15 Characteristics of Today’s Unchurched Person

If you’re like many Christians, you have an authentic desire to share your faith with people who don’t yet follow Jesus. I know I do.

One of my deepest longings is that every person would come to know the love and salvation that Jesus extends to them.

But unchurched people are changing.

Even since I started ministry 18 years ago, there’s been a big shift in how unchurched people think. Particularly here in Canada, we are a bit of a hybrid between the US and Europe. Canadians are less ‘religious’ than Americans, but less secular than Europeans.

Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman have outlined helpful characteristics of unchurched people in UnChristian and David tackled it again in You Lost Me. I won’t repeat those characteristics here. (Both books are fantastic reads.)

Post-modernism has a deeper toe-hold here than in almost anywhere in American except perhaps the Northwest and New England, where it might be about the same.

Here are characteristics of unchurched people that I’m seeing today.

1. They don’t all have big ‘problems.’ If you’re waiting for unchurched people to show up because their life is falling apart, you might wait a long time. Sure, there are always people in crisis who seek God out. But many are quite content with their lives without God. And some are quite happy and successful. If you only know how to speak into discontent and crisis, you will miss most of your neighbours.

2. They feel less guilty than you think. They don’t feel any more guilty about not being in church on Sunday than you feel guilty about not being in synagogue on Saturdays. How many Saturdays do you feel badly about missing synagogue? That’s how many Sundays they feel badly about missing church.

3. Occasional is regular. When they start coming, they don’t always attend every week. Giving them easy, obvious and strategic steps to get connected is important. Disconnected people generally don’t stick. (I wrote more about the declining frequency of church attendance here.)

4. Most are spiritual. Most unchurched people believe in some kind of God. They’re surprised and offended if you think of them as atheists. As they should be.

5. They are not sure what “Christian” means. So you need to make that clear. You really can’t make any assumptions about what people understand about the Christian faith. Moving forward, clarity is paramount.

6. You can’t call them back to something they never knew. Old school ‘revival’ meant there was something to revive. Now that we are on the 2nd to 5th generation of unchurched people, revival is less helpful to say the least. You can’t call them back to something they never knew.

7. Many have tried church, even a little, but left. We have a good chunk of people who have never ever been to church (60% of our growth is from people who self-identify as not regularly attending church), but a surprising number of people have tried church at some point – as a kid or young adult. Because it wasn’t a good experience, they left. Remember that.

8. Something is generous. Because even giving 10% of your income to anything is radically countercultural, the only paradigm of giving they have is a few dozen or hundred dollars to select charities. I hope every Christian learns to live a life of sacrifice and generosity, but telling them they are ungenerous is a poor way to start the conversation. They are probably already more generous than their friends.

9. They want you to be Christian. They want you to follow Jesus, authentically. Think about it, if you were going to convert to Buddhism, you would want to be an authentic Buddhist, not some watered down version. Andy Stanley is 100% right when he says you don’t alter the content of your services for unchurched people, but you should change the experience.

10. They’re intelligent, so speak to that. Don’t speak down to them. Just make it easy to get on the same page as people who have attended church for years by saying “this passage is near the middle of the bible.” You can be inclusive without being condescending.

11. They hate hypocrisy. Enough said.

12. They love transparency. When you share your weaknesses, everyone (including Christians) resonates.

13. They invite their friends if they like what they’re discovering. They will be your best inviters if they love what you’re doing.

14. Their spiritual growth trajectory varies dramatically. One size does not fit all. You need a flexible on ramp that allows people to hang in the shadows for a while as they make up their mind, and one that allows multiple jumping in points throughout the year.

15. Some want to be anonymous and some don’t. So make your church friendly to both. Also see the previous point. This is huge.

7 Signs Your Church is Making Inroads With Unchurched People

Just because a church is growing doesn’t mean it’s filling up with unchurched people.

How do you know you’re really making inroads with the unchurched?

Preparing to reach unchurched people is one thing (here are 9 signs your church is ready to reach unchurched people). But when unchurched people actually start connecting with your church, things change deeply.

