Was blind, but now I see.

2 : 10 September 2003


George Foster

George Foster and his wife Dolly were missionaries to Brazil for 25 years in several roles: pastor, publisher, writer, and National Director of Bethany Fellowship Missions. Presently George and Dolly oversee mission outreach in Europe and South America. George's writings have been published in several languages. George Foster's e-mail address is

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Copyright © 2001
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Learning to deal constructively with conflict and change

George Foster


THERE WAS A REASON for the criticism that was going around: The followers of Jesus were neglecting the ceremonial fasts and the followers of John the Baptist were offended.

No doubt the offense of the "feasters" would have been forgiven if they had managed to look as mournful as the "fasters" did. But they were obviously enjoying themselves, a grave problem to John's more serious disciples.

That's the situation we find in Matthew 9:14:

The disciples of John came to him (Jesus) saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast."

Taken out of its context this is a perfectly innocent theological question. But in light of the fact that John the Baptist was in prison for his faith while Jesus and His followers roamed the country at will, we can see that these words were charged with powerful emotions: "Who do they think they are anyway? They act as if life were a big picnic. They go traipsing around the country to Bible conferences and miracle services. When are they going to get serious? When are they going to settle down and amount to something?"

Neither their spoken questions nor their unspoken ones took Jesus by surprise. He understood the "turned-on" disciples and the distressed questioners equally well. "Look," Jesus answered...

The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

To describe the situation of his own disciples, Jesus used the image of a wedding feast. It would not be an occasion for fasting or mourning. It would be a time for laughing, singing, rejoicing, and dancing----hardly what John's disciples had in mind, since they felt so deeply the absence of their leader.


The enormous differences between John's disciples and those of Jesus cannot be ignored:

  1. John condemned sin and sinners of all kinds.
  2. Jesus socialized with those whom John condemned.
  3. John demanded immediate separation from evil.
  4. Jesus tolerated a crowd that might be following Him to get fed, see miracles, or listen to stories. (Only later would he speak about denying self and bearing the cross.)
  5. Now Jesus compares himself to a bridegroom and His disciples to partygoers while the followers of John remain committed to fasting and prayer (perhaps for his release from prison.)
  6. Though John had stated that Jesus would come after him and be incomparably greater than he, his followers were not prepared for the life and ministry styles that Jesus adopted.
  7. Jesus alluded to the fact that He too would be taken from His followers at a future date, but now He was with them. It was not a time to sorrow; it was a time to rejoice.

Jesus respected John, saying that none greater than he had appeared on the scene. But there's no denying that John was also severe, socially isolated, and strange. Now he was in prison and his disillusioned disciples were without a leader.

Meanwhile, Jesus' disciples, knowing that their spirituality was being questioned, probably asked about John's followers, "When are these guys going to lighten up and stop being so legalistic?"

There were indeed many reasons for the divergent moods and points of view of both the traditionalists and the innovators. Neither group could be blamed for the way they felt.


To prevent further conflict and promote understanding, Jesus took the focus off the two groups and placed it on the tensions that exist when change occurs. He spoke words that we often hear quoted, but don't always know how to apply. No one sews a piece of unshrunken cloth on an old cloak, for the patch tears away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.

What was Jesus talking about? He wasn't just offering advice to tailors and vineyard keepers. He was talking about the dynamics of change. He was addressing traditionalists and innovators who have different viewpoints, but who need to relate to one another. He was talking about His Church and the way His Church does church. He was asking for tolerance within acceptable biblical boundaries. He was telling John's disciples and telling us that we need to make room for God. We need to make room for growth. We can't expect God to fit into our old ways of doing things. We truly need change!


The essence of the Church (or any organization) is its people, in this case redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and called to be saints. They are devoted to Jesus and have purposes and needs. To enhance their devotion, fulfill their purposes, and meet their needs, they form organizations.

In the first illustration that Jesus used, the people are wearers of the garment, not the garment itself. In the second, they are the drinkers of the wine. The wine is the life of God in them through the presence of Jesus Christ. Both garments and wineskins represent structures we create to accommodate God-indwelt people corporately. Jesus is not calling our attention to people problems, but to institutional problems. He calls those institutions garments and wineskins.

Think about it. When a garment tears you can:

  1. Discard it and not replace it.
  2. Disregard the tear and wear it anyway.
  3. Sew a new patch on it and watch it rip again.
  4. Patch it with similar material to extend its life.
  5. Get a new garment that will withstand the stress of movement and washings.

Jesus didn't come to put patches on institutions. He came to radically change them. He brought new wine and He proposes new wineskins.

