The World is Flat, claimed Thomas Friedman in his 2005 national best seller.  The  book is  now seven years old, but it is still relevant, particularly in the competitive, dog-eat-dog world of economic stagnation and global competition and conflict.

For Freedman’s “flat” is about creating collaboration in the marketplace. He points out that 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?

When I read Friedman’s book, a few years ago, it got me to thinking hard about the spirituality. Is the spirituality growing more flat too? There is evidence for that. Many religious leaders now network internationally by email and mobile phone. Short-term missions’ trips to other countries are the norm in many churches. Megachurches are creating huge associations of thousands of churches that plug and play their curriculums. Globally, religious leaders of differing backgrounds are working more together to engage social issues like the HIV pandemic, poverty and addiction.

 And yet, while the concept of collaboration is inherently spiritual, and it is in vogue today, the religious landscape worldwide,  is still too often a rocky and jagged land of conflict and division.

 Knocked Flat

Christianity, the faith I know best, unfortunately, has a splintered look. Differences in belief and practice preserve deep canyons. A while back, 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. And we often see little collaboration between churches in local communities.  The churches in my community too often do little more than rent rooms to each other. Sometimes it seems as if they are competing for attendees.

 In the upcoming presidential election, on some of the most significant issues, Christians are not likely to present a unified front. Four years ago, during our last Presidential election, instead of seeing Christians speak with one voice, we 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 once sat 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 still 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 affect 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.”  They collaborated. 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.” A few years ago the church I now pastor formed a new, outwardly looking vision statement. The process? Our leaders collaborated to hammer our vision out.  Swinging the hammer together worked.

 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, especially our neighbors from other backgrounds.

A while back I 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 built 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 for the group. They would accept differences. They wouldn’t require the non-Jews to be Jewish!

 And while the outcome was dramatic and defining, so was the process. The Jerusalem council modeled how the church should resolve its differences. Now we know from Paul’s letters that the Judaizers kept this battle going, lobbying for  Jewish law in Christian life to be continued. And really, the tension over the role of law, of rules and of traditions within the Christian 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. Gentiles were included in Christianity. It changed Chrisitianity from a small sectarian group into a world religion.

How did that work? The decision-making process was face-to-face. It involved the disputing parties. It was honest. It involved collaboration. It listened to feelings.  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, as I learned them from the National Conflict Resolution Center training that I have gone through.

  • 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 win-win is achieved.

To have such a process, a wise mediator is crucial to help the sides listen, paraphrase and interpret how they are being affected. But a wise mediation is not simply someone trained in mediation. Mediation of deep conflicts can only be wisely handled by mediators who themselves have been knocked flat, who “get it,” because they’ve experienced it, because they have been humbled and because they have a deeply built in empathy and passion for win-win solutions. Then they can facilitate a discussion of shared values that moves towards a common ground. Only emotionally intelligent leaders will know that blocking emotions are something to resonate with, not stigmatize. And they will know, because they have themselves felt the emotions of hurt, betrayal and anger that if not allowed a place at the negotiating table, will sabotage the entire process.  

And then, the mutual solution giving — this is the good stuff. Both sides say what they can live with. 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, Jew and Greek, hand-in-hand.

This mediaton process is potentially highly restorative. It is Christian; it is spiritual; it is healthy; 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 spiritual and political 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. Some conflicts, especially when pride, jealousy, narrow-mindedness, greed, addiction and competition remain, will never be resolved. Others will take years, decades, even centuries to see progress.  Think of the partition of India and Pakistan. What a grave tragedy! And it remains.

To be realistic, some of our political and doctrinal conflicts will remain as perpetual problems. And our agreements, when they come on the big issues, may well come more through movements than meetings. But regardless of the road, the best solutions will be collaborative. We Christians should remember that even the  cannon of scripture and the doctrines of the faith were determined by councils. “Biblical” never has been one person’s or one church’s point of view.

Flat Is A Spiritual Shape

Conflict resolution through mediation, through rebuilding broken relationships is a challenging process. But it is a spiritual process too. God is a God of reconciliation and forgiveness. Wise men and women 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 and religious leadership venues. The church, and the world that God wants is flat, when flat is defined as humility, love and working together.  Every pastor and denomination leader and world leader is responsible to resolve conflicts and engage in justice issues, and they would all do well to be more educated and skilled in facilitative mediation.

A few years ago, I traveled to South Africa. What beautiful Christians I came to know in the churches in Soweto. South Africans understand what conflict resolution can accomplish. When Soweto erupted in riots in 1976, 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. 

Flat? It’s good, when it is a flat table where we sit down and allow round people a chance to have their say, to be understood, to collaborate, to participate in a shared solution, to create win-win endings.

That kind of flat is superb!

That kind of flat is a spiritual shape.

 

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