When you see these 7 signs pop up in your church, you will know that you are really making inroads with the unchurched:

1. People Aren’t Singing Much During the Service

If you think about it, this shouldn’t surprise you. Christians are about the only people left in our culture who sing corporately on a weekly basis. Unchurched people may like your music, but they won’t necessarily sing it. Be okay with that. We’ve learned to be. Churched people visit our church all the time and remark on how few people sing (even though we have an exceptional band). I’ve just decided I don’t care. The goal is not to get unchurched people to sing…it’s to lead them into a growing relationship with Jesus. We limit the music to a few songs. Christians get to sing. Unchurched people appreciate the band. And people’s lives get changed.

2. Long Time Church People Are Unsettled

Not all long time church people will be upset, but some will be. They’ll be concerned that people who don’t look like them, behave like them or share their moral value system are now sitting beside them on Sundays or in group with them mid-week. This is a good sign. Some of those churched people will leave, but you will also have a group that have waited for this day all their lives. They have unchurched friends who are coming and they’ll be thrilled that the church is (finally) accomplishing its mission. Run with them.

3. Irregular Attendance is Regular

This unsettles pastors. Normally, if a church person is away for a month, it’s a ‘sign’ of something. Not with unchurched people. In the same way that if you don’t make it to the gym in a week you don’t panic, unchurched people will come when they feel like it. Remember: this is the most they’ve attended church ever. I wrote this post on how to get irregular attenders to attend more often, but just know this comes with the territory.

4. Your Tidy Categories Are Falling Apart

As you engage more and more unchurched people, you’ll realize that your neat and tidy theological and sociological categories for people will erode and collapse and you realize we’re just actually all people in need of a Saviour. Gays and lesbians will become people. Rich and poor will become names and faces. That doesn’t mean your theology changes, but it probably means your compassion does. And it likely means that your easy answers instead become involved conversations.

5. You’re Getting Surprisingly Candid Questions

As you surround yourself with unchurched people, you will see more of the pain and messiness of life. Long time church people often experience the same pain and life issues; it’s just unchurched people feel freer to talk about them. So get ready. Have a list of counselors nearby. And get ready to engage more real life issues from the platform. When you speak into real life, people listen.

6. Everyone’s Tolerance For Hypocrisy is Plummeting

People with little to no church background hate hypocrisy. And they will call it out. If you don’t deal with it, they will leave. Churched people have learned to live with hypocrisy for years. Losing that tolerance is awesome for everyone.

7. You See Real Life-Change

This is the best part, of course. But people are in radically different places than they were even a year or two ago. Unchurched people have really only one motive for being at church: they want to investigate Jesus. And when they do, its changes many—deeply. Sure, not everyone decides to follow Christ. But then there are many people who have attended church their whole life who have managed to resist transformation for decades. When it comes to unchurched people, measure change over several years and you’ll be amazed at the progress.

So these are 7 signs that show you’re actually connecting with unchurched people.

7 Ways to Rethink Your Christmas Services to Engage Unchurched People

Another great article from Carey Nieuwhof. You can follow him at

If you’re like many church leaders, you’re probably looking for every opportunity to connect with people who don’t normally go to church and who aren’t yet in a relationship with Christ.

People who never go to church will go to church at Christmas.

Connect well with them, and you will see some back in January. Offer up a predictable or uninspiring service, and they will all be gone again until next year (or never come back), unchanged, uninspired and still, unreached.

So here area few things we’ve done to try to connect with unchurched people that have helped.

Of course, there are many other ways to connect with unchurched people by serving in your community, serving the poor, getting out into the neighbourhood and more. But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on what happens when they come to your church.

7 Ways to Rethink Your Christmas Services

Here are 7 ways we have rethought our services at Connexus to better connect with unchurched people.

1. Use What’s Familiar in a Fresh Way

Christmas is the only season where the shopping malls and radio stations play church music, period. We’ve made the mistake of being too unfamiliar at Christmas in the past – where in the name of being innovative, we ditched most of the traditional Christmas music. It didn’t work. People expect the familiar at Christmas. So our December worship set is almost all classic Christmas Carols, and Christmas Eve is almost 100% classic Christmas carols.

What our music team has mastered in the last few years, though, is presenting those carols in a fresh way. They’ve figured out how to do them in a fresh, almost rock show style that sounds familiar but amazing at the same time. Artists like Chris Tomlin, Phil Wickham, the North Point worship team and so many others have done Christmas songs in a fresh way that make old classics sound completely familiar and completely fresh. Insiders and outsiders at our church love it.