If we are part of an organization, we need to be supremely committed to the Lord, and then to our families, and then to the needs of the people, and to the purposes of the organization. The purposes of the institution do not usually suffer enormous changes, but methods, strategies, and people must.

If an individual or group within the organization becomes committed to a new objective, we must honestly try to see if that objective fits within the purpose and objectives of the organization. If so, and if we have the resources to pursue the objective, we should restructure ourselves to do so. If not, we should try to show those persons why the objective does not fit and why the organization cannot pursue it. If they remain committed to their purpose, we should try to help them fulfill it outside of our organization so that their new wine can find the new container it needs. What we mustn't do is shoot down ideas without examining them respectfully and carefully. Nor should we stretch our organization out of shape to make something fit when it really doesn't. In all cases we must remain committed to loving and caring for the individuals----whether they remain with us or not. Loyalty to an organization never justifies being unloving or rude to those who do not see things they way we do.


We like to call our churches living organisms, and so they are. But we can't deny that they are also institutions---garments and wineskins --- whether we like the idea or not.

One of the problems with our institutions is that we become more committed to the structures than to the people in them. We are then giving more attention to the skins than we do to the wine.

Another problem is that we lack the foresight to see that growth in an organization requires major changes. Successful organizations go through periodic structural changes to accommodate growth.

A third problem is our failure to evaluate our organizations in search of structural flaws. Every group has them. I once heard a Christian businessman say that when problems arise in his company, he first chooses to believe in the people, assuming that the problem is with the organizational structure or procedures. He estimates that 85% of the time, some institutional defect needs correction, not the individual. He does not blame the wine; he blames the wineskin.

So often we do exactly the opposite. We blame the people: They're rebellious. They're unfaithful. They're irresponsible. They're lazy. They're materialistic. They're unteachable. Ungovernable. Extremists. They lack vision. They have no faith. They're too quiet. Too noisy. They just don't understand and they don't measure up.

Are these affirmations true? Probably not, and, if they are, have we considered the possibility that many of the people's faults are caused by disappointment and disillusionment with the organization?

If that's the case, we cannot afford to put off any longer a major reevaluation of our garments and wineskins.


Although change is inevitable and----according to Jesus- ---desirable, most of us experience a sense of loss when it occurs in our lives or in the organizations we work with. Change threatens us. We know we must adjust, but it's hard to give up what we've become accustomed to. We make minor changes and then act as though we've given away the family jewels.

But change not only brings a feeling of loss, it brings pain and it brings problems. Those who specialize in problem-solving usually try to find out what has changed in a situation. Problems occur when change takes place. The light bulb burns out the moment you turn it on. Churches have struggles when growth appears or new influences are brought to bear upon it. Then the patches begin to tear. The skins begin to burst. Those talented and zealous members whom we worked so hard to enlist become discouraged and leave.

John's followers may have felt their first great problem when John said, "Jesus must increase, but I must decrease." That must have thrown a wrench into their plans for organizational growth. Worse yet, John got himself thrown into prison. Then Jesus came along with a completely different style of life and ministry for which they were not prepared. It was just too much for them and they complained. Perhaps you and I would do the same. Perhaps that's what's happening in the situations we face today.


The history of Christian organizations often follows this pattern. A dynamic, beloved, charismatic-style leader does a remarkable job of getting the organization started and seeing it grow. Then, with growth, it becomes more complex and the leader lacks the administrative skills to handle it. The status quo syndrome sets in----"We can't do it that way because we've never done it that way."

By now, leadership needs to be shared and/or passed on to younger members. But the leader is reluctant to allow change. The feeling is the old, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!" But by failing to prepare and by postponing the transition, the leader allows tension to develop between generations. Pressure builds until change is not only desirable, it's inevitable. By then, though, the younger members have been revving their engines at the starting line for so long that they overreact. The older ones feel rejected and silenced and the organization goes through a period of loss before it can recapture its vision and regain its momentum. By then, the homogeneous nucleus that started the group, has become a heterogeneous group with differing opinions and lifestyles. These differences bring a whole gamut of potential problems. Let's look at a few of those differences.


  1. Age differences. New and old are the words that Jesus used when talking about patches and wineskins. In our churches and organizations, we have vital, aspiring, exuberant youth mixed with established, experienced, proven seniors---plus a good number of people in between. How desperately the young and old need to mix in appropriate settings, yet how often we make the mistake of keeping them out of each other's way.

    Separate traditional and contemporary worship services are designed to ease the tension (and that may be the answer for some groups), but these services can also divide into ''us and them'' situations that split churches and even families into divergent groups. I'm convinced that the best things we can bring to church to enrich one another are our differences. The devil must laugh when we fight over worship!

