Christian Articles Archive

When the New Church Is a Splinter

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

The pastor alienates a group, a power clique blocks change, a Charismatic group is excluded, a pastor is fired-- a group splits off and begins a new church. We're not discussing the rightness or wrongness of a split, nor the ethics of who should pastor it. We're looking at how to deal with the reality: splits happen and sometimes the result is a vigorous new congregation. But they're a different breed. Splinter churches usually differ from other new churches by:
  • A larger group of people
  • A unifying experience
  • Little felt need for a steering committee
  • Greater maturity
  • Ruptured relationships

What kind of principles guide the pastor of a splinter church?

1. Help the New Church Find Its Own Unique Vision.

The new church must not live in reaction but in vision. When the huge First Baptist Church of Modesto declared its independence from the ABC in the early 80s, the faithful American Baptists formed The American Baptist Church. Pastor Mark Lambert struggled for years to help the new core group, largely formed of older members, to stop trying to recreate the past and catch a new vision for their own unique future.

The Rev. Robert Porter now pastors the 300-member Genesis Missionary Baptist Church--that left Shiloh Baptist Church in mid1990. "The group can carry the same old customs and ways of doing things into the new church without realizing it," he says.

Steve Gage pastors Solid Rock Baptist Church in Grand Blanc, Michigan. His church recently split off from Judson Baptist in Flint. Gage says, "The parting group can form a reaction to the old group that becomes just as harmful. In our church the issue was worship style. The old body had toned down from their former Charismatic days. Now the new group wants freedom and power!"

The new pastor must sensitively lead the splinter church from reaction to a clear vision so the people can articulate for themselves a positive purpose for their existence.

2. Work for Healing.

"A bitter spirit can come to either group," says Gage. "It writes 'Ichabod' over the church, and kills the spirit to worship freely." The new pastor is blessed if an interim has come first to help bring about healing. But some pastors begin with a freshly wounded splinter. "Listen to people," advises Pastor Gage. "Be careful, though, that you don't get sidetracked by what appears to be the problem. People tell you very simplistic explanations, while in reality it's probably a combination of five or six things. Sometimes," he says, "you just have to back off. Relationships need time for healing."

"Healing rests on the leadership," says Genesis Baptist's Porter. "The new body needs to be open to love the old. Then it's up to the old body." When the old church calls a new pastor, sometimes that person can help the old church forgive, too. The pastor can say, "We must heal our relationship with our baby." A joint musical or Thanksgiving Service together might symbolize the healing.

3. Accept the Fact of Separation.

Despite the scandal and pain of division, it's sometimes best for all concerned for a group leave and begin anew. "We approach conflicted churches with only one model- -conflict resolution," says Dr. Duncan McIntosh, Church Growth Specialist for the ABC. "Most church splits come out of addictive behaviors--power, buildings, money, etc. Conflict resolution does not heal addiction." Churches can be sicker than we realize.

"The older body we came out of has a history of groups leaving," says Pastor Gage, "They themselves had split off from another church in Flint fifteen years before over the Charismatic issue. Since we left they still have three factions and are still fussing and fuming. Instead of staying and slugging it out, it's better to leave in some kind of peace and serve in a new community." Solid Rock Baptist is planted on the outskirts of Flint.

4. Look for God's Hand in It.

"Out of confrontation there's always growth," says Dr. Curtis Mitchell, pastor of Antioch Progressive Baptist Church in Sacramento, California. "Barnabas split off from Paul over Mark. But where there were once just two missionaries, now there were four. Sometimes we can get so caught up in our own little group that we keep other people out."

Both Antioch and Genesis split off from Sacramento's Shiloh Baptist Church five years apart. Pastor Mitchell is philosophical. "It may be the best thing that's ever happened to church growth in Sacramento," he muses. "If we interfere with God's mission for planting new churches," observes Gage, "He'll bring it about another way."

5. Don't Hide the Church's Beginnings.

"I worked with a church," says Duncan McIntosh, "that was in serious trouble. The younger members finally said to the older members, 'Sometimes when we're talking to you the conversation just stops, and doesn't resume until we leave.' The older members denied it until one lady began to relate how, 29 years before, a split occurred when the pastor was involved in sexual immorality. This church never redeemed the story with the gospel," says McIntosh, "but tried to hide it." If the new church wants to be whole, it must be willing to deal openly with its origins until they are redeemed.

6. Seek Rapport with the Denomination.

Though the denomination will probably require a Steering Committee, it probably won't "steer" to the same degree as in a work that begins from scratch. "When you have a large splinter group and they're well organized," says Dr. George Swank of the American Baptist Churches of the West, "then to use a Steering Committee to manage the church probably isn't very helpful. But if the new church receives funding, then a Steering Committee would need to function at least as an accountability body." "People from the old church may try to blackball you," says Steve Gage. "If the Region sanctions what you are doing, it gives you some legitimacy with your peers." Understand, of course, that the denomination is in a bind, something like the State Department trying to decide whether to support the former government or recognize the new revolutionary junta. An area minister who has worked hard to maintain unity can see the new church as a slap in the face. But wise leaders can conserve much for American Baptist work. Whereas previous splits from Flint's Judson Church turned away from the ABC, this time it was different. Steve Gage recalls, "The Region gave sure guidance and, eventually, financial support. Our people who had not been very loyally American Baptist thought the denomination was the greatest thing since apple pie. What the denomination does is tremendously important."

Churches sometimes have illegitimate children, but they are children nonetheless. A gift of life, a gift of grace, a gift of God. Led carefully, these churches can explode with the vital life of God. "If our hearts are right," concludes Gage, "God will bless us." And ultimately, that's all we need.

Copyright © 1985-2016, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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