If you’ve got enough familiar in the service, you can also make space for one or two songs that might not be as familiar but make the point you’re trying to make.

2. Have Fun!

People love being surprised. A few years ago, our band and guest services team combined for a totally fun rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas. The band rewrote the lyrics, and as they sang each stanza, the guest services team ran down the aisle giving away whatever the band was singing about – from mock gifts to a few legit free gift cards. It was fun and engaging.

A few years ago the band opened with Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”, pretending to have forgotten it was Christmas. The host interrupted them, told them to get their act together, at which point they played the rest of the song but switched to “made up” Christmas lyrics to finish it. I couldn’t believe the smiles across every demographic in the room.

Fun engages people. And when you’ve got them engaged, they’re listening.

3. Make the message pointed (and creative)

In the message, start with common ground. My friends at Preaching Rocket have done an unbelievable job of helping communicators understand how critical this principle is in beginning a message. But it’s never more critical than when the room is packed with outsiders.

I usually speak about 40 minutes on a Sunday. On Christmas, I cut it to 15 minutes.

We pre-shoot the message on video. This year, the message was about time.

I told a story about missing a connecting flight and not being able to see my family when I was hoping to. I then talked about how we all watch time pass us by, and used enough examples to connect everyone in the room with a moment in their life where they ran out of time.

To add intrigue, we shot the message in a 100 year old clock tower, and we themed the entire service around time—that the God who created space and time stepped into time at Christmas for us. I talked about how sometimes we think it’s too late for us to get things right with God, or that at other times we think we have all the time in the world, when we don’t. The bottom line was simple: Time waits for no one, except, at Christmas, time waited for you. I then invited people who wanted to make a decision to follow Jesus to do so.

It was short. It was creative. And I pray it connected.

Even if you can’t or don’t shoot the message via video, just focus on connecting with the people who are in the room. You don’t need cameras to be engaging. You just need to be engaging.

4. Engage people emotionally

People might not remember what you said, but they remember how you made them feel.

We always try to find an opener that either uses some kind of emotion to engage people. Since this year’s theme was time, we created a countdown reel consisting of footage from the 100 year old clock tower.

The countdown ended with a bell ringing (loudly), and our band took over from there. The clang of the bell was followed by a xylophone sounding a few notes, then a snare that slowly built into a version of Little Drummer Boy. The entire stage was set with Edison bulbs and percussion instruments, and by the end of Little Drummer Boy, 8 musicians were drumming everything from tympani to snare to bass drum.

When it was over, people cheered wildly (at least they did at our opening service December 23rd…we have four more running today…Christmas Eve!).

The point…every single person was paying attention, including the guys in the room who didn’t want to be there.

5. Take care of their family

When parents are worried about their kids, they won’t pay attention. So we offer child care for the youngest.

For all the older kids in the service (ages 4-10), we offer an activity pack – crayons, games, and even sometimes some food.

When people know you care about their family, they know you care about them.

6. Tee Up the New Year

Every year, without hopefully sounding like a commercial, we invite people back for January.

They get a card explaining the new series and dates, times and locations. We don’t usually have services the Sunday after Christmas, so we let them know that too. But we tell everyone they’re invited for the first Sunday in January.

7. Pray

Really pray for people coming at Christmas (and all year long).

God loves them more deeply than any of us ever will. Pray that they would move into a growing relationship with Jesus.

And pray that we would meet them in a way that honours and brings glory to God.

So those are seven things we’ve done to connect with outsiders. What have you done?

You don’t need to take on the world by yourself

By Ted Cunningham

Recently I heard a pastor say, “I want to make a huge impact on the kingdom with the time I have left.” This pastor’s enthusiasm to reach his community and the world is contagious. It inspires me. And yet after a few days of meditating on his sermon, I started to wonder: “What exactly qualifies as huge impact?”

Sometimes our preaching takes on a tone of “do more, get bigger, reach more, expand and build.” While growing the church and kingdom is part of our church mission, I don’t think we should take on the Great Commission like a bunch of Lone Rangers.

Jesus gave the Great Commission to a group, not an individual. I take personal responsibility for sharing the Gospel with family, friends and strangers, but the weight of the world is not on my shoulders. It takes the entire church to make disciples, not just me:

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:16-20.

