Pastors and the Peacemaking Paradox

This post was written by Steve Norman, Doctor of Intercultural Studies and Lead Pastor at Kensington Church's Troy Campus.

I don’t know a single local church pastor who doesn’t believe in peacemaking. After all, the angels celebrating Jesus’s birth come right out and sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Jesus himself champions the role of peacemaker in his Sermon on the Mount and, let’s be honest, nobody’s going to challenge Jesus’s direct words there.

And yet, there is a clear gap between U.S. church leaders' stated support of biblical peacemaking and our actual pursuit of peacemaking in our ministry initiatives. I recently conducted a research project that collected data from 15 pastors in personal interviews and 297 pastors through an online survey. Their feedback on this issue was almost unanimous: “Yes, I affirm the theory of peacemaking as a biblical value. No, it’s not something our church is currently doing. Honestly, we’d have no idea where to start if we wanted to.”

When asked, “How important are concepts like peacemaking and reconciliation in mission?” one pastor responded, “I guess I’d say theologically and philosophically, Jesus calls us to be peacemakers, so that’s certainly part of the gospel …[However] I’m extremely pragmatic, like to a fault.”

The implication is that peacemaking is central to the concept of mission, but it simply isn’t very practical. Given their track record of global involvement, it is clear these church leaders are fiercely committed to alleviating human suffering in immediate and tangible ways. Perhaps this is why construction projects, short-term medical trips, leadership training initiatives, and disaster relief tend to dominate their list of global partner strategies. Each of these list items address a practical need with a specific response that can be scheduled, resourced and measured for efficacy.

Peacemaking, on the other hand, feels much more abstract. The work of peace cannot be completed in a ten-day trip, nor can it be executed on a months-long timeline, like building a church, school, or medical clinic. Not only is it challenging to plan, it is difficult to measure. It is impossible to gauge the shift in human hearts touched by a conflict with a history of violence. U.S. pastors with a heart for global mission can be intensely practical. They want their time, energy and finances to be spent with global partners who can show them tangible results and a maximum return on their investment.

The linchpin that connects passion for mission with the practice of peacemaking lies in a simple but dramatic theological shift. In the survey, one of the most prevalent responses to the question, “What is the single reason your church is not involved in peacemaking/mission to people in conflict?” is “I don’t know how this gives us a platform for the gospel.”

Therein lies the rub. Pastors get stuck believing peacemaking is an elective; in truth, it is the very heartbeat of the gospel. Jesus’s declaration of kingdom invites us to experience, receive, and promote peace with God, with our enemies, among our broken families, and between warring tribes and nations.

Peacemaking, then, is not simply an avenue for sharing the gospel; peacemaking truly is the core of the gospel message.

The bridge between pastors’ cognitive assent of biblical peacemaking and their personal ownership of it is a compelling, holistic definition of “gospel.” Once this locks into place, pastors are eagerly looking for help to understand peacemaking theory and practice. They want to know what proven, practical peacemaking models already exist and how their churches can practically implement them in our local context or in concert with our global partners.

I believe US church leaders are primed and ready to be some of the greatest advocates for conflict transformation and reconciliation our world has ever seen. They’re just looking for reason to jump into the fray and a strategy for engagement when they land.