The World is Flat

Posted: February 17, 2009 in conflicts
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The Church is Flat                                                                                             

 The World is Flat, claims Thomas Friedman in his national best seller, and if you don’t watch out you may be overrun by a wildly international business team charging across the digital flatlands toward you.  

 Freedman’s “flat” is about collaboration in the marketplace. In the international business community people are working together as never before, wired together through the Internet. Freedman explains how economic cooperation between businesses all over the world has bulldozed a new, level playing field. Tutors in India now collaborate with American school children on their homework. UPS is now synced with Toshiba, fixing Toshiba’s laptops to save shipping expense and time.  People around the world build software together. Things are changing – fast. Are we?

 Friedman has me thinking hard about the church. Is the church flat too? There is evidence for that. Many pastors now network internationally by email and mobile phone. Short-term missions’ trips to other countries have become the norm. Megachurches are creating huge associations of thousands of churches that plug and play their curriculums. Globally, Christians are working with each other to engage social issues like the HIV pandemic.

 And yet,  while the concept of collaboration is inherently Christian, and it is in vogue today, the church as we know it is too often a rocky and jagged land of conflict and division.

 Knocked Flat

 Our Christianity, unfortunately, has a splintered look. Differences in belief and practice preserve deep canyons. Recently, I talked to a worship pastor who was told he couldn’t serve communion in his own church because his ordination was from another Christian denomination. The churches in my community too often do little more than rent rooms to each other. Sometimes it seems as if we are competing for attendees.

 In presidential elections, on some of the most significant issues, Christians do not present a unified front. Four years ago, during our last Presidential election, instead of seeing us speak with one voice, I watched as fellow Christians handed out voting slates that followed party lines. On some issues, allegiance to the party seemed more important than allegiance to the body of Christ.

 On a very personal, pastoral level, flat is too often tragically missing. I sat recently with a group of pastors openly discussing the high and low points of their careers. The low points? They all came when a decision was made by a church, a board or a colleague who ran over them. The stories all had messy endings. No eye-to-eye, on-the-same level, collaborative decision making here. It was the worst kind of flat, knocked flat.

 Sometimes it seems that companies like UPS, with their amazingly unified army of workers, process their conflicts better than the church. Starbucks seems to have created more shared culture between its stores than we have within our denominations.

 In our churches there are racial divides, political differences, belief barriers and hurt pastors. All this has gotten me to thinking. The church needs to flatten. I mean by this that we Christians need to humble ourselves and begin to better plough together through our differences. We need to learn to honor the value of a well-managed conflict. This is not naïve. A grand agreement won’t be possible on everything, but we can do better than this to beautify the bride of Christ.

 John M. Gottman in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work says that marital conflicts fall into two categories: solvable or perpetual. Perpetual conflicts are ones that remain in a relationship in some form or another. Gottman says 69% of marital conflicts are perpetual. In unstable marriages, these problems kill the relationship. In lasting relationships perpetual problems are acknowledged and discussed, again and again. The couple is constantly working them out, but they are always, for better or worse, working them out.

 The church has many perpetual problems. And on this planet, it always will, but is the bride of Christ doing its best to work them out, again and again?

 What Does Flat Look Like?

 While it is true that the business community is flattening, it is also true that it is full of leadership hierarchy — CEO’s, supervisors, managers. Such authorities often make and drive key decisions. Of course this is also true of the church. Denominational presidents, committees, boards, executive pastors, senior pastors — such top-down leadership is often the source of vision and change. And it is precisely at that level that strong leaders should begin to effect needed change toward more collaboration.

 Act 6 shows us first-century, Biblical flat. And it evidences the effective use of collaborative decision making among a leadership team.

 There was a problem. The Greek-speaking (or cultured) Jews complained to the Aramaic-speaking (or Palestinian) Jews that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the twelve and all the disciples chose seven to take responsibility for the concern. Dr. Luke records that, “This proposal pleased the whole group, that is the twelve and all the disciples.” (Acts 6:5)

 That’s flat decision making. A fairly good sized, top-level leadership team met about a social problem. They talked openly and made choices that “pleased the whole group.” The text doesn’t report that two sides polarized, that there was a split, that a new denomination formed, or that anyone left mad. Acts 6 flat was good; it produced a unifying decision. What pleased the group must have pleased God too.

 In the sacred places where we make decisions, we need such processes. We must not avoid dialogue, because if we do, we will avoid collaboration. And we must not avoid collaboration, for if we do, we may fail to take responsibility for “the Greek concern.” Three years ago the church I pastor in formed a new, outwardly looking vision statement. The process? Elders and staff collaborated to hammer it out. And we are still hammering. Why? Swinging the hammer together is a learned behavior.

 It is possible to get this right. But to do so, we must go to that sacred space where we sit down at the table and talk very honestly. This can happen, but first we will need to flatten our egos so we don’t flatten our neighbors.

  I recently made friends with a young Muslim woman studying to be a lawyer. She told me of a tough incident in her life. One day, at the American University where she was studying, she stopped to help a student who was crying. The student looked up, and seeing my friend’s head covering, the crying student asked, “Are you going to hurt me?”

