Fostering Congregational Consensus (Nov 96 – Mar 97)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mike Armour
November, 1996 – March, 1997

The surest way to bring a church to a standstill is to insist that all decisions be unanimous. On the other hand, many a church has blown apart when leaders imposed decisions that lacked wholesale support.

Fortunately, we are not forced to choose between unanimity on one hand and arbitrary decision-making on the other. In between lies a broad middle ground called “consensus.”

As its spelling suggests, “consensus” is related to the word “consent.” Consensus means that people generally consent to a given course of action.

Does this mean they consider it the best course of action? Not necessarily. But they do see it as an acceptable one. They are therefore willing to support this course of action, or at least not oppose it.

Thus, in coming to consensus, we have to remind ourselves periodically that we are not looking for a perfect solution, but rather one that is workable. Far too often we put off a good choice for months, even years, while fruitlessly trying to find the perfect choice. A good choice made in a timely fashion tends to be far more fruitful than a perfect choice made too late.

True consensus-building, then, is not waiting for the absolutely best decision. Consensus-building is finding a plan with a reasonable promise of success, then rallying everyone behind it.

But that’s sometimes easier said than done. As I travel the country, I hear church leaders everywhere talk about the tension they feel as they try to build consensus in their congregation. And when I ask about the source of this tension, their answers all boil down to one word—diversity. Too many people with too many ideas about how things ought to be done.

Two years ago Don Browning and I addressed this problem in a book titled Systems-Sensitive Leadership: Empowering Diversity without Polarizing the Church. In that book we offered a detailed description of eight world views that coexist on our planet today. Not only that, these world views sit side by side in the pew.

Most tension in today’s church arises from the interplay of three specific world views, or “thinking systems,” as we call them in our book. Based on the order in which they appeared in human history, we refer to these three as Systems 4, 5, and 6.

Forty years ago System 4 reigned unchallenged in most congregations. System 5 and System 6, while rising in our society, had as yet left little impact on the church. But in the 1960s and ‘70s that began to change. In many congregations today System 5 and System 6 are not only prominent, they often dominate.

At the same time, a very large element of the congregation and its leadership may have retained a purely System 4 outlook. What’s critical about this is that each system approaches the work of the church with a unique set of priorities. This unique approach stems from a specific life issue that governs each system.

For System 4 the issue is creating social and moral stability in a world given to hedonism, impulse, passion, and violence. For System 5 the critical life issue is breaking free of conformist pressure to find personal fulfillment and achievement. For System 6 the issue is building bonds of intimacy and mutual support in a world given to insensitivity, alienation, and exploitation.

Now, on the surface those differences seem innocent enough. They all sound like legitimate concerns. But when these core issues translate into specific ideas about “how to do church,” harmony is often strained, especially when the question of change comes up.

That’s because Systems 5 and 6 are highly interested in change, while System 4 is quite guarded about change. System 5, with its resentment of excessive pressure to conform, wants to be free to try new approaches, to experiment with new ways of doing things. It loves variety and thrives on it. If we change the format of our worship service week after week, that’s just dandy with System 5 people. System 5 also presses for a leadership that delegates heavily and leaves broad rights of initiative in the hands of deacons and ministry workers.

System 6 also longs for change. What System 6 envisions is a new human community where the “have nots” and the “left outs” of an earlier day find non-judgmental acceptance. System 6 therefore wants to eliminate any barriers, real or symbolic, that would make people feel excluded.

This shows up, for instance, in dress codes. As System 6 grows in prominence, coats and ties disappear in worship. System 6 also has a bias against being overly organized. As System 6 sees it, organizations tend to become impersonal and heartless. System 6 thus minimizes formal structure wherever it can.

As we’ve already noted, however, System 4 has misgivings about change. Not that System 4 refuses to change. But it does so at a more measured, cautious pace.

This stems in part from a rather low regard for human nature. System 4 believes that human beings, left unchecked, resort instinctively to pleasure-seeking, near-term gratification, violence, and even ruthlessness. System 4 views its role as keeping those impulses in check.

