Case study: Conflict during a celebration of the Lord's Supper

Contextualization: a moving target

A case study designed to hone conflict management skills in church leaders as well as critical thinking and ethical decision-making

How can church leaders guide congregations through the rocky waters of cultural change without being overwhelmed by the storms that arise?

As Pastor Prabhakar looked at the angry men shouting at each other he wondered whether he should proceed with the Lord's Supper (called Holy Communion in some denominations). And how should he deal with the fundamental issue that had divided his congregation? Older men in his congregation had demanded that he not offer the bread and the cup to Mr. and Mrs. Ramu Rajendra. If, however, he refused to serve the young couple, many of the younger men had said they would leave the church.

The problem's roots went deep in India's culture. Pastor Prabhakar's two-hundred-member church in South India was a multi-ethnic congregation. About half of the congregation came from a high-ranked caste group. The rest belonged to groups that were considered polluted laborers ("shudras"). They were at the bottom of the caste scale. Although the caste system had been legally outlawed in the 1950s, caste feelings occasionally surfaced in the church.

Among the church members were Mr. and Mrs. Bhim Rajendra. They were a well-to-do upper-caste couple who had three daughters and a son, Ramu. Ramu had his Master's degree in English.

Because Ramu was a good musician, he had become the choir director at the church. It was at the rehearsals that he struck up a friendship with Kamalamma, the beautiful daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Devadas, who were in the lowest of the castes. The two young people fell in love. When Ramu's parents noticed the developing relationship, they tried to break it up. They pointed out to Ramu that Kamalamma came from a poor and low-caste family. The young man's parents were unsuccessful at ending the relationship and at a summer leadership camp, Ramu and Kamalamma decided they would marry.

After they returned home from the retreat, Ramu and Kamalamma went to the pastor asking him to marry them. In respect of long-standing Indian traditions, he told them he would do so only if they had the support of their parents. While Kamalamma's parents agreed to the wedding, the would-be groom's parents remained adamantly opposed. So, the pastor declined to perform a wedding ceremony.

Not long afterward, Ramu got a job in a nearby town and moved into a rented house there. Then, one day he and Kamalamma went to court and registered their marriage (similar to being married before a justice of the peace in the U.S.). When word got back to Ramu's parents that he and Kamalamma had done that, they barred the young couple from their home.

The church was divided on the matter of the role parents should play in the selection of a spouse. Many older people objected to the "love marriages" that were beginning to take place in the cities, and to the very idea of "register marriages". Many of the young people sided with the couple, noting that they seemed happy together.

Today, two months later, Ramu and Kamalamma were visiting their village on a Sunday. They came to the morning church service. It was Communion Sunday. At the outset of the service, some leading members privately asked the pastor not to even let the young couple attend the service because they were openly "living in sin." The pastor refused to send them away.

After his sermon, the pastor asked that believers who were in right relationship to God and ready to take communion to remain in the sanctuary. Ramu and Kamalamma stayed. Seeing them still there, the older men rebelled and asked the pastor not to give them communion. In response, some younger men began loudly arguing that the church had no right to condemn the young couple.

Pastor Prabhakar had to shout to get the attention of his angry congregation. When they were finally quiet, he said . . .

This case study is a revised version of one appearing in Case Studies in Missions, edited by Paul and Frances Hiebert, Baker Book House. This case study may be reproduced only upon payment of a 35-cent royalty per copy to Baker Book House, P.O. Box 6787, Grand Rapids, MI 49516 USA

For individual or group reflection

  1. If you were Pastor Prabhakar, what are you going to do now that the two opposing sides are sitting glaring at you?
  2. Suppose you could meet with older people separately from the young people, what would you do and say?
  3. Suppose you could meet with all the young people involved separately from the older people, what would you do and say?
  4. How would you talk to the young couple in this situation?
  5. Can you think of examples of similar situations which might involve slightly different issues?

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