Faithful in Dissent: How the Insights of Critics Can Bless a Church


I posted a recent reply to the head of Lifeway, Thomas Rainer, and his post “Five Types of Critics in the Church.” And over at The Assembling of the Church, Alan Knox posted more on this issue in his “Dissension, Criticism, and the Church.”

It’s funny how memes spread through the Godblogosphere, because I wanted to write more about dissent in the Church. I hope to write about disunity in the near future, but for now my focus is more on understanding how vital dissent can be in bettering the way we practice the Faith in our assemblies.

One of my criticisms of the Rainer post was his call to label critics by types. My experience as a Christian of 35+ years is that labels are most often used to crush ideas and the people who form them. This is to our shame as the Body of Christ. Iron sharpens ironWhile labels are not inherently bad, how we use them is less than stellar. In this post, I use some labels to categorize people. My intention is not to crush those people or demean their input but to make leaders aware of which dissenters can be most valuable to a church. While I think that all labels have weaknesses, my hope is that those who read this will be more aware of the types of people found in a church and what each of those types brings to the overall expression of Christ in our midst.

My hope in writing this is to identify not only types of dissenters but how they can bless a church with their insights. Good leaders recognize dissent as a gift, especially if it corrects actions that proceed from blind spots. We are differently gifted by the Lord for a reason. It is why we are not to create hierarchies of authority within churches. Failure to see fellow Christians as equal brethren before the Lord, with each person’s gifts and insights needed for the proper functioning of the Church, is one of the greatest lacks in Evangelicalism today. For this reason, dissenters must be considered a blessing rather than a burden.

From my own experiences, here are the types of dissenters and why they are vital for a healthy church:

1. The Denominational Outsiders

People who grew up in a different society or culture are often our most insightful critics. Within a church, those with a different denominational background see ways in which their new denomination entrenches itself in habits that may impede progress. While these outsiders have their own cultural blind spots, what they see in us is often what goes most ignored because we have taken that trait for granted or have missed how we underestimate its effects on our behavior.

People who come into a denomination from another denomination often get downgraded because they are not a “lifer.” This is especially true in relation to the level of leader downgrading them. The upper echelons of some denominations resemble fraternity houses more than anything, with the Baptists as Sigma Nu, the Assemblies of God as Alpha Tau Omega, and the Catholics as Animal House (as the Protestants see them).

Wise leaders see beyond divided loyalties, though. Because each denomination has its strengths and weaknesses, denominational outsider—the Lutheran in the Nazarene church, the Reformed in the charismatic church, etc.—has a unique previous experience that may go far in exposing denominational weaknesses and helping to turn them into strengths.

Sadly, what often happens in churches is that those people who come into a church as denominational outsiders are sometimes treated as tainted by their theological differentness. They supposedly have not had a “pure” experience, so their voices are given second-class citizen status within a church beholden to its denominational roots. To the denominational outsider, this “party crasher” label hurts, especially when it is used to prevent them from having a say in the progress of the church, both locally and at the denominational level.

We still read de Toqueville today because the Frenchman visited a young America, correctly took its pulse, and offered the world astute insights into the growing nation that we natives may have overlooked. Let that be our same standard with those who come into our denominational churches from a different background and show us for who we truly are, both good and bad.

2. The Visionaries

Every church has a subset of people who are “out there.” No group of people bothers entrenched church leaders more than these folks. Why? Because visionaries have a tendency to reveal the smallness of the vision of those leaders. When visionaries are not on leadership, this makes for considerable dissension in a church because the visionaries often are way ahead of the leaders. Visionaries are natural idea sharers, too, and in that sharing may cause others to see nonvisionary leaders as lacking. Obviously, this comes off as threatening. More often than not, deficient leaders combat this by labeling visionaries with every demeaning label possible so as to hurt their reputation among the people with whom those visionaries share their ideas.