How do we take on such a monumental assignment? How do we make disciples, expand the kingdom and grow our ministries as a team? Here are four thoughts on reaching people without burning out.

Serve one person today. Pastor Andy Stanley taught us years ago to “Do for one what you can’t do for all.” I love hearing leaders around our church say this to each other. This one thought completely changed the way we do missions, benevolence, evangelism, and a whole host of ministries around our community. It also freed me up personally. I love striking up conversations with strangers, but now I don’t feel the pressure to engage every stranger I meet. My goal is to talk to somebody new every day and engage them in deep conversation.

Remind the congregation often that every member is a minister. It’s a teaching I received from Pastor Rick Warren that I have quoted hundreds of times. Years ago, a member of our church called the office to say they saw a homeless man on a street corner in town. The member said, “I just think we should do something as a church.” We encouraged that member to be the church and minister to this man on the spot instead of waiting for a meeting or a benevolence offering. The Body of Christ has the freedom to be the church 24/7.

Celebrate how God is using the church down the street. Rather than competing with the churches in town, rejoice that you are not the only church or pastor reaching people. It takes all kinds to reach all kinds. Refuse to compare your ministries, budgets, and numbers with the church down the street. God uniquely placed you where you are and wants you to reach people with the personality, giftedness, and passion he gave you.

Allow God to determine your growth. Pastor Joel Thomas recently said, “I am responsible for obedience. God will take care of the outcome.” When we focus on being the church, rather than growing the church, God takes care of the numbers. In Acts 2 we read about God’s response to the activity of the first church:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. Acts 2:42-47.

The Lord added to their numbers. He determines our size. Rest your weary head on the pillow tonight knowing that God has the size of your ministry taken care of.

We are only a few short weeks away from 2015. I can’t believe it. What if we try something new next year? Instead of waking up each morning and asking, “What do I need to do to get bigger and better?” What if we ask, “How can I serve better today?” For me, that means less time on social media and more time enjoying my family. I want to have deeper fellowship with friends during the week rather than catching up on their latest post.

Reach people. Love people. Spend time with people. Work hard. Enjoy the ministry opportunities God places before you today. Here at Focus on the Family, we are cheering for you and your church!

Copyright © 2014 by Ted Cunningham.

Ted Cunningham is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church. He married Amy in 1996 and now live in Branson, MO with their two children, Corynn and Carson. Ted is the author of Fun Loving You, Trophy Child and Young and In Love and coauthor of four books with Dr. Gary Smalley. He is a graduate of Liberty University and Dallas Theological Seminary.

Recognise your spouse’s value

Recognise your spouse’s value

Dr. Greg Smalley

Honor isn’t based on behavior or subject to emotion. You grant your spouse value whether they want it or deserve it.

The primary attitude that will help your spouse feel emotionally safe is when he believes that you understand how incredibly valuable he is. That is the essence of honor. Honor is a decision to view our spouse as a priceless treasure – a person of high worth and value. This is what King Solomon encouraged as well: “A man’s greatest treasure is his wife” (Proverbs 18:22).

Honor isn’t based on behavior or subject to emotion. You grant your spouse value whether they want it or deserve it. Honor is a decision you make and a gift you give. This is exactly what the apostle Paul encouraged the early Christians to do when he wrote, “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10).

God has made it resplendently clear that my wife is valuable. Look at some of the verses that show how much our heavenly Father values and cherishes us:

“For you were made in my image.” (Genesis 1:27)
“I chose you when I planned creation.” (Ephesians 1:11)
“You are fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14)
“For you are my treasured possession.” (Exodus 19:5)

It’s amazing to think that the God of this universe considers my wife His treasured possession. That’s powerful! However, when Erin and I are in the midst of an argument and my heart closes, the first thing to go is my awareness of her incredible value.

And in those moments, when I fail to see her as my heavenly Father sees His daughter, I’m not safe. When I lose sight of her value, when I’m not cherishing her, I’m more apt to react and treat her in dishonoring ways. Then Erin has every right to put up a wall and protect herself.

I watched the power of recognizing my wife’s value this past Thanksgiving while at my parents’ home in Branson, Mo. One of the things that I appreciate most about my parents is the honesty of their marriage. They’ve never claimed to have a “perfect” marriage and aren’t afraid to disagree.

