Living In The Tension
by Paulo Lopes
Director of Emerging Leadership
World Methodist Evangelism
Over the years I’ve observed that many of the problems we have in mission and ministry stem from our confusion between two similar, yet distinct, things: Conflict and Tension.
Now, since these are pretty common words it might be helpful to offer definitions for the sake of this conversation:
Conflict: “An incompatibility between two or more opinions, principles, or interests.”
Tension: “A relationship between ideas or qualities with differing demands or implications.”
The differences are subtle, yet the implications when we fail to recognize them can have devastating effects in our communities. You see, conflict and tension will always exist in our congregations and in our communities at large. The question is how we choose to deal with each one.
Conflict demands resolution. It exposes inconsistencies and problems within groups. So, the group MUST find answers and apply them. In church history there are many examples of conflict. One of the greatest ones revolved around the divinity of Christ. Left unchecked, that disagreement would have defined the witness of the church for future generations because it questioned the core of why the Church exists. Conflicts must be resolved.
Tension on the other hand can’t be resolved, only managed. Tension typically exists because there is something in between those involved, pulling them back together like an elastic band. In this analogy, resolving tension would be similar to cutting the elastic band. The result is the loss of a common core.
Some of our greatest troubles arise when we decide to flip the script by managing conflicts and resolving tensions. As a church leader, surely you have been in rooms and meetings where you know of underlying conflicts which have gone unresolved for years, deteriorating trust and hindering our capacity to boldly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The same happens with tension. I’d like to point to one in particular which has existed for as long as the Church: The tension between OLD and YOUNG. I have yet to see a community that has not dealt with this tension. However I have seen many churches make the mistake of trying to resolve the tension instead of managing it. In some places this might look like separate worship services for the old and the young. In the U.S., a common choice is to hire a youth worker to care for the needs of teenagers while the “grown-up pastor” cares for the adults (note that I’m not opposed to the employment of youth workers, but rather a specific motive often behind it).
When we resolve the tension between old and young, the old miss out on the vibrancy and innovation of the young, while the young are left without the wisdom, groundedness, and memory, of the old. The results are catastrophic! As leaders, we must resist the temporary comforts of creating ministry silos for leaders of different ages. Instead, we must learn to live in the tension.
Yesterday, WME launched a cohort of emerging pastors who will spend 10 months learning from each other, from a coach, and from experienced leaders who will provide much needed wisdom and grounding for them. We wouldn’t have it any other way! The health of our churches, and our capacity to reach the next generations with the Gospel of Jesus Christ depend on our ability to live in the tension between young and old. The fruit of this is a church that is exciting and vibrant, full of new ideas and innovation, yet grounded in the “faith once delivered to the saints” and steeped in wisdom. This is the kind of church the world needs today.
I’ll leave you with a selection of Scripture passages challenging us to live in this tension.
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.” (Joel 2:28)
“One generation shall praise your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts.” (Psalm 145:4)
“Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:7-8)
“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:12)