In Philemon Paul writes a letter to reconcile a relational conflict between Onesimus and Philemon and in this letter we see a communication pattern that we can apply between church and community.
8 Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, 9 yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
Notice the tone in verses 8 and 9 when Paul writes and says I could “order you”, but I am going to appeal to you”. This is important to observe because this example shows us a model of how we can have tough conversations with people in a variety of ways. Sometimes the churches first response is to “order” and maybe it could be different?
For example, sometimes the church can be like a bulldog on the front porch that just barks at everyone that walks by the house. Getting caught up in political issues, secondary issues, and just ruff, ruff, ruff almost in fear that if we don’t bark, kick, and scratch people aren’t going to listen. Which is backwards because everyone is aware of the dog barking on the front porch but nobody wants to go around the porch.
One time I was in Columbia, South America helping to train pastors and we were going throughout their community talking to their friends and one house we went to had a giant demon dog that as we got close to the house started to bark at us, and chase us until the chain jerked him back to his house, and I was terrified. I don’t remember the house, the people, I just remember that demon dog and running as fast as I could. Sometimes I wonder if that is how people feel about the church. They don’t even know what we are barking about, they are just running to get away from us.
Now if we look at the example Paul gives us, it doesn’t mean we get rid of the dog all together and neglect the divine authority and purpose God has given to the church, but that we can communicate tough issues in love, respect, and humility. Paul is about to have a tough conversation, he wasn’t looking to ignore it, overlook it, and because of his divine authority as an apostle he could have ordered (vs. 8), but he took the time to be careful with his words because he knew he could hurt the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon and Philemon might have resented Onesimus and Paul. However, Paul appeals to him and says I am in chains and I can’t physically come and make you do this, I could order it, but I want to appeal to you instead.
Maybe the church should take the dog off the front porch and come outside for a little bit and talk to their neighbor, their co-worker, and get involved in relationships in ways that benefit the community. Maybe those conversations are more effective when we take the time to engage the lives of the people around us. Paul could have been a barking dog, and sometimes it is appropriate to bark, but if we are going to be a church that is different then we need to be open to approach people in a different way.