The months of June and July constitute Vacation Bible School season in churches all across America. It is with this in mind that I’d like to share a story that involves V.B.S. Actually, the story’s real subject is the spiritual state of two different churches.
After a relatively successful V.B.S. at one of my former churches, I called for a meeting of the teachers and workers who had been involved with the effort. My purpose for the meeting was to assess what had gone well about the V.B.S. and what hadn’t. All I wanted was a friendly, open, candid discussion that would help us identify the areas in which we could improve our V.B.S. the following summer.
And I’m happy to report that the meeting went exactly as purposed. Even when negative subjects were discussed, the meeting retained a warm, friendly spirit that allowed for helpful dialogue and a free-flowing exchange of ideas. No one had an agenda. No one got defensive. No one brought personal issues into the fray. Basically, it was one of the better church meetings that I’ve ever experienced.
Now let’s fast forward to my first year in my next pastorate. Once again my church enjoyed a relatively successful V.B.S., after which I scheduled a followup assessment meeting of the teachers and workers. Since this type of meeting had gone so well at my previous church, I just assumed the same would be true in my new church. I soon learned, however, that my assumption was dead wrong.
The problems started early with a complaint from a teacher that the music director had ignored a song request the teacher’s class had suggested. That, in turn, caused the music director to get defensive. That, in turn, caused the teacher to ratchet things up a notch in terms of tone. That, in turn, caused the music director to match that ratcheting up. So there we all were, just a few minutes into the meeting, and things were already at Def-Con 4.
As the moderator (and I use that word loosely) of the informal meeting, I allowed the verbal exchange between the teacher and the music director to continue for a few uncomfortable seconds. In the end, this would get me accused of siding with the teacher. The truth is, though, that I had two reasons for allowing the argument to last a bit longer than I could have. First, I was caught completely off guard by the turn the meeting took and had to play catch up there for a moment. Second, it was obvious to me that some venting would do both parties some good, you know, sort of like releasing the built up pressure in a pressure cooker. I hoped that once the sore subject of the debated song was out in the open, emotions would settle down and we could discuss the disagreement calmly and rationally. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting for that calm, rational discussion.
You ask, “And what did the rest of the people at the meeting do during the argument?” Well, for one thing, they weren’t about to get involved in that dust-up. So they just sat there watching the show. All they needed was some popcorn. For another thing, some of them didn’t really want to be at the meeting anyway because they themselves were still pouting over different little issues from the recent V.B.S.
Fear not, though, because those issues did eventually get brought up in the meeting as well. And, like the issue of the song, they weren’t brought up in what you might call an ideal spirit. The spirit wasn’t the raw anger and emotion of the exchange between the teacher and the music director. Instead, it was a sober, solemn kind of spirit that more or less conveyed the idea: “If we have to do V.B.S. the same way next year, I might not help with it. I just didn’t enjoy this year at all.”
But now let me tell you the real reason why those two followup V.B.S. meetings at those two churches played out so differently. Here’s the thing: The first meeting involved a church that was in a good place spiritually, but the opposite was true for the second meeting. Simply put, one church was in the midst of a time of peace and even a bit of a revival, but the other one was in the midst of a time of civil war and division.
Before I had become the pastor of that second church, the church had experienced some serious problems that had prompted the resignation of the previous pastor. Following that, a pastoral vote on a new potential pastor hadn’t received the necessary percentage for the man to be called by the church. In the wake of that failed vote, I myself had barely received the required percentage to become their pastor.
All this serves as evidence that the church that I had come into was a deeply divided one, marked by cliques, emotional wounds that hadn’t yet healed, and power struggles over who was going to “run” the church. It was a church that a lot of pastors would have avoided. For my part, though, I felt genuinely called of the Lord to wade into the mess and try to help. I ended up staying there three-and-a-half years, and I at least got them to the place where they could get healthy after I left, but I’ll guarantee you that we didn’t have another followup V.B.S. meeting. I had no desire whatsoever to open up another such can of worms.
The point I’m trying to get across in this post is this: Churches that are where they need to be spiritually can deal with virtually anything in a positive way, while churches that aren’t can’t even get through a Vacation Bible School without incident. That’s why it’s so hard for a church to right itself once it’s gone down a wrong path. The people who created the problems are usually the worst candidates to fix them because fixing them would require humility, brokenness, admission of mistakes, confession of sin, authentic repentance, forgiveness, and a willingness to work together to make the necessary changes. I’m not saying that troubled churches can’t rise to these things (or lower themselves to them, depending on how you look at it), but if such behavior came easily for the people, the church wouldn’t have gotten itself into such sad shape initially.
So, if you ever find yourself in a church that has major issues, tread lightly. Always keep in mind that something that would be harmless in another church might very well light the fuse to a powder keg in yours. V.B.S. meetings, changing the color of the carpet in the sanctuary, putting in new light fixtures, issues involving the church cemetery, changing the Sunday School literature, committee member appointees, changes to the church budget, etc., etc., etc. all have the potential to create problems and even a church split if the church is sick spiritually. This is the sad truth, and it is undoubtedly playing itself out in some church somewhere right now even as you read this.