[color=#000000" size="3" face="times]Source: The Christian Chronicle (/Articles)
From the January 2002 Archives
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[color=#000000" size="5" face="times]Madison's Conflict Reflects Broader Issues[/color]
[color=#000000" size="4" face="times]LINDY ADAMS[/color]
[color=#000000" size="3.5" face="times]Its name is legendary and brings to mind legendary people and associations. It was our first multi-faceted, multi-programmed mega-church.
It's the church led by Jim Mankin, Jimmy Sites, Steve Flatt and, of course, the inimitable Ira North. It's Amazing Grace Bible Class, Happy Hills Boys Ranch, song leader Nick Boone -- yes, Pat's brother.
It's the church on Gallatin Road in suburban Nashville, Tenn., which under the leadership of bigger-than-life Ira North, went from being a typical congregation to being what some considered our flagship. In its heyday it was the largest congregation in churches of Christ.
But in recent years Madison has fallen on hard times.
North succumbed to cancer in the 1984 and in the years since the congregation has gone from a well-oiled machine to one in need of overhaul.
However, recent attempts at an overhaul put those committed to the old ways and those seeking the new at terrible odds.
Tensions rose. Tempers flared. Members were set against members. Some left.
At the end of 1998, Madison's Sunday morning attendance was 3,240. Today it is 2,433, a loss of about 800 members, according to Jerry Sherrill, Madison's business administrator.
So traumatic, so heart-breaking, so disconcerting.
But too typical.
Across the nation religious groups from Baha'i to Baptist are embroiled in similar conflict, reports Faith Communities Today, a research project of the Lilly Endowment which released its findings on 42 U.S. religious bodies last March. Frequently the conflict centers on worship issues.
The FACT study -- which included data from congregations among churches of Christ -- found that 59 percent of all religious bodies nationwide changed worship practices a "great deal" in the last five years and that such change brought conflict.
As any attentive observer knows, our fellowship is no exception. Since mid-August, word of conflict in 11 congregations has been reported to the Chronicle. The discord is of several sorts, but often regards worship.
But what happened at Madison?
Some parts of the story are disputed. While Madison's elders declined to discuss the details of the conflict, some members and leaders shared their insights.
The church's troubles began in earnest in early 2001, members say. A contemporary Sunday morning service in the church's basement fellowship hall was added to two existing traditional services. The new gathering quickly outgrew its quarters.
In February, elder Buck Dozier read an elders' statement saying the contemporary service would replace the second traditional Sunday morning service in the main auditorium. The next Sunday some members walked out of the contemporary worship, according to deacon David Hardin.
From that Sunday, the conflict escalated. Madison's prominence drew coverage in local media -- including television reports and two articles in The Tennessean.
A few traditional members, calling themselves "Concerned Members," began a web site with complaints and reports and mailed 2,500 questionnaires to members polling them about issues.
A member from the traditional worship service called publicly for the elders' resignation.
Meanwhile, participants in the contemporary worship chafed under decisions by the elders requiring a mixture of traditional and contemporary songs and regulating the length of the sermon.
Practices including use of a praise team on Sunday morning and singing during communion have been prohibited, according to member David Hardin.
However, other Madison sources say such issues are under study.
In September the elders called for help. Larry Sullivan of the Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution, Pepperdine University, made the first of several visits to Madison to help resolve the difficulties.
Sullivan instructed the congregation in dispute resolution skills, conducted interviews with members from various factions and assembled teams to discuss differences. He said Madison, like many churches, is struggling with addressing contemporary culture without abandoning the truths of Christ's message.
Madison members are frustrated, he said. "They want to reach out and be pertinent to our culture today, yet not lose the underpinnings of the Gospel. I think everybody sees the dilemma and is trying to address it in certain ways."
As Madison seeks resolution to its ills, what in its experience can offer insight to other churches? Certainly that no church, regardless of prominence, age, history or leadership is immune.
Fifteen years ago few members could have imagined the fracturing that has occurred at Madison, according to sources at the congregation.
As the Madison elders said in their February statement, "... we believe that these times challenge us to humbly re-look at what we think and believe. ... We have sought the perfect church in the New Testament, but found them struggling also. We pursued infallible practice and spotless leadership in the Restoration Movement. We found greatness and inspiration, but no perfection. Regardless of our age or position, we all must admit our humanity, and humble ourselves before God."
COMING IN OUR SERIES ON CONFLICT: the Chronicle will examine additional sources of conflict, how to address them and lessons to be learned from congregations who have lived through strife and endured.