What is the greatest challenge facing Baptist churches across the state?” This is a question I am often asked. Sometimes the question is posed replacing “challenge” with “need” or “problem.” No matter how you ask the question, my answer is swift and clear—CONFLICT.

I have been a pastor and leader in Oklahoma for more than 30 years. In those 30 years, I have crisscrossed this state preaching in many churches. As I look back across the years, I see a tidal wave of churches that were once strong and vibrant, impacting their communities with the Gospel, but now are only shadows of themselves. Some churches are still making a difference, but their reach and influence has diminished. Others have lost vision, mission and impact. Why?

There is never a one-size-fits-all answer, but the accurate response to the question is church conflict. Church members become at odds over the direction of the church, pastoral leadership, style of worship, color of the carpet or the side of the platform on which the piano will sit. Be assured Satan will provide a wealth of opportunities for disagreement.

The result of conflict is a church that was once focused, alive and passionate about worship and mission, but now stands disoriented, fractured, fussing and fighting. Often, there is an exodus to other churches. In the past, this would mean transferring to another Baptist church, but today it more often means moving to non-Baptist churches or people dropping out of the church all together. Sometimes,  this conflict ends in a split, and the formation of a new church. While you can find places where these splits resulted in greater growth by two churches, this is not necessarily a proven method of Kingdom advancement.

The collateral damage of church conflict is the sidelining of gifted people from Kingdom service. People who have experienced or played a part in church conflict often move to a new church only to sit hidden on a pew offering little service or expertise to the new church. This lack of participation is tragic, harmful to the persons involved and contributes little to the advancement of the Kingdom in the community.

Individuals who have gone through church conflict may sound like people who have gone through a divorce. Some will cast blame on those who offended them; others will become mistrusting of pastoral leaders. Some will harbor resentment and hurt, unwilling to forgive and move forward in the sea of God’s grace. One thing is clear, the pain of church conflict is not easily healed.

So what is the answer? How can we avoid church conflict? I could write pages on the subject, and perhaps I should. No simple answer will suffice. Perhaps the best I can do in this article is deal with the heart issue.

Jesus was clear that others will be able to recognize us as His disciples when they see the love we have for one another. The priority in the church moves from a black-and-white discussion of finances, preferences, direction and a myriad of other things over which we divide, to a serious look at what it means to love others. Paul called upon us to prefer one another and to have the same sacrificial mind and heart of Jesus in our relationships with others.

Most church conflict can be reduced to opposing groups who want their way. Maybe the simplest answer to conflict in the church is to determine we will stay on our knees until we identify His way. His way leads us toward one another, not away from one another. Loving others demands humility and sacrifice. Love is not an option, but a command. Church conflict dies when we place others before ourselves and love them with Christ-like love.