At one point, my parents got into a huge argument. They were so frustrated that they each ran off to a different part of the house. I let the situation calm down for a few minutes before I knocked on my father’s office door.

“Come in,” he reluctantly replied.

As I walked into his office, I found my dad sitting behind his computer reading a document titled “Why Norma Is So Valuable.” (My mom’s name is Norma, just in case you were wondering.)

“What are you reading?” I asked.

“Well,” my dad began, “a number of years ago I started a list of why your mom is so valuable. So when I’m upset with her, or when we’ve had a fight, I’ve learned that instead of sitting here thinking about how hurt or frustrated I am at your mother, I need to make myself read through this list.”

The document contained literally hundreds of words and phrases describing my mom’s value. It was amazing.

“When I first start to read through the list, I’m still upset,” explained my dad. “I usually get to the first three or four items and think, ‘What was I thinking?’ or ‘This one is no longer valid!’ or ‘I’m definitely going to erase that one.’ But then the farther down I read, the faster I realize that you have an amazing mom.”

This is the best idea I’ve ever heard for recognizing someone’s value. Talk about creating safety. It’s also what my father does to get his heart back open. Luke 12:34 explains why it is so powerful: “For where your treasure is, so there will your heart be also.” In other words, your heart will be open to what you value. One way to keep your heart open and your spouse feeling safe with you is to focus on her value.

We can create this honor list for our spouse as well. Take several minutes to list all the reasons why your spouse is so valuable. For example: a character trait, faith pattern, values, morals, parenting skills, spirituality, the roles he or she plays that you appreciate (worker, friend, parent, sibling, son), personality characteristic, how he or she treats you, etc.

And don’t keep the amazing list to yourself – share it with your spouse. Let her know that you recognize her value. When this happens, not only does your spouse benefit, but you are positively impacted as well.

Adapted from Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage, published by Howard Books. Copyright © 2012 by Greg Smalley. All rights reserved.

The hidden value of conflict

The hidden value of conflict

by Dr Greg Smalley

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Rather than making it our goal to resolve arguments, we must learn how to manage our conflicts.
Although conflict is unavoidable, it can also bring amazing benefits to a relationship.

Watch how this happens.

Murfreesboro, Ark., is home to Crater of Diamonds State Park, a site where the public can search for diamonds. For a small fee, visitors can dig for diamonds and keep whatever they find.

The park is located above the eroded surface of an ancient volcanic pipe. This “crater” is actually a 37-acre open field that is plowed from time to time to bring diamonds and other gemstones to the surface. I will never forget my first impression of this place. It wasn’t pretty. This volcanic field is a treeless wasteland of dirt and rocks and, apparently, diamonds. At first glance, it seems impossible that there could be anything valuable hidden beneath the ancient volcanic dirt.

This is actually a perfect picture of the hidden value of conflict. On the surface, conflict is not pretty. For some, it feels rocky and treacherous – full of tension and anger. Other couples experience conflict more as a distant wasteland – filled with avoidance and withdrawal. Either way, most couples experience conflict as frustrating and painful, something they should definitely avoid. However, as the person who found a 40.23-carat diamond at the state park discovered, conflict is loaded with potential treasures as well.

Most people, for good reason, view conflict in a negative light. They believe that the arguments and angry interactions between a husband and wife are not just stressful but unhealthy. In the end, many couples see conflict as a sign that their relationship is in trouble. This belief is understandable yet unfortunate. Conflict is not negative; instead, it’s an inevitable part of marriage that will be managed in either a healthy or an unhealthy way.

I prefer the word “managing” over “resolving” conflicts. Rather than making it our goal to resolve arguments, we must learn how to manage conflict.

The good news is that if we manage conflict in a healthy way, like Crater of Diamonds State Park, it is loaded with treasures to be unearthed. Marriage expert John Gottman addressed this issue in his book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail:
If there is one lesson I have learned from my years of research it is that a lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship. Many couples tend to equate a low level of conflict with happiness and believe the claim “we never fight” is a sign of marital health. But I believe we grow in our relationships by reconciling our differences. That’s how we become more loving people and truly experience the fruits of marriage.