For that reason System 4 lends itself to keeping things under control. It restricts options and maintains structure. It wants authoritarian leadership. It seeks order and predictability. And to this end, System 4 creates rules and policies on every turn. In its unhealthy forms, indeed, System 4 turns into legalism.

Now, given these differences, it might seem impossible to keep all these systems working harmoniously under the same roof. But, as Jesus said, with God all things are possible. And God is truly the starting place for helping us transcend system differences.

To begin with, these differences are God-made. According to the research that identified these systems, they all leave their own unique signature on personal neurology and psychology. In other words, God wired this diversity into us. And God never gave us a gift that was intended to polarize or debilitate the body of Christ.

So the challenge is to resist the temptation of throwing up our hands over system differences and going our separate ways. Rather, what’s called for is rolling up our sleeves and learning new styles of leadership that harness the strength of each system. The question of the hour is this: Since God created these differences, how would he have us use them to his glory and the furtherance of his kingdom? That question will move us away from polarization and nudge us toward a common game plan.

Don and I devoted roughly half of our book to specific recommendations on how to transcend system differences in worship, Bible classes, volunteer management, evangelism, preaching styles, and other arenas of ministry. In the restricted space of this article I obviously cannot recapitulate all that material.

But as we’ve taught seminars on this subject for several years now, we have come to realize the importance of several factors when it comes to building consensus in a multi-system church.

First, we need to remind ourselves frequently to remember whose church it really is. In times of tension or conflict we often hear people say, “I don’t want my church doing….” But it’s not my church. It’s the Lord’s church. And so the ultimate question is not what I want, but what he wants. And apparently he wants us to rise above our differences and diversity. Otherwise he would not have placed us side by side in the Body.

Second, we need to focus frequently on overarching aims. When lines are drawn in congregational struggles, we start to question the motives of those who oppose us. We begin to zero in on how different they are from us, losing sight of many ways in which we are in fact alike.

We need regular reminders, therefore, that the same great purposes motivate all of us. Things like making worship rich and meaningful for everyone. Or finding the most effective way to reach lost souls. Or offering Bible classes that promote true spiritual growth. No one, regardless of his systems preference, is likely to disagree with such goals.

If you look at Paul’s letters to conflicted churches, indeed, you will find that this was precisely the way he dealt with many issues. He appealed to his readers to recognize the overarching principles that they all subscribed to. Then, having reunited their hearts on the basis of the things they shared in common, Paul believed they could find a way to allow for and work around their diversity.

Third, we need to acknowledge our differences, but discuss them in terms of overarching aims. Let me illustrate by offering an example from a recent Sunday morning at our congregation.

As I introduced the service I said, “You will notice on your program of worship that there are several songs and readings during our communion. Many of you, we know, prefer a communion done quietly, with no songs or readings. That makes it more meaningful for you. But there are many others in our church for whom the communion is far richer when songs and readings reinforce its meaning. Now, all of us want the communion to be a peak experience regularly for every worshipper, don’t we? So we vary the style of communion from time to time, to meet the needs of everyone. Next week, in fact, we will conduct our communion without songs or readings to allow you the uninterrupted silence and reflection you prefer. But today we are meeting the needs of others.”

The effect of this appeal was not to ask people to accept a communion service conducted in a way that went against their preferences. The ultimate appeal was for them to respect the principle of regularly making the communion a peak experience for every worshipper. On that principle we are very likely to find consensus.

Fourth, be purposeful and relentless in promoting deep, trusting relationships. Consensus is more likely to prevail in a congregation of interwoven lives. If someone I truly care for disagrees with me, I have a strong motivation to find a way to continue our relationship, despite our differences.

But where relationships are superficial, even slight differences can jeopardize harmony. None of these recommendations, of course, is a cure-all for tension. But these are crucial foundation stones for building congregational consensus. Even Paul and Barnabas could not always see things eye-to-eye. And neither can we.

The challenge, then, is this. When we don’t see eye-to-eye, how will we respond to that difference in a way that advances the kingdom of God? Managing our differences through that perspective will keep us on the same track and help us find a way to work together.Wineskins Magazine

Mike Armour

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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