In contrast, wise leaders recognize the need to keep visionaries close rather than pushing them away. The old aphorism is that the Church is just one generation away from extinction, and this makes the visionary a valuable asset. Seeing what lies ahead is a useful gift. Leaders who keep visionaries close and respect their vision can lead a church around future pitfalls, compensate for trends in culture, and anticipate needs that will keep the church always proactive rather than reactive.

But this requires great humility in leaders who are not themselves gifted in this way. A leader with an administrative gift must be satisfied with his gift and not fall into jealousy because someone else is more gifted in leading into the future, especially if that visionary is just an average Joe in the pew. In America, we tend to love our visionaries just a wee bit too much and overemphasize their usefulness, which demeans other types of giftings. Visionaries and nonvisionary leaders must recognize this and temper the tendency everyone has to make more of vision than should be allowed. That said, stifling visionaries remains one of our greatest lacks in the American Church.

3. The New Folks

One of the pathetic truths of American Christianity is that we shuffle around our people rather than making new disciples. Churches tend to grow by feeding off the remains of dead or dying churches, and while some leaders trumpet their methods in bestselling church growth books, vultures were considered unclean in the Old Testament for a reason.

Despite this problem, church leaders can use the experiences of people new to their church as an object lesson in how to keep their own church out of the dead pile.

Because the new folks are often basking in the glory of their newfound church home while breathing a collective sigh of relief over the the toxic church mess they left behind, they are not often ones to immediately create dissent in their new home. Wise leaders understand that these folks left because of dissent and that these folks’ reason for leaving can serve as a cautionary tale on what NOT to do. Wise leaders tap this knowledge early and store it away for future reference.

The other reality about new folks is that whatever caused them to leave their old church likely still simmers inside them. This makes them highly alert to similar problems in their new church, especially after they have been there for some time. If gossipy people caused them to leave their old church, seeing in time that the their new one suffers from the same problem can be useful to a wise leader. In this way, new folks can serve as a canary in the coal mine because they are already sensitive to the problem that caused them to leave their previous church. Time can heal some wounds, but it also makes some more obvious, especially once the honeymoon is over for new folks. Wise leaders can use this previous dissent as a way to stem future dissent and the possibility that the new folks instead will become ex-folks because the old wound opened once more.

Like the Denominational Outsider, new folks may bring fresh eyes to a church and see what longtimers miss. What works against the new folks is their newness. Should they dissent early on, some leaders may view them as perpetual grumblers. Wise leaders should always give the benefit of the doubt here. However, more than one set of new folks has come to a church, gotten acclimated, and then heard it announced by leaders that the church is going to pursue the same “new idea” that the new folks saw kill their old church. For this reason, it pays to listen to the new folks. A wise leader may even proactively seek them out for feedback on proposed changes, especially if the leaders connected well with the new folks and recall that proposed changes are similar to what caused the new folks to leave their old church.

4. The Grizzled Veterans

Its funny how familiarity can breed contempt. In some churches, should a longtimer dissent, that complaint may be brushed off. Yet longtimers have the benefit of history. They know the people in the church. Because many churches hire their church leaders from outside the congregation (a mistake, as I see it), those outside leaders often don’t understand the entrenched dynamics within a church. Grizzled veterans do.

Oddly, these veterans can be a lot like New Folks. Both are often the first to sense that something  has gone wrong. The new program is stumbling, and the longtimer sees the failure ahead, even if the leaders don’t. Again, this is canary in a coal mine wisdom.

Grizzled veterans, especially if they are among the 20 percent who do 80 percent of the church’s work, are often the first to understand a potential pitfall. When a grizzled veteran dissents, wise leaders don’t immediately chalk up that dissent to being stuck in one’s ways. More than one church has been destroyed when leaders ignored the complaint of longtimers and keep going down a destructive path.

