The Rocky Mountain American Baptist
A Newsletter of the American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains
Turn Dissension into Mission
The “mic drop” of unprecedented events this year has redefined the lexicon of our churches. Words such as “Zoom,” “social distancing,” “quarantine,” “pivot,” “dashboard,” and “virtual worship” have already complicated the sacred landscape without adding yet one more: “Covid sabotage.”
Although “Covid sabotage” might be a lesser-circulated word in this “new normal,” the actual phenomenon is more pervasive. (In a more general usage, this term refers to using Covid transmission rates and case statistics to justify a particular position or reaction).
In regards to the church, as leaders attempt to “re-engage” their congregations after mandated shutdowns and prolonged restrictions on church attendance, they might have noticed several “sabotage” obstacles. First, some congregants have withdrawn from church after a few return visits – in which they discovered an unfamiliar and “changed” worship experience. Second, others are vocally refusing to attend in-person services for the foreseeable future (i.e., due to the convenience of online services, the infringement of face mask or safety requirements, or due to the uncertainty of the Covid-19 contagion).
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Deeper down, however, there might be a subconscious reason: sabotage.
For example, a person might actively or passively be resisting the “new” church methods because the church environment has changed. It can be as simple as this person deciding to no longer attend (and to dissuade others) until things somehow revert to a pre-Covid “normal.” What begins as a more passive protest, however, could develop into a greater form of sabotage.
Although “sabotage” is a term most Christians would rather relegate to an action-packed adventure film, this sometimes subtle-but-potentially destructive practice is actually quite common in any organization—including the church.
In his book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, author Tod Bolsinger describes sabotage as a natural response from people who value and support the “status quo” system. In this instance, so-called saboteurs have witnessed how the pandemic has disrupted the church’s time-honored traditions and routines. Then, add to these sentiments the controversial issues that have dominated this year’s headlines, and sabotage becomes the manner in which some people are trying to preserve “something dear to them.”
So, how can church leaders navigate this emotional minefield at such a precarious time in the modern church? The below list offers some useful suggestions:
Sabotage is not personal: The first step is to recognize that sabotage often isn’t a personal attack. Sabotage more appropriately fits into the category of a “fight or flight” response to either a real or a perceived threat. That’s why a saboteur who’s thwarting a new church initiative or a new worship style might also be the same person who once offered a hug or a handshake on Sunday mornings. When church leaders can better recognize the objective nature of sabotage (as an ideological resistance rather than a personal attack), it helps to prevent a more immediate and emotional response.
Uncertainty creates a sabotage backdrop: Anxiety is an accelerator for the problems, concerns, or challenges that have remained unaddressed within the church (often for a number of years). Each attendee already has a certain set of expectations for church based upon past experiences, traditions, emotions, and beliefs. When a sense of uncertainty clouds every aspect of a personal’s life (cue the soundtrack to 2020), it might seem to him or her as if “nothing will ever be the same again.” If those words sound familiar, take heart!—it represents a chance to have open conversations with people about topics that have remained buried under years of liturgical dust. If anxiety is an accelerator then necessary changes can be an incubator for new growth and missional opportunities!
Sabotage is biblical: No one desires to encounter sabotage, but it’s a practice that has been both described—and confronted—in the Bible. The Hebrews, being recently delivered from their bondage in Egypt, quickly questioned Moses’s leadership from the moment they felt “trapped” at the edge of the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s army of chariots rumbled towards them. In the New Testament, Judas’s betrayal of Jesus might have been an attempt to coerce Jesus into forcibly overthrowing Israel’s oppressors and in fulfilling Israel’s first-century expectations for a Messiah. Even before Judas’s betrayal, Jesus had rebuked Peter for his defiant language of protest when Jesus predicted his own death (Mt.16:21-23). These Biblical instances depict how those who cling to certain expectations don’t always see the bigger picture of God’s mission. Likewise, pastors shouldn’t be surprised by sabotage, but instead, they should wisely prepare for it!
More voices are better than one: Jesus never worked in isolation except for specific periods in which he sought prayer and solitude with God the Father. Bolsinger refers to having “allies” and “confidants” in helping to achieve the mission of any organization. While church leaders should address the opposition’s concerns, they also should have a “healthy and close alliance” with those who passionately share in the mission of the church, and who can help communicate that mission to others. In that regard, it’s not just the pastor who’s behind “all of the changes,” but instead, it’s the consensus of likeminded Christians trying their best to fulfill the Great Commission (Mt. 28:16-20).
The status quo isn’t God’s mission: Jesus empowered his disciples with the declaration to go forth and to make disciples of all nations. He never spoke of maintaining the status quo. Most saboteurs in the church probably agree with the mission. Instead, they don’t like the “new methods” by which to accomplish the “mission.” To alleviate those fears, Pastor and author Carey Nieuwhof recommends that church leaders clarify the mission (the constant) from the methods (the variables). By doing so, dissenters might see how an unwillingness to change methods ultimately fails to support the church’s overall mission.
Admit that we all love nostalgia: Throughout the decades, trends seem to go through periods of reincarnation. This is partly because of a popular fascination with nostalgia. To look upon the past—the “good old days”—can offer a sense of comfort in troubling times. For example, my 9-year-old son, John, has fallen in love with watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show because it represents an idyllic world compared to the chaos of today.
Note: the most important suggestion for pastors might be the one that follows:
Don’t sabotage yourself: A recent article (based upon a survey of pandemic-related pastor "burnout") found that a number of ministerial leaders “feel like quitting” right now due to disappointment and criticism associated with declining attendance and church interest. This weight upon the pastor’s soul—and the similar burden upon his or her family—might lead to a sense of “helplessness.” The pastor also is placed upon a social and moral pedestal. As a result, psychologist Ellen Hendrickson warns that self-sabotage might be a misguided attempt to regain some control of life—even if it means behaving in a sinful way in order to feel “normal” again. To help prevent those feelings, church leaders need to have the self-compassion to recognize that the difficulties, mistakes or losses associated with ministry don’t define his or her true identity to God.
Each year, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary reviews and updates its vast indexes of words and definitions to reflect the vernacular changes in our world. In a similar way, the church looks to speak the timeless, transcendent truth of God in a manner that younger generations can understand. This might result in some powerful movements of dissension within the ranks, but even the sabotage of Judas Iscariot proved that nothing can stop the work of Jesus and of those who obey the Great Commission.