Michael Gulker: Conflict and Christian discipleship

Worship can be a powerful way to engage conflict, as participants discovered at this 2018 Colossian Forum event on political division. 
Photo courtesy of The Colossian Forum

In a time of intense polarization, both inside and outside the church, Christians are called not to run from conflict but to engage it, drawing upon ancient practices of the faith, says the president of The Colossian Forum.

Rather than being avoided, conflict is, for Christians and the church, precisely what ought to be engaged, says Michael Gulker. Indeed, conflict and the energy that surrounds it can be harnessed for Christian discipleship.

Unfortunately, the church today has a poor record in helping navigate conflict, in many ways no better than that of Fox News or CNN, he said.

“We’ve been shaped the same way and draw members through polarization,” said Gulker, the founding president of The Colossian Forum. “So pastors, despite their best intentions, often are caught in polarized congregations and are not equipped to negotiate the sticky, complicated situations they’re in.”

Through its Colossian Way program and other initiatives, The Colossian Forum addresses conflict as an act of worship and a practice of Christian discipleship.

“We wanted to recover modes of worship and faith practices that could help us engage conflict in ways that deepen love of God and neighbor,” Gulker said.

When people gather to pray, study Scripture and discuss their differences in a setting of worship, conflict becomes not a threat but an opportunity for Christian discipleship, he said: “When people get together face to face rather than on Facebook, with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, their differences become occasions for grace and truth to burst forth.”

Before helping launch The Colossian Forum in 2011, Gulker, an ordained Mennonite pastor, served for five years as a pastor in Des Moines, Iowa. He has a B.A. from Calvin College and an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School.

GulkerGulker spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about The Colossian Forum, conflict and Christian discipleship. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Give us an overview of The Colossian Forum.

The Colossian Forum was created out of a recognition that the church was facing serious problems but was responding, especially regarding controversial issues, in ways that are less than Christlike. We thought we could do better if we drew on the basic confessions and practices of faith.

So about eight years ago, I was invited to help launch an initiative to engage conflict as an act of worship and as a practice of Christian discipleship. We wanted to recover modes of worship and faith practices that could help us engage conflict in ways that deepen love of God and neighbor.

It was just a wild idea at the beginning -- a sort of virtue project, trying to apply the work of Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre to conflict for leaders in the local church. We started gathering people of different stripes around a variety of topics. We said we were going to worship and follow the structure of the liturgy and put an argument where the homily went and then ask at the end whether the Spirit had produced fruit.

If it did, then our love of God and neighbor is richer and deeper. And if not, then what do we need to repent of, lament, confess?

That’s it in a nutshell. We believe that the conflicts in a culture are precisely the places where we ought to be and that the energy around conflicts can be harnessed for discipleship.

Q: What’s the church’s record in helping navigate conflict today?

It’s the same record as Fox’s and CNN’s. We’ve been shaped the same way and draw members through polarization. So pastors, despite their best intentions, often are caught in polarized congregations and are not equipped to negotiate the sticky, complicated situations they’re in.

Churches mimic the wider culture. We’ve been formed by the same seeds. The problem is that the church is mimicking a divisive culture while proclaiming the Prince of Peace. So in a culture addicted to authenticity, we’re a cliche. But we’re hypocritical cliches. And we’re often willing to tear the church apart over it, which makes us super-critical, cliched idolaters, because these are political ideologies that we’re ripping the body apart over.

This is not the whole story, of course. There are lots of good, faithful people, but this is the story that’s out there. This is the brand that the church currently has.

Q: In articulating its mission, The Forum has said that the church in the West is declining, in part, because “in the face of today’s messiest culture conflicts, the church just doesn’t smell like Jesus.” What do you mean?

That line came from a gathering of young folks early on. To get the conversation going, we asked them about their experience in the church.

A co-worker said, “I had mentors who guided me. Who are your mentors?”

And they said, “We don’t have any. We don’t have those relationships.” They said they were interested in Jesus “but the church doesn’t smell like Jesus.”

They were saying that the church just smells like the rest of the culture. There’s this sense of a gap between the Jesus proclaimed and the political ideology that’s twisted it.

You have this enormous population, especially since Trump, that is [spiritually] homeless. Committed Christians have repeatedly seen Christianity lumped in with Trump, and they don’t know where to go -- and the church doesn’t talk about it.