    As a young man, my life was tremendously impacted by my grandfather and by other elderly men of God. What a blessing it was to listen to those men of eighty-some years tell their stories and pray for me, often with tears running down their cheeks. I came away with a deep love and respect for them.

    I'm convinced that organizations are weakened when the influence of more mature members is no longer felt. Churches are equally weakened when the youth are "seen but not heard." A youth pastor recently said, "We want to be seen as an authentic part of the body of Christ. We're not saying that we're mature. We're just saying that we're real."
  2. Cultural and racial differences. Gone are the days when churches were made up of immigrants of a single nationality. Today we have multi-ethnic, multi-cultural churches that don't fit old patterns of church organization. We live in a mobile, technological society that suffers from alienation and depersonalization. Studies show that the main thing people look for in a church is fellowship. Churches must provide interaction in informal settings.

Our cultural differences, besides giving us access to evangelize new people groups, provide rich traditions that can mutually bless our lives.

My wife, Dolly, and I spent twenty-six years as missionaries in Brazil. One of our responsibilities was to help guide the mission through major transitions such as:

  1. Becoming bi-cultural communities;
  2. Transferring leadership of churches, started by ex-patriot missionaries, to nationals;
  3. Yielding leadership of the mission to a national missionary who now has ex-patriot missionaries reporting to him;
  4. Restructuring a publishing ministry, dissolving a support community that was no longer appropriate, and leaving the ministry in the hands of qualified nationals.

    These were all difficult transitions that required time, effort, and understanding. Our many mistakes provided great experience. And we had a team that worked hard. During the process there were those who tried to pit Brazilians against Americans and vice versa, but, thank God, they failed. Today we feel deeply satisfied that new wineskins are in place for expansion to occur in bi-cultural settings.
  5. Can multi-cultural churches and diversified communities work? Yes, if we allow Christ to be Lord of all. "For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility..." (Eph.2:14). Under Christ, we need to develop sensitivity to and appreciation for ethnic and cultural differences. One day we will all stand together around God's throne to give Him glory. Why not learn to do it together now?
  6. Economic differences. Churches are made up of people with a wide range of incomes. Some that were well off a few years ago aren't so affluent today. Truth is, we Americans are losing buying power.

    If God's kingdom is to be expressed authentically, we must adopt kingdom values, putting our resources to work for God's glory. The more affluent members will develop sensitivity to the less prosperous ones and, in a spirit of equality, both will discover ways to put their abilities at God's disposal.

    Leadership positions must be assigned by biblical standards, not by credit ratings. Activities must be planned so that all can participate, whether rich or poor. Large donations should not get recognition that smaller gifts, given sacrificially, do not get.
  7. Personality differences. Extroverts and introverts live side by side in Christian organizations. Is one holier than the other? More effective in ministry? Is there such a thing as a Christian behavior style? A group personality?

    Certain patterns of worship, behavior, dress, and thinking can become established as "our way of doing things." That perhaps is not so bad until it is seen as the superior way or, worse yet, as God's way. Then something that is related to a certain culture or setting becomes a universal absolute and those who think differently are condemned.

    What happens when a group personality forms or when "group-thinking" is allowed to take place, pressuring people toward conformity? The late Tom Marshall, a renowned teacher from New Zealand, spoke about a ''corporate spirit'' that pervades many organizations. When is this spirit at work? It's when the shape of the wineskin determines the value of the wine. When we've done things one way for such a long time that we can see no other way to do it. When customs and traditions are honored to the detriment of growth and blessing. When respectability is more important to us than revival. When the image of the organization becomes more apparent than the image of Jesus. When creative alternatives appear to be the work of the devil.

    Healthy change starts with healthy dissatisfaction, but we seldom see dissatisfaction as healthy. The corporate spirit sees it as rebellion and doesn't let it grow. It puts the objectives of the institution above the needs of the people in a religious version of "the end justifies the means." Unwittingly we put the organization above the need to practice love and mercy and we end up trying to do "the will of God" with the devil's methods. How he enjoys it when we do! What destruction takes place among God's people!
  8. Ministry gift differences. Diversity is the word that stands out when Scripture speaks of spiritual gifts. No special emphasis or value is attached to a specific manifestation or ministry gift of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians believe that God gives to each of us a ''gift-mix'' that enables us to fill special roles in the church. Each person is unique in design, but equal to others in value. We are made to work together in the body of Christ.

    These gifts must be developed in the church and in other ministries. I've never been convinced by theories stating that some gifts have been cancelled or that some are more important than others.

