleased the whole multitude.”

The Acts church chose seven leaders, and I believe they were the first deacons. They were good men, full of the Holy Spirit, and men with a good reputation. Much conflict in churches occurs because pastors and congregations fail to observe these biblical mandates. Someone who is not obviously full of the Spirit should never be selected to be a deacon. And the first task of a deacon should be to watch for and quietly handle any conflict.

A strong immune system

Having a strong immune system is essential in the fight against infection and disease. The body of Christ has an immune system as well an essential part of controlling conflict. Its presence is evident in the first church in Acts. Though they experienced all types of conflict, they were continually used by God to accomplish amazing results.

A church’s immune system can be strengthened by each member enjoying a daily, healthy diet of the spiritual nutrients of the Word of God. They must spend sufficient time in prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal any sin that needs to be confessed, and praying for God’s will to be accomplished in their life and church.

It is important for each member of the body to avoid all selfish attitudes and bad behavior. Focusing their attention and energy on the needs of others allows them to serve as a source of encouragement. Finally, every member needs to exercise his faith and gifts. This keeps everyone’s faith healthy and strong and helps insure that conflict does not destroy a church.

Adapted from an article originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Journal of Evangelism&Missions, published by the Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Reprinted with permission from editor Steve Wilkes.

The above article, “The Impact Of Church Conflict On Church Growth” was written by Thomas Hammond and Steve Wilkes. The article was excerpted from an article originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Journal of Evangelism&Missions.

The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.

This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”