Managing the Tension: An Introduction

Managing the Tension: An Introduction

This post is part of an ongoing series about grappling with paradox, contradiction, and mystery as it relates to church leadership in today's world. Find the rest of the series here.

“It’s not about deciding ‘either/or,’ it’s about learning to manage the polarities.” I don’t know how many times my professor, Dr. David Wray, said this in his classes. Enough times to make it stick with me all these ten years later, I suppose. It continues to be some of the most helpful ministry advice I’ve received.

Paradox lies close to the heart of the Christian faith. That shouldn’t really surprise any of us. After all, the heart of the Christian story claims that God works through death to bring about new life. We hinge our beliefs upon a Trinitarian God—one God expressed in three persons. The doctrine of the incarnation says God becomes a human being, but Jesus still prays to “his Father in heaven." If that doesn’t baffle us a little, then I don’t think we’re paying close enough attention!

In the pursuit of living as a Christian, preaching the truths of the Christian story, and engaging in Christian theological reflection, I am constantly bumping up against truth claims that seem at odds with one other. For instance:

  • God is outside, above, and other than creation; BUT God is also inside, in the midst of, and revealed through creation.

  • To be human is to be created in the image of God; BUT to be human is to be made of dust—like all the other animals.

  • The Christian life should be lived completely in self-giving love and service to others; BUT you can’t serve others unless you take care of yourself—I call this one the “put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others” principle.

  • All people share a common humanity; BUT you can never fully understand the experience of any other human being.

  • The best churches embed themselves in the language, culture, and customs of their neighbors so that all might hear and believe God’s good news; BUT the best churches recognize that our true home is not in this world.

  • The best church leaders focus on the “long game;” BUT the best church leaders are fully invested in the present moment.

  • God is greater than any human ideas and words about God; BUT we still come to know and to name God through human ideas and language.

I could go on. I’m sure you could as well. The practice of Christian faith is less about learning to decide either/or than learning how to manage the tension between equal, but seemingly opposite, truths. In this series of blog posts, I’d like to grapple with some of the tensions we continue to manage as people of faith, preachers of God’s word, and leaders in churches.

Unfortunately, our history in Churches of Christ has not always prepared us well for dealing with ambiguity, mystery, and paradox. We’re often very attracted to absolutes. We’re often very inclined to “either/or” thinking. However, learning to manage the tension—in our thinking, our doing, our preaching, and our leading—is a crucial skill for navigating the growing complexities of the times in which we live. I’m thankful every day for my faith heritage in Churches of Christ. The Churches of Christ gave me the greatest gift I’ve ever received—they introduced me to Jesus. For this reason, I am also encouraged by the number of leaders within Churches of Christ who seem much more adept at dealing with tension, ambiguity, and mystery than some of our predecessors.

I am also encouraged by the number of church leaders within Churches of Christ who are engaging the wider tradition of historical Christianity so that we might learn from and alongside those who have been asking these same questions for much longer than we have. In fact, for much longer than Churches of Christ have even been around! We are not the first in history to wrestle with paradox. However, in these times of immense change and uncertainty, learning to grapple with mystery and paradox has become a crucial skill for the survival of the church.

How are you doing at managing the tension? How are our churches doing? Other than those listed above, what are some tensions your church is wrestling with today?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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