In the same way that the Grand Canyon expands as the Colorado River fights its way through, healthy conflict helps a marriage to grow and evolve. If handled right, arguments have the potential to create greater understanding, trust, and connection. Many people fail to see the true value of disagreement because it’s housed in something unpleasant and unglamorous – like that wasteland of ancient volcanic dirt. Most couples fail to notice the diamonds lying just under the surface, waiting to be discovered.

Here are a few of the diamonds buried within healthy conflict:

  • Brings problems into the light and helps couples face their issues instead of denying or avoiding them
  • Helps you to better appreciate the differences between you and your spouse
  • Gives you a chance to care for and empathize with your spouse
  • Provides an opportunity to break old, ineffective patterns
  • Can restore unity and oneness
  • Humbles us and God gives his grace to the humble (James 4:6)
  • Gives you great insight into your own personal issues
  • Helps you learn how to anticipate and resolve future conflicts
  • Brings you closer together as you listen, understand and 
validate each other
  • Provides a great source of information. For example, conflict can reveal the need to spend more time together
  • Can raise you to higher levels of marital satisfaction every time you manage the conflict well

So what is the real value of conflict? If we compared each potential conflict benefit on that previous list to a 2-carat diamond, the most valuable aspect of relational disagreements would be like the 40-carat diamond discovered at the Crater of Diamonds State Park.

Adapted from Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage, published by Howard Books. Copyright © 2012 by Greg Smalley. All rights reserved.

Keeping the Peace at any price?

Keeping the peace at any price?

by Dr. Greg Smalley

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If we avoid conflict or pretend it doesn’t exist, the greater the problem will become.

Maybe your marriage is riddled with conflict today, or perhaps you never fight. Whatever your past or current experiences, how do you perceive conflict? Are these images positive or negative? Conflict has the potential for beauty, but at the same time, there is also a “beast” lurking in it if we mishandle our conflicts.

In an unhealthy sense, if we avoid conflict, pretend it doesn’t exist, gossip to others about it, get angry, or intimidate others into doing what we want, the greater the problem will become, and the greater the relational damage will be. Couples who do not work out their differences and manage their conflict issues are at risk for divorce.

The apostle Paul recognized this when he wrote, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:15).

Many couples hate to confront disagreements and hurts because they’re afraid of rocking the boat, so they choose to keep the peace at any price and sweep their issues under the rug. However, this strategy usually does not resolve the problem, because suppressed conflict is always buried alive, and it often festers until it becomes a much bigger problem. In the end, buried issues end up exploding like a massive volcano, leaving our spouse and family members in its wake of destruction.

In Matthew 5:23–24 we are encouraged to deal with relationship problems so that our hearts will be right when we worship the Lord. “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

The difficulty with mishandled conflict is that it creates an unsafe environment. Spouses feel like they are walking on a thin layer of volcanic crust, while underneath rages a river of molten lava ready to consume those trapped nearby. And when people feel unsafe, their heart closes and they disconnect. This is why, when asked about divorce, Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard” (Matthew 19:8). A hard heart is the kiss of death to a marriage, and that is exactly what prolonged, unhealthy conflict creates: a hardened heart!

Indeed, not confronting and managing conflict often causes long-term resentment, which eventually destroys feelings of love in a marriage. The bottom line is that your marriage may not last if you do not work through issues.

Let’s face it, few people are genuinely excited about conflict. And yet it’s essential that we recognize conflict for what it is: an unavoidable and potentially beneficial part of being in a relationship with another human being.

Conflict is inevitable. Any person involved in a sustained relationship is bound to experience conflict with that other person eventually. It’s a part of getting to know and adjusting to a person, his or her habits, values, and ways of functioning. Two people will never have the same expectations, thoughts, opinions or needs.

Absence of conflict suggests the presence of deadened emotions or a hardened heart, or that one spouse is being suppressed or giving in to his or her mate. This might be acceptable over the short term, but over the long term, it’s very dangerous to the marriage. Anger is likely to build to the point where the conflict, when it surfaces, will be more intense than it needed to be.

Adapted from Fight Your Way to a Better Marriage, published by Howard Books. Copyright © 2012 by Greg Smalley. All rights reserved.


It’s Unfair Not to Fight

It’s Unfair Not to Fight

by Matthew D. Turvey

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Avoiding conflict in marriage isn’t fair to yourself or your spouse. Learning to embrace and resolve conflict healthily leads to a better marriage.