 “Why did she say that?” my Muslim friend asked me. “Ouch!” I winced inside over the insensitivity of her encounter. Then I tried to reassure my new friend that many Christians don’t hold this stereotype of Muslims. She invited me to her mosque. I went. I invited her to my church. She agreed to come. Dialogue builds paths.

 Flat can be learned

 There is hope. Acts 15.1 shows the early church at an extreme impasse over differences between Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews. It was no shallow conflict. It involved issues of Jewish law, the process of transformation, even of salvation.  

 It is fascinating to note how the dispute was handled. The disputing parties met together and they talked. They vigorously presented their views. One judge didn’t decide the case. Together they worked out an agreement that pleased, that worked, that maintained the relational triumph of Christ.

 And while the outcome was dramatic and defining, so was the process. The Jerusalem counsel modeled how the church should resolve its differences. Now we know from Paul’s letters that the Judaizers kept this battle going, lobbying for a Jewish law in Christian life. The tension over the role of law in the faith has been perpetual, and it is still an issue today. But in Act 15, an environment was set up where people with differences talked. And this talk allowed a way to go forward in a manner that was highly productive.

 It was face-to-face. It involved the disputing parties. It was honest. It was a process. It worked. In these ways, it strikes me as similar to facilitative mediation, a process now offered to disputing parties, (with say family or business conflicts) who are seeking an alternative to court.

The steps of facilitative mediation are roughly like this.

 The sides meet.

 Ground rules are set.

 Both sides state the issue.

 An area of shared value or experience is discussed.

 The blocking emotions (anger, hurt, fear) are heard.

 Together, the sides brainstorm solutions.

 An agreement is written that fairly represent both interests.

 A wise mediator is crucial to help the sides listen, paraphrase and interpret how they are being affected. The discussion of shared values begins the path towards common ground. Hearing the blocking emotions is a must. Emotions, if not allowed a place at the negotiating table, will sabotage the process.  

 The mutual solution giving is the good stuff. Here is where a godly future is created. This is where the Greek problem is solved, the Jewish question answered. Here is where Christian love can make a difference, love that does not “insist on its own way,” (1 Cor.13:5, RSV) but commits to go our way, together.

 This process is potentially highly restorative. It can be productive. It is Christian; it is flattening. Steps like these can help us talk about even our perpetual problems. A process like this can set up a level playing field where we find ways to work together even when we don’t think alike. If we can be wise in this manner, we can limit the number of wounded and bleeding Christian leaders. We can heal wounds.

 And yet, we are not naïve. Progress won’t always follow a formula. Mediation of conflicts will sometime be messy and long. It will take years, decades, even centuries to bring about unity in some areas of Christianity. Sometimes a judgment from an authority will provide the best solution. To be realistic, some of our political and doctrinal conflicts will be perpetual problems. And our agreements, when they come on the big issues, may well come more through movements than meetings. But movements are made of meetings, out of thousands of conversations and relationships that begin to move toward flat. We Christians need to begin to talk about our political differences and similarities so we can follow God’s leading to take action.

 Remember our history. The cannon of scripture and the doctrines of the faith were determined by councils. “Biblical” isn’t one person’s or church’s point of view. Unless we talk, how will we begin to move toward what God wants, toward what the Bible teaches, toward places where we trust each other enough to see where we agree enough to work together? Or do we just suffer our walls and hurts and divisions? Is that what God wants? We Christians are commanded to love each other and to broker as much unity as we can. It is time.

 Flat Is A Spiritual Shape

 Conflict resolution through mediation, through rebuilding broken relationships is a challenging process. But it is a spiritual process too. Isn’t our God a God of reconciliation and forgiveness? Where are the wise men and women who will mediate solutions that care for everyone involved? (1 Corinthians 6:4) Working through conflict should be the norm in church offices and board rooms. The church God wants is flat, if flat is defined by humility and unity. Every pastor and denomination leader responsible to resolve conflicts and engage in justice issues would do well to be more educated and skilled in facilitative mediation.

In 2006, I traveled to South Africa with a team from my church. What beautiful Christians we came to know in the churches in Soweto. South Africans understand what conflict resolution can accomplish. When Soweto erupted in riots in1976, the churches prayed that God would prevent a civil war. And God did, by using leaders like Nelson Mandela and  F. W. de Klerk. They eventually sat down together at the table of collaboration. They won a Nobel Peace Prize in for their work. Of course, South Africa’s solutions weren’t and still aren’t perfect. But other African nations have reminded us since then how horribly wrong things can go when peaceful solutions are not negotiated.

 In the middle of both political and personal conflicts, we need Christ-like leaders who know when to shift from hierarchical power structures welding top-down pronouncements to flat power structures that encourage people to work together through collaboration, and love. Said Jesus, “Blessed are the peace makers.”

  1. laurelhasper says:

    great thinking. thanks for pushing me to think outside of the box. love ya to the moon!

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