    Some Christian organizations are so specific in purpose that they require people with certain types of gifting. A school, for example, requires a disproportionate number of people with teaching gifts.

    But the church is where all the spiritual gifts should be in place and where each person should find his ministry niche. Churches need "apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (and many other spiritual gifts) for the perfecting of the saints for the work of the ministry" (Eph. 4:11). It takes wisdom and courage to cultivate and coordinate the exercise of spiritual gifts in the church. They need to be evaluated and disciplined so that members can both minister and receive ministry with confidence.

    Because we live in a secular society with increasingly secularized churches, we are sometimes afraid and/or ashamed of the supernatural aspects of spiritual gifts. It's all right, for example, to have the gift of helps, but not the gift of prophecy or healing. Some want us to reach rational, technological people with a rational approach and without the introduction of supernatural elements. That approach will not work. The Gospel is a combination of rational truth and spiritual persuasion. It is the power of God for salvation. Spiritual gifts are not to be put on a shelf and admired. As my friend Alec Brooks says, "They are tools that God gives us to help us do His work."


    The spiritual gifts that are meant to be governed and oriented by a mature church sometimes are allowed to become the government and orientation of the church, preventing its coming to maturity. Most of us would fear such an arrangement. We desire spiritual power, but fear the abuse of power, and rightly so!

    No other issue divides Christians as this one does, but love and respect will unite us despite differences. Only pride and insensitivity can drive us apart.

  9. Differences in vision. As missionaries, Dolly and I have lived most of our adult lives away from the culture into which we were born. We have changed in many ways. Although we still consider ourselves Americans, we have acquired some Brazilian ways that we're glad to have. We like that new part of us. But, honestly, we're neither totally Brazilian nor American in culture. Without having made a conscious choice, we are now part of a third culture, much more international in scope and flavor. We care about Brazil, America, Latin America, and the whole world. The desire of our hearts is the worldwide extension of the Kingdom of God.

The Church exists to make disciples --- of neighbors and of nations. Which commitment should be stronger, to neighbors or to nations? Both are essential. I'm convinced that church mission programs will rarely be successful overseas, if they are not effective at home. We cannot expect our missionaries to do in other lands what they have not been taught to do in their home country.

As a young man I was asked to speak in three-day missionary conferences. Three teams covered twenty-eight churches in thirty days. One team represented World Missions. Another represented Christian Education, and I spoke for Home Missions. What a wonderful balance that was for the churches. We are all called to evangelize the whole world --- the world that touches us and the world that is farther from us. It can't be either/or. It must be both/and.


We all need change, but we need continuity as well. We want growth to take place, but we want to recognize the organization after growth is complete. No organization is all good or all bad. Strengths must be conserved. Weaknesses must be reduced.

In this process, some of us have more tolerance for change than others. Some need greater amounts of continuity. When we see that change should occur, we need to prepare ourselves and prepare our institutions for the change. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Clarify the purposes, goals, and strategies of the organization. The first question is: "What can't change?'' We can't change the reason for our existence. We need to decide what is essential and what is optional. Though it's hard to sort through the activities of an organization and get back to basics, it must be done. Though basic purposes should not change, they may need to be restated and better articulated. Goals are quantity and time related, so they must be reviewed and renewed regularly. Strategies must be subject to constant updating as new technologies, tendencies, and talents appear.

    Changes should not be simply handed down from the leadership. The group should be carefully guided through a renewal process where all can participate creatively and without fear of reprisals. Leaders must encourage and listen to everyone involved. Those with complaints may not be as rebellious as they are zealous for the organization and frustrated at what's happening to it. Leaders must be prepared to accept suggestions. Those who are being led often have valuable perceptions that leaders don't see. They need a climate in which they can share their views confidently and with the knowledge that their ideas may not be adopted, but they will be respected.
  2. Be prepared for the emotional responses that change produces. Change agents need courage to make big changes, but they also need patience to prepare their people. Those affected by change need to be given a clear vision of what will be different, what will remain the same, and how the change will affect them personally.

    Sometimes programs that require energy and resources produce minimal results. But they have the backing of prominent members. Emotional attachments have been made. People need time to adjust. Too much pressure will drive some away and cause resentment in those who stay.

    When solutions are imposed upon us, we may submit, but the problems that motivated change are not solved unless we agree to them and have a sense of ownership about them. If this does not happen, the problems will resurface in the future.