Remember June and Ward Cleaver – that oh-so-happy couple that chuckled through life’s lessons with nary a care? The couple that never seemed to have any conflict? Never seemed to fight? Gee, Beav, weren’t they happy?

June and Ward were my parents. They never seemed to disagree, to argue or to have any conflict whatsoever. I remember hearing my parents have a serious disagreement only one or two times during my formative years. If you grew up in a family where fighting was the norm and days of peace were something only the neighbors experienced, you may be jealous.

There are two sides to this coin, however. I came out of adolescence and into adulthood fearing conflict. I detested conflict. I didn’t have a clue how to handle it. Conflict brought up emotions I didn’t know how to handle. I had no backbone in my personal relationships – all because I didn’t want any conflict. I ran scared.

Fast forward to marriage. God placed a wonderful woman in my life who was much less noticeably afflicted with conflict-aphobia. True to past form, I spent the first years of our marriage trying to avoid conflict and fighting. I hated the emotions dredged up by conflict, and I didn’t know what to do when my wife brought up issues that were difficult for me to deal with. I wasted huge amounts of time avoiding conflict, hiding from it and trying to sweep it under the rug without dealing with it. I was doing all this while thinking it was best for me, best for my wife and best for our marriage.

However, instead of having less and less conflict (my inherent goal in avoiding it), my wife and I started having more frequent, more intense and more completely unsolvable conflicts. The very conflict I was running away from kept coming right back at me. I was running down a mountain away from an avalanche that wasn’t slowing down.

I didn’t allow my wife to have any negative emotions – or at least not to let me know about them. Through my words and actions, she understood I couldn’t be bothered – or wouldn’t be bothered – with conflict.

I was communicating to her, “If you have a problem with something in our relationship, don’t tell me about it. It’s your issue. You figure it out, and then tell me about it with a big fake smile on your face. Don’t tell me about your pain. I don’t want to know that you’re feeling pushed out of my life because of my utter lack of willingness to deal with reality.”

Our marriage arrived at a tipping point. Something had to give. The “my way or the highway” approach wasn’t working. My wife couldn’t go on with not being able to express herself to me. I couldn’t go on hiding and avoiding the conflict gurgling right under the surface. I was destroying my marriage in my short-sighted efforts to make it my version of “better.”

It was at this point of hurt that a series of events and connections with godly people led to me a life-changing revelation. I realized it was unfair not to fight. How selfish and arrogant of me to think that marriage had to be my way or the highway – especially when my way wasn’t God’s way.

For too many years I had been cheating my wife out of the chance to be heard. I was squashing vitality and life out of her and our marriage without even knowing it.

So I began to change. I began to accept that conflict done right is a wonderful thing. It’s a crucible through which we take our relationship to a deeper level. We learn something about each other that lets us love deeper. When we accept our own shortcomings and the faults of our spouse and we work through them honestly, we get an incredible opportunity to extend God’s grace to another person.

I soon realized I had also been cheating myself out of a huge part of marriage. I had not allowed myself to experience the emotions I was so scared of. When I paused and felt – really felt – the emotions that previously terrified me, I grew in ways I didn’t imagine possible. Taking off my emotional sunglasses led me to see the world, my wife and my marriage in a full spectrum of new clarity. Life wasn’t so one-sided anymore.

Maybe you find yourself in a marriage where your spouse “can’t do” conflict. Or maybe it’s you that can’t do conflict. It’s not fair to continue on this path.

Remember a few key principles to guide you through the process of fighting fair:

Emotions are nothing to avoid or be afraid of. Emotions just are. God gave them to us. Let’s celebrate them in all their messiness, complexity, joy and pain.
Emotions are signposts that help you navigate the journey of marriage. Embrace the emotional expressions of your spouse and look for the message behind the words. What does your spouse’s anger mean about their current experience and satisfaction in marriage? Learn from these emotions.
You make a better marriage when you work through conflict and honestly confront emotions. It may not sound macho, but my ability to cry with my wife and to better understand her pain led to increased intimacy in other areas of our relationship.

I’m not trying to be Ward Cleaver in marriage anymore. My wife and I no longer avoid conflict in our marriage. We see conflict as a chance to find the deep and rich rewards that come from living examined lives. We’ve learned to fight for our marriage – which is only fair.

Copyright © 2008, Matthew D. Turvey. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.