The church is certainly not monolithic, but the church’s inability to talk openly about it -- or when it does, [its taking] a political [approach], left or right -- has left many people homeless. We had a conference in September, and I was overwhelmed by the gratitude that people expressed to be in a space that was left and right together for something greater than left or right.

This is basic Christian discipleship. We’re doing nothing new. We’re gathering in the name of Jesus; that’s our primary allegiance.

We confess that all things hold together in Christ, not because of something we did, but because of something that has already been done, and we get to participate in that. To do that well, we know that we have to pray. We have to meditate on the Scriptures, together, across our differences. We need to have a good knock-down, drag-out fight and then come before God and see how we did.

This is The Colossian Way. It’s coming together to worship and be honest and be willing to get it wrong together. As Stanley Hauerwas said, we worship a God that forgives, so we can tell the truth about our lives.

We can get it wrong. We can tell the truth about when we get it wrong because when we do, we can confess our sins and God is glorified. People have forgotten this. They forget it the moment they walk into a conflict. So to simply remind people of that is gospel. You can watch them light up and taste the gospel. They’ve forgotten it.

When I started this organization, I was a systematic theologian not sure of what I was doing, and now I am a fervent evangelist for the work of the Spirit. Because when we get together across these conflicts, we see the Holy Spirit do new things over and over.

Q: You contend that conflict can be, not a threat, but a “Christ-given opportunity for discipleship and witness.” How so?

It’s something that I’ve had to figure out from what I saw. When people get together face to face rather than on Facebook, with the invocation of the Holy Spirit, their differences become occasions for grace and truth to burst forth.

In making sense of it, I drew on my training. Conflict is Augustinian; conflict is nothing but disordered desire, and desire is what moves the stars. The desire between the different persons of the Trinity -- the perfect self-giving love -- is what brought everything into being.

When that self-giving love gets disordered, it becomes selfish, self-protective, wounded. That’s what conflict is, but conflict is still desire and energy and love of God, however confused. So if you can walk into a conflict knowing that your love needs to be reordered and so does the other person’s, it becomes the opportunity for discipleship.

What’s the reformation of desire other than discipleship into the image of Christ? When that happens, the very laying down of your false desire witnesses to a greater desire. The moment when engagement moves from conflict to shared longing is beautiful.

Q: How do we do that? Don’t we typically go into conflict thinking, “I’m right and you’re wrong?” There’s a lot of work just going into conflict with humility and realizing, “Maybe I’m wrong.”

Sure. It is a lot of work, but we’re increasingly motivated to do that work, because our entrenched warfare is not only not productive; it’s not even interesting anymore. It’s just cliche.

Even if I know absolutely that I’m right, if it doesn’t help me in the relationships that matter the most to me, I might just stop long enough to listen.

We all have people in our lives we care about but can’t talk to. Sure, in a casual conversation, I might talk to a social justice warrior or a hard right-wing conservative, and they’re not talking [to each other]. But when you get to the kids or their grandkids or their spouses or their siblings, they know that being right isn’t everything. To remind them at that moment that their faith is not only true but operative and beautiful offers them a way forward.

That can lead us to the humility that makes us open to the gospel afresh. When we’re hurting and all of our stridency is getting us nowhere, it’s in those moments of brokenness that people are willing to stop and listen.

Q: How do disagreements among people become an opportunity for formation in Christian virtues?

Relationships take time, and if you’re going to engage someone you disagree with over time, you have to cultivate things like patience, humility, gentleness and forbearance. Those are the marks that Paul talks about as worthy of the calling we have in Christ.

This is what that life looks like. You don’t cultivate those virtues hanging out with people you agree with. Paul is writing to a very diverse crowd -- Jews/Gentiles, slave/free, male/female. If you want to cultivate those virtues, you don’t Facebook with your clan; you spend time with people that you disagree with. It’s something that comes over time by practicing the faith together, and we’ve been equipped with a number of practices that allow us to become those kinds of people.

Q: What practices help make it possible to navigate conflict?

There are lots of them, but The Colossian Way is basically the structure of the Christian worship service: gather in Jesus’ name, name that you’ve been called to worship, invoke the power of the Holy Spirit, and spend time consciously reflecting on why we’re here -- to worship God and to come to a deeper love of God and neighbor.

