The area of Northern Montana where I reside is largely prairie. Our annual rainfall is measured in inches and the local farms grow wheat and raise cattle. During the late summer, a persistent Sunday morning prayer request is for no fires and for safety when they do break out. The interesting thing is that it takes very little to start a blaze. The heat from the exhaust of a car parked in tall grass is more than sufficient to light a fire. A thrown cigarette or a lightning strike can destroy hundreds of acres. Dry wheat, chaff, brush, high winds, and farm equipment make for a dangerous combination during the dry season. One of the most impressive things about these fires is the response from the farmers and ranchers. When a fire breaks out in the hills, the farmers call each other, load into trucks, and put the fire out. The fire department is also called, but with 30 miles of travel to put in before they fight the fire, every set of hands matters. Most farms have water trucks and backpacks for spraying water on fires. There is a perfect model here for the church.
In the third chapter of James, he speaks at length regarding the tongue and the danger that accompanies words that are far too loosely spoken.
Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. James 3:5-6
I have worked in professional church ministry for over a decade and have watched as gossip, envy, angry talk, and other words started fights that ruined friendships and split fellowships. All it ever was, was a small spark; a few words and the fire was lit. Gossip, boasting, and judgement preceded the forming of factions and alliances, which led into hostilities and splits. It’s astounding to me the sorts of things folks would say and do in the name of their opinion regarding what was right for the church. Once these fires started, they were extremely difficult to put out. I once met a stranger at work who grew up in a different town than the church I worked for. He told me all about what he heard of my actions in a church fight that had happened years before. A few sparks spread to another field and the fire continued. The tragedy of the whole situation was that believers in Christ got burned. I know folks who walked away from church membership entirely over the shoddy behavior of the folks who decided it was their job to burn the wheat and the tares in the name of their petty issues. (Matthew 13:24-30)
Ideally, the church should resemble the farming community in which I live. When a fire breaks out, instead of running to pour gas on the blaze, every member should leap into action to put out the fire before the harvest is set ablaze. Friends, family, and neighbors wouldn’t sit around and listen to the newest juicy gossip. Instead, they would recognize the danger of a fire catching and respond by lovingly correcting the behavior and stopping the fire before it spreads. When a fire catches and begins to spread, members of the church community would charge in and make peace, throwing water on the situation. They would respond to the fire alarm with a sense of urgency that is in harmony with the danger that is presented to the body of Christ.
They would respond by working to put out the fire. This does not mean that they will drive the fighters out of the church, but rather they will call those involved to Christlike behavior, love, and to be peacemakers. Believers do not step on each other to create harmony. Rather, they call each other to repentance, speaking the truth in love.
A final component of preventing fires from spreading in the church is for the preacher and teachers to teach members about the dangers of speaking too loosely and the sin of gossip. Believers need to be taught about the dangers of loose talk and the sins associated with sowing seeds of dissension in the body.
I’m preaching on “false testimony” on Sunday; just thought I might use some of this stuff… Is that OK?
Use anything you’d like.
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Wise words. Our church recently went through something similar – we were “lucky” that only some eyebrows were singed. Still, those eyebrows will take a while to grow back. It’s never pleasant, not even on a small scale.
I wonder if this sort of thing happens in megachurches, or is it exclusive to small congregations?
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I asked this question of a staffer a few years ago at a church conference. He indicated that it does, but they keep it under control by confronting it when it happens. Also, It think mega-churches are more anonymous, so its harder to get traction than in a church where everyone knows everyone else’s name. Thanks for commenting.