Grizzled veterans don’t have to be elderly either. The 30-something who grew up in the church may be as experienced as the 70-year-old who first arrived when he was 40. Age alone does not a grizzled veteran make. That said, the elderly may be more discerning, especially if they are also Denominational Outsiders.

Because they have cachet by virtue of their faithfulness to a church, grizzled veterans MUST be treated tactfully and graciously by church leaders. Mishandling a longtimer’s dissent can create an avalanche, especially if that longtimer feels slighted and leaves the church. The death knell for some churches begins when a handful of longtimers go off in search of greener pastures.

5. The Young Adults

You can’t be a church leader today and not know about the exodus of the 18-35 age group. One of the reasons for the exodus is that many church leaders looked at their own youth, considered their own callowness at that age, and wrote off young adults as naive.

But what was then is not the same as what is now. The young people of today are far less naive than we were. They deal with issues we didn’t. They have experience we didn’t get until we were out of that 18-35 demographic. For that reason, they cannot be written off so easily when they dissent.

That is what has happened in many cases, though, and the young adults most sensitive to the inauthentic B.S. some older church leaders consider “The Next New Thing” have fled the Church because no one gave credence to their dissent.

Church leaders can’t be blamed entirely, however. Many young adults dropped out of church because they got sick of participating in their parents’ hypocritical, consumeristic lifestyles. Wise leaders understand this and direct their church into pathways that confront that hypocrisy and adverse societal conformity. If done correctly and with tact, leaders can see the upraised middle finger of youth as a warning and address it, keeping that 18-35 group within the fold.

6. The Iconoclastic Contrarians

Someone HAS to be different. Someone MUST follow the oddball idea and harebrained scheme.

In the history of the Christian Church, if one pays close attention, one will find that it has been the iconoclastic contrarians who went down in history as the saints of old. In their era, they were the weirdos. Now they hold a place of honor in the pantheon of great Christians.

Wise leaders know they may never understand the iconoclastic contrarians—and that’s OK. No one may, but that does not mean that their dissent has no value. In fact, it may have the most value of all. And this is a critical challenge to wise leaders because they won’t get it—at least not in the moment.

One of the major lacks in church leaders today is an open willingness to consider right away if a dissenter has a valid point. We don’t like dissent, and yet the history of God’s people is filled with one dissenter after another. The majority of scouts gave the leaders of the Hebrews a fear-filled report of how the promised land appeared to them. Joshua and Caleb dissented in the great, great minority. Theirs was the iconclastic contrarian report. They even agreed with the description of the promised land, but they saw what it meant through the eyes of the Lord and not through that of men. We know which report God honored.

Dealing with iconoclastic contrarians is a rough job for a church leader. Even wise ones will fail when dealing with such folks. Humility above all is called for, as is a good memory. The best a wise leader might do in this case is remember what the contrarian said and continue to take it before the Lord.

7. The Gross Sinners

Every church has a few “gross sinners,” those people with a “history.” As much as we talk about grace and redemption, we have long memories. While we may say we value the gross sinner’s dissent, what they did so long ago was so awful, our trust remains iffy.

Some churches do a better job than others with the amount of grace they offer the gross sinner. Some forget the gross sinners’ past sins more readily. But when gross sinners dissent, all the grace and forgetfulness wind up themselves forgotten. How good is the gross sinners’ dissent anyway? We all know what they did so long ago, right? What if this dissent is nothing more than the wicked fruit of that error from so long ago?

We don’t ask these question, do we? Of course we do. Wise leaders recognize their own human failings when it comes to fully forgiving those whom the Lord has forgiven entirely.

If anything, the gross sinners’ dissent often reflects their own recognition of their past. People who made grave mistakes remember how they made them. For this reason, a wise leader should heed the cautions of those of us who are most deeply scarred by failure. Though it may be true that gross sinners overcompensate in dissent because of sensitivity to their past, their concern should never be written off in full. Experience matters, even if painful, and perhaps especially so. God does not waste anyone’s pain, and knowledge of past mistakes can serve as a powerful lesson of what NOT to do.