    People should not be condemned for the intensity of their emotional responses. The more they care about a cause, the greater their sorrow, frustration, and, yes, anger, when it's not going well. Leaders must not yield to the temptation of nullifying a person's point of view, simply because he or she is angry when expressing it. Rather, leaders should be happy to know how people really feel, and should be prepared to listen, listen, and listen some more.
  3. Proceed at a reasonable pace. Leaders need to be out in front leading the troops, but they can't be so far out ahead that people can't see where they are going.

    When I was in junior high, it was my job to get to school on time and make sure my younger brother did too. To do that, I walked fast and hoped that he would try to keep up. Occasionally I walked too fast and he lagged behind. Then I would turn and tell him to hurry. Sometimes he did, sometimes he didn't. If I got too far ahead, he would sit down on the curb and refuse to budge. Then I would yell at him or throw rocks at him and he would start walking back home to tell Mother. By then he had the upper hand, so I would have to go back and promise to walk slower.

    Unfortunately, I've done the same thing in some leadership situations. Being basically an idea/action person, I've tossed out my "brilliant ideas" to the group and expected everyone to come along. When the process people objected and asked probing questions, I got disgusted and threw rocks at them (verbal ones of course). Some good plans were aborted for lack of patience on my part. (The group also saved us from executing some bad plans by asking the probing questions.)
  4. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. If you invite me to go for a ride in your car, I will probably ask, ''Where are we going?'' Isn't that reasonable? Yet, many leaders expect their followers to go along without knowing where they're heading. That's unreasonable. Too often we assume that people understand what's happening when they really don't. Then we blame them for the problems we face.

    I was recently reminded how important it is to keep people informed during transitions. I had proposed some major changes in an organization. They were changes that would drastically alter the lives of all involved. I thought communication had been clear, but, in reality, I was not as thorough with details as I should have been. Because details were lacking, people filled in their own. Misinformation was circulated, causing discomfort to some and absolute terror to others. Make no mistake, when people are insecure about their future, they talk about it. When we fail to provide all the information we can, there is misinformation. Communication is a full-time job.
  5. Be prepared to make adjustments along the way. If you are in the midst of change, it's possible that damage has already occurred. The garment has been torn and perhaps already patched. It's possible that shrinking and ripping have already taken place.

    The leather wineskin that served well in the past, has become rigid and dry. The wine has begun to ferment and expand, but the leather is not stretching. It's tearing apart and the wine is being lost.

    People and attitudes must be prepared and structures must be adapted ----perhaps radically----to handle growth, diversification, and new vision. Minor patching may work temporarily as long as the patch is compatible with the garment to which it's being sewed and as long as everyone knows it's only a temporary arrangement, and agrees to it. But in many cases it's time to discard the old structures and find newer, more flexible ones that will adapt to the needs of today's demands and tomorrow's surprises.

    There's nothing wrong with admitting that we'll need to make adjustments as we go. It's better to take the attitude of a learner than that of an expert. (Everyone will soon know anyway). By admitting our need of help and guidance we have a better chance of getting the cooperation of the people.
  6. Pray through the process. While acknowledging our need of guidance, we should acknowledge it first to God. During this painful process we may need to spend extra time in prayer like Jesus did at critical times. ''Feasters" may need to become "fasters" for awhile. As we humbly seek God together, others will see that we are sincere and not self-serving in our proposals.

    Special prayer meetings can be called to lay our corporate needs before the Lord. Even in this context we can be assured that God answers prayer.

But while prayer is an important part of the answer, it is not the complete answer. It's possible to pray faithfully for God's blessing, but actually hinder His work by our unwillingness to change. Some of us want revival to happen like it would have happened thirty years ago. Like the fasting disciples of John, we are earnest, but resistant to change. If our minds are set on what revival should look like, we might not recognize it when it comes. We need to open our hearts and ask God to remove our preconceived ideas. We need to ask for the models of change that are on His heart.

What Jesus was saying to John's disciples was that they could not live in the past, however blessed that might have been. They had to change. In doing so, they needed to remember that the object was to cultivate God's blessing, save the people and faithfully fulfill God's calling. So it is today; therefore, let's prepare for the kinds of changes that can take us into the twenty-first century together.

We all want to be part of ministries to which we can give ourselves whole-heartedly. We don't expect the church to be perfect, but we want to believe that it is trying to follow the Lord. We want to see love and respect for a great diversity of tastes and giftings.

Jesus said, "I will build my church." That may be the most concise statement of what God is doing in the world. He has chosen to build a perfect church with imperfect, recycled material. He's changing the people and He's changing the institutions. As we allow the builder to make us and, if necessary, remake us according to His plan, "the gates of hell will not prevail against us." Amen.


George Foster
Bethany College of Missions, Suite C
Bloomington, MN 55438, USA.