That’s the goal of any Christian gathering. Christians gather a lot, but they don’t always gather as Christians. Sometimes, we happen to be together and we happen to be Christian but we didn’t gather as Christians with the goal of glorifying God and edifying our neighbor and witnessing the resurrection. By simply naming that, you shift and create a new world. You just left the world of Fox and CNN and you entered the kingdom and said, “This is what it’s about.”

That does so much work. It opens up this huge theological horizon for who we think we are and how we relate to each other.

When Christians happen to gather together but not as Christians, we go in as Republicans and Democrats and we know where the land mines are. We negotiate from political ideology, and we know from our newsfeeds that anyone who disagrees with me is either uneducated, stupid or evil.

This is our mode of relating. But when you begin with a call to worship, you relate entirely differently. That’s the first move.

The second practice is to ask, “What is the source of our unity?” And that is a reflection on Scripture, whether it’s Ephesians 2 or Colossians 1 -- “All things hold together in Christ.” There are tons of passages that you can dwell in and say, “This is something God has done; we have the opportunity now to grow into it and to participate in it.”

We realize that we don’t have the capacity yet to participate in the reconciliation of all things, but we’re on the way. So we pray Scripture together and spend time together.

And then the next stage is to engage the wicked problem, the adaptive challenge -- the really complicated thing that we’re divided over. And we try to bring the best scholarship and Christian theology into play and pick one facet of the problem and fight like crazy.

If you do that, recognizing that the other is your brother or sister in Christ created in the image of God, then that difference between the two of you is one of different modes of pursuing God. I may think you’re wrong or driving the church off the cliff, but I recognize your goodwill and intent to be faithful, and [you] likewise, the same for me.

I can then be held accountable by you to say, “OK, you believe X. You’re going to have to show me how X leads to a deeper love of God and neighbor, because from where I’m sitting, that doesn’t work.”

Those are real questions; they’re not potshots. Those are real questions. To say, “We’re here in the name of Jesus. I believe that you long to be faithful, so lay it out for me” -- those conversations don’t happen in the local church very often.

And then we end in this last stage of sending, with praise and lament and hope. We ask what did God do, what didn’t God do that we need to lament or confess, and what’s next.

If you practice this pattern over time, you begin to build a capacity to engage others in this different key, to see a human being not as stupid or evil but as somebody who’s longing for God and is broken like you.

Q: What issues and conflicts do you see people most commonly wrestling with?

Politics. But with politics, it’s not really politics. It’s tribal warfare, and it has so many different manifestations. It can be immigration or climate change or gender, #MeToo, Black Lives Matter.

These things are all over the place, and they’re geographical, too. New York City is different from Savannah, Georgia, and the issues are different, but what’s not different is the alienation people are feeling, and usually as expressed through the political ideologies of the day.

Q: What successes are you seeing with The Colossian Way?

It’s a long game. It’s hard to measure virtue development. That in and of itself is its own conundrum, and we’re working with a couple of folks on that.

But our best sign of success is that when we train folks, they keep going. They run one group and then another and another, and they ask for more material and more training, and they send more people to more training.

But also I want to get a hard, quantitative assessment. We’re still trying to figure out how that works, but we get a lot of stories of people asking themselves, “What does love require here?”

This [assessment] question is important, because how do you measure success in the kingdom? Caesar Augustus or baby in Bethlehem? What counts? When are you really seeing a foretaste?

I wrestle with this a lot, because we’re spending a lot of time and energy and money on this effort. But I’m reading the letters of Paul, and he’s talking about dozens of house churches and about the whole world being upended with several hundred people.

What math are we operating here? I don’t know. I can tell these stories, but I don’t know. It’s a long game.

Q: Is the goal to resolve conflict? Or do you just learn to live with conflict?

We’re not going to resolve our conflicts, but we do need to learn to live together. So engaging conflict requires discovering the depth of our difference, and that is a gift, even though you may seriously disagree and think somebody is wrong. Once you discover that, the work of figuring out how to live together can only be done on the ground together.

This is traditioned innovation on the ground. This is where the faith happens, and it’s very concrete. It has to do with the people sitting next to you. How are you going to live together? And then you’ve got to make those decisions knowing that not everybody is going to come out of it a winner, so how are you going to relate?

Doing all that work together does not resolve tensions. You can’t, for example, both marry and not marry sexual minorities, gay folks. You can’t do both, so what are you going to do? Communities are going to land in different places, and you have the choice to simply sort yourselves out or find other, more interesting ways of being together.