Why I like opposition

July 7th, 2016

I love my church. We do good ministry and we have excellent leaders. But we have one terrible problem: Everyone agrees with me. Since I planted the church, the people who have joined are, for the most part, on board with our mission and direction.

I know, you’re probably thinking, “I wish I had that problem!” Maybe you have one or two or a handful of people who hold up progress, who zig when you wish they would zag. A tiny opposition or blockage seems to create inertia in the whole congregation. As a congregational leader, you think, “If only I didn’t have to deal with [insert name].”

Sure, toxic patriarchs or matriarchs, negative nabobs, chronic bullies and those who instigate Sunday school class revolts can kill a church. One of the strengths of starting a new church is that you get to begin with a clean slate, establishing early on a clear sense of mission and embedding good DNA in the organization.

But I tell ya, honestly — I miss some opposition. Here’s why:

  1. Opposition forces you to hone your rhetorical and homiletical skills. One of the challenges of preaching to a church of differing or conflicting theologies, political views and ecclesiologies is that you have to figure out how to herd cats. You collect many different imaginations and take them on a journey with you, and hopefully you all arrive at a similar place when you are done. As a preacher, this forces you to use analogies, stories and all your powers of persuasion and influence. As a leader, you have to do active listening in committee meetings and step around land mines. In my context? I just say it. It doesn’t take 20 minutes or an hour to preach, but five. Then they look at me and expect me to tell them the “so what,” and do something. I swear, my preaching skills have atrophied. 
  2. Opposition allows you to blame other folks for failure. Really, I’m not making this up. You know it as well as I do — it’s kind of a relief to be able to pin your disappointment and anxiety on someone else. When leaders agree with you and do what you ask, those scapegoats disappear. Not coincidentally, this is one of the big anxieties about church schism, isn’t it? If we get rid of everyone who disagrees with us and we’re finally allowed to do ministry the way we want to do it, what happens when our fortunes don’t magically turn around? Who do we blame? 
  3. Opposition makes you pray more. Some of the times I’ve grown most in my prayer life have been when I had to deal with difficult people. Finding the occasional thing we agreed on was an opportunity for grateful celebration, and I thought, “It’s a miracle!” Running up against yet another conflict drove me to my knees. 
  4. Opposition forces you to build alliances. Pastors too often try to go it alone. They imagine themselves as David going up against Goliath or Moses against Pharaoh when they face opposition. But even Moses had co-leaders (Aaron and Miriam). The reality is that most of our conflicts are probably like Paul and Barnabas, not David and Goliath. The conflict between Paul and Barnabas grew so intense they finally parted ways, but both wound up mentoring other church leaders and spreading the gospel to more people. When we meet opposition and find we can’t work through it, it’s often because we haven’t done the slow work of meeting with leaders one-to-one, listening to their hopes and dreams, and learning about what makes them tick. We haven’t built the trust and relationships necessary to effect change.

No, I’m not praying for God to introduce more opposition into our fledgling church. But I have learned a new appreciation for those times earlier in my ministry when I met opposition from folks who just didn’t want to change.

And yes, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek. We have had conflicts about mission and direction in our church. We have lost folks and gained folks. We’ve had “come-to-Jesus” meetings where we have had to say hard things and hold each other accountable. But I’m not kidding when I say that I’ve learned to value opposition by its absence.

Paul, in one of his most deliberately misunderstood passages, admits that the Body of Christ, like every other human body, has members (body parts) we don’t necessarily want waving out in public representing us (1 Corinthians 12:22-27), but who we value deeply nonetheless. Paul certainly had experience with oppositional people, and he apparently identified particular people with particular body parts.

I’m not merely saying that opposition builds character, and I don’t think all opposition or conflict is healthy. I believe the Body of Christ, like the human body, has muscles that must oppose each other in order to accomplish work. Without friction and tension, we cannot even move. Most of my running and sports injuries have happened because one set of muscles was much stronger than the opposing set of muscles. The trick is to get those opposing muscles to move in such a way that the Body of Christ can dance, and instead of being awkward and self-injuring, becomes grace-full.

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