Conflict is here to stay. The polarization affecting our lives and institutions is the new normal. Don’t believe me? Imagine your school nine months from now. COVID-19 cases are low, and you can see most of your students’ faces again because the government has begun requiring vaccines for attendance, prompting you to have a mask-optional policy. But parents who vehemently object to your masking policy have escalated their concerns to the school board, and you’re still short-staffed from the teachers who quit over vaccination requirements.
We work with leaders of Christian institutions daily, many of them beleaguered. So, we recognize that it can be hard to face the fact that while the pandemic may relent, the controversies you lead through (and the pressure you’re under) will not. We also recognize the wider context in which we all live, namely:
- The U.S. is more divided now as a country than we have been since the Civil War.
- 1 out of 6 people reported they stopped talking to a friend or family member after the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
- Tribalization and polarization are national phenomena that are coming home to roost in Christian schools and churches.
- Students and staff alike are being cultivated through news feeds and social media.
Reason for Hope
But there’s reason to hope, an audacious reason. What if, instead of fearing conflict and the usual contempt and relational corrosion accompanying it, we embraced, harnessed, and redirected all the energy that comes along with conflict as an opportunity to forge a fresh, gospel way forward—through the polarization—not around it?
Our spaces of difference, disagreement, and division, when engaged in the right way—as acts of worship with fellow believers with the explicit goal of glorifying God—have the potential to become places for cultivating virtue, for deepening our love of God and neighbor, and for displaying the beauty and reconciling power of Christ.
This isn’t just a vision. It’s being practiced in institutions like yours that want to equip their students, staff, and faculty to use tense issues as chances to live into the gospel. We’ve worked with hundreds of schools, churches, and universities, and we know this hope is true. For example, Lexington Christian Academy in Boston, Massachusetts, is committed to keeping virtue formation through conflict central to their curriculum and culture. To help them do this, they adapted our training and small group resources to lead their entire school through a conflict formation process. You can read their case study and download samples of lessons and resources for school facilitators, students, and parents here.
More recently, we’ve partnered with Calvin University (Grand Rapids, Michigan) to train staff, faculty, and administrators to engage fraught questions in ways that grow their communal capacity to disagree with depth, rigor, patience, generosity, wonder, and love.
Over 150 years ago, Christian leaders like you helped birth a revolution in Christian education still felt around the world today. This revolution redeployed some of our deepest faith commitments in the face of new cultural challenges in ways that provided believers a coherent and attractive “Christian worldview.” This worldview allowed both deep engagement with, and robust criticism of, the wider culture. It also provided a life-giving gospel alternative to the unsavory options on offer: cultural withdrawal, or cultural complicity.
Embracing the Possibilities
Our rich faith tradition allowed us to innovate for the future. Today, we face a similar moment. And it will require a similar audacity. We need to boldly invite and embrace the possibilities of pursuing spiritual formation through, not around, our deepest disagreements. Christ is the way and the truth and the light. Imagine the joy of watching your team, staff, and students display and bear witness to His gospel alternative in the heat of their most contentious moments. Imagine their joy and freedom as they experience it.
Secular education seeks to avoid this deep, worthwhile work, opting for left, right, or the mushy middle. Many Christian institutions feel tempted to do the same. But we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transcend the default options and disciple students through division. To show them how holding deeply to our Christian convictions, in participation with the Holy Spirit, brings forth new gospel possibilities that the world simply can no longer even imagine. To help them become the kinds of people they need to be in order to witness to the peace of Christ amidst the chaos of our day. To embody an alternative to divisiveness that a watching, desperate world will see. There is no greater opportunity for Christian schools today than to cultivate a culture that practices the ministry of reconciliation. Do it for your staff, for your students, for their parents, for your community.
Sharing the Vision
Our nation and the broader world need to see Christian leaders and a future generation living into the truth of the gospel. This approach needs to become central to our skill sets. Once it becomes core, we’ll be able to lead our communities to a shared vision, to articulate, embody, and inspire them into this vision, and guide them in the ways to participate. At Converge, we’re going to share the vision with you and give you a couple of tools to begin applying it in your school. Won’t you join us?
Join Michael Gulker at Converge 2022 in San Diego on March 8-10, 2022, where he will be speaking on the theme of bridging divides.
Registration is ending on February 18, 2022!
About the Author
Rev. Michael Gulker has a long-standing interest in the oft-times contentious intersection of faith and culture and how both thrive best when rooted in worship. Michael has, during his 10 years leading The Colossian Forum, become a leader turning conflict into an opportunity for both deeper discipleship and more beautiful witness. The Colossian Forum has equipped hundreds of church leaders and thousands of lay people in transformative Christian practices that harness the energy of everyday conflicts for positive spiritual formation. A native of West Michigan, he studied philosophy and theology at Calvin University, has a divinity degree from Duke Divinity School, and is an ordained Mennonite pastor. Before helping form The Colossian Forum, Michael served as pastor of Christ Community Church in Des Moines, Iowa. He and his wife, Jodie, have two children.