Sadly, our churches today have too many leaders who privately question their leadership skills and subsequently operate out of a defensive position whenever dissent arises. More than at any time in the history of the Church, great humility is needed from all of us, leaders or not. Dissent can be valuable and can even save a church from death if the voices of dissenters are allowed to teach us. We are too often blind to our own failings, and this is why God makes each of us of invaluable worth to the Body of Christ. No matter the kind of dissenter one might be, leaders who are humble and who rest in God for their self-esteem can make valuable use of the wisdom of those who disagree with them or who provide through dissent wisdom they themselves lack.

In short, if we Christians were more willing to listen to dissent without taking it as a personal assault on us or our churches, perhaps we could better fulfill the mission of the Church before it is too late.

4 thoughts on “Faithful in Dissent: How the Insights of Critics Can Bless a Church

  1. Merry

    In relation to #5, there are many 18-35 year olds raised Evangelical/Protestant who are converting to Catholicism. It’s a shift that fascinates me as many of my family members and friends fall into this category. Evangelical churches need to be aware of this and really give a good look at the reasons why.

    • Brian

      Merry, I can’t answer why globally, but I can offer some reasons that former young evangelicals have told me when I’ve spoken to them (or communicated with them at Catholic blogs). Over the past decade, a lot of the “smells & bells” of old liturgy (along with the recently-revamped missal, with a closer translation — and more rhythmic sound — of English to the old Latin) has been slowly woven back into the post-Vatican 2 modernizations of the Catholic Church. Likewise, recent popes from John Paul II on have introduced documents such as the Theology of the Body (presenting a positive take on chastity and celibacy focused on Christ’s Love and distinct from more accusatory Purity Culture) and events such as World Youth Day, while Benedict XVI’s “New Evangelization” has given the church a renewed focus on scripture that has helped those former Young Evangelists who came to Catholicism out of a desire for different* experience a place to use their expertise in their new church from the start.

      (*sometimes it’s been the issue of consumer-driven churches that they left, sometimes it was issues over how singles were treated, sometimes it was the question of liturgy — once more, I’m not in the position to either judge or necessarily comment on that end of it)

      While we certainly welcome everyone — and I’ll admit to being the sort of Vatican 2 Catholic who’s ecumenical enough that would prefer in the long run to see a unified church but in the short term wants to keep all Christians in some baptized faith, so is happy to see that those leaving one denomination has found another (that it happens to be his own and the one he happens to believe in as the closest to truth is a plus, but he’d likewise be relieved to a degree if someone leaving the Catholic Church chose an Evangelical Church over leaving the church entirely)

  2. Hi Dan,
    thank you very much for this. You put into words what I could not. It’s difficult give dissent in a congregation, because it’s quickly labled as rebellion or attacking “God’s anointed”. Some of my friends are in congregations where no dissent is allowed at all. My own experience was mostly that of being ignored 🙂 Probably because I’m an introvert and who listens to the quiet guy sitting at the back? I would label myself as a veteran. So, I quietly slipped out of the congregation and that was that. Perhaps you can add a category. The one’s who never speak. Because when they do….people should listen carefully 🙂

  3. Jeri Tanner

    Thanks, Dan. How complicated we make life in the church by building programs and scheming for numerical and even spiritual growth, rather than trusting in the simple apostolic pattern. The great thing is that any believer with an open Bible in his/her hand (and the ability to rightly interpret it) has a “voice” in the church. That’s so because the Scriptures are the authoritative voice in the church. In this sense there really are no distinctions between elders and non-elders, for the word of God calls us all equally to account. I know it goes without saying on your blog that all our efforts at speaking the truth in love to believers (the biblical definition of the right kind of critiquing or dissenting), especially to elders, should be done with humility and respect. I appreciate your writing about this issue. Blessings to you and your family.

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