This post is a part of the Rally to Restore Unity hosted on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.
NOTE: I largely wrote this post last night, prior to learning about the Bin Laden death. Thus, I make no mention of it. I’ll just say here, no matter your perspective on it, that I hope we could consider this apposite RTRU sign. (Courtesy of @WritingJoy).
If you knew me back in my high school and (especially) college days, you would probably know that the concept of Christian unity was always a passion of mine. I always felt like the church’s fragmentation and Christians’ general distrust towards each other was a tragedy, and that God has called the church to live and act as one… and that by remaining fragmented, the church’s message to the world would continue to be tarnished.
Of course, I should clarify that by “concept” of Christian unity…I meant: “If only all churches would just believe the same things THAT I DO, and care about the things I CARE ABOUT, then we would be able to truly be one again.”
Of course, I didn’t think about it that way at the time… back then, I would’ve said it this way:
“If only all churches believed what the Bible says…. then we would be truly one.”
So simple! Why hadn’t anyone else thought of this before???
Of course, that was before I realized that there are many people who read the same Bible, who then come to astonishingly different conclusions, even about what we might call the “major” theological issues (e.g. the role of faith vs. works, heaven and hell, the relation between Israel and the church, the church, the function of the Spirit, the law/covenant, the so-called “omni-“ statements about God, etc. etc… and this doesn’t even mention all of the ethical, cosmological, and eschatological issues that people use the Bible to “prove”).
When you finally dive into the waters of the Christian tradition, and find it much deeper and murkier than you ever thought it was before (and discover that what you thought was orthodoxy was actually only about 180 years old, tops), you might be forced to consider, as I did, how my well-intentioned aspirations and dreams for a united church were actually fantasies… driven by my lust for agreement and conformity, where the entire church would read the Bible as I did (or, as I had been told to read it by others) and there would be no grey, no tension, to be found.
Thankfully, as my faith developed, I found my desire for unity to remain strong… but my lust for conformity to diminish. I became far more willing to humble myself to examine the possibility of other’s opinions [some might wish to say, I began to cater to the whims of liberalism; eh, I say poTAYto, you say poTAHto]. And as a result my theology, my faith, my relationship with God, and my understanding of God have all dramatically changed… and I would say, enriched and deepened. But here I find myself in a similar pickle as before, only from a new angle. I still hope for stronger unity of the church, even if I don’t need everyone to agree with my new (yet more honed) theological convictions. But I also think that speaking about Christian unity, without talking about theology at all, is not a REAL unity!… for how else will we understand ourselves as working towards the same purposes?
Put another way…. can we have a DEEP, SUBSTANTIAL unity without uniformity, expressed in the concrete ways in which we interact with each other?
I saw this Twitpic photo added to the #restoreunity hashtag; it’s indicative of the “concern” that conservatives have long had towards liberal Christians, although I would argue that it greatly misses the point of the present conversation:
ugh… whatever, Yoda. (@missionalyoda, to b exact)
Uh, no Yoda, not everything “goes,” in the sense that our beliefs don’t matter, or that our beliefs should all just be stirred up in one big mushpot of beliefs and then redistributed in equal doses to the masses.
There is such thing as “bad theology” and “better theology” [although I’m not certain we should be so bold to say that there’s “good theology”]. But there are various, overlapping, interpretive lenses (i.e., “theological perspectives”) that all contribute to the entire corpus of the Christian tradition. And so perhaps many, if not most, of our disagreements actually serve as strengths, not weaknesses. There are bounds, but those bounds are permeable and ever-expanding over time. And the tradition encompasses far, far FAR more ground than many Christians (conservative or liberal) make them to be.
WHERE DO WE START, if we’re going to be serious about not just a “feel-good” unity in the church, but a unity of purpose and love”? Is it simply a pipe dream? Is the divide far too vast now for the traditional modern categories of liberal and conservative to be transcended, especially given the extremely divisive rhetoric that is so prevalent at the present time?
Personally I’m still working this out, but I do believe, perhaps naively, that it is hard, but doable.
I think it starts LOCALLY, in local churches.
These aren’t hard and fast categories, but they’re some thoughts I’ve had, based off of some theory, and (mostly) my own (admittedly limited) experiences of transcending the liberal/conservative divide. I have hope that, if local churches, of all shapes and sizes, “moved” in these directions (not even necessarily fully embraced them at all levels), we would be on the path towards a REAL unity, without conformity, that HONORS our diversity and may actually be STRENGTHENED by it.
MOVEMENT 1: From doctrinal answers—-> to narrative-centered questions
This is a difficult one, but in my experience in the churches I’ve been in, it’s actually easier than pastors might think. Because at this point, we affirm that as Christians we are unified by being “people of the Book.” How we understand that book is another matter, but we can at least say that our tradition centers upon, and radiates outward from, the Biblical tradition.
In a handful of church contexts in which Amy and I have been, we have advocated for looking at and teaching the Bible as a grand narrative that despite its eclectic nature has some overarching themes that connect throughout the story (and some rather shocking developments). Rather than read scriptures, isolated from context, and then delineate principles to memorize, we have taught parents, children, and teens how to read the story for themselves, in its own, AND in the greater context, together, and then how to ask explore and ask questions of the text that yield deeper connections. In this, we’re really trying to make a move back to the way that ancient Jews studied Torah together, by the community’s group examination of the Torah’s “70 faces,” like a diamond that when rotated reveals a variety of shapes and colors to various people… so that when all people read the text and share their observations, believing the Holy Spirit to be present in the process… there is greater collective understanding. In this model all are students, and all are teachers.
This in and of itself will not create unity… but it plants a seed, I believe, for people to move to a more gracious way of understanding our theological unity, beyond narrow doctrinalism. We’ve (Amy and I) have only begun to scratch the surface of this way of teaching; for more information from the person (Mike Novelli) who originally taught how to do this to me, who is far further down the path than I am in understanding it, you should follow @echothestory on Twitter, and also check out Echo‘s website.
MOVEMENT 2: From Christian living as behaving according to a status——> to Christian living as belonging to a community of greater purpose
Yes, this is a theological move… although perhaps it first derives from a philosophical move. But this is just a fancy way of saying “Be missional,” and that being missional is a source of real Christian unity.
The problem here, is that churches do largely misunderstand what “being missional” means, which is why I say “purpose” at first. Our differing theologies force us to put the emphasis on different things. But the hopeful news here is that, no matter whether you are far left, far right, or far out… we can all (mostly) agree that serving the poor is a Christian value… and we can all agree that for the most part, while we know we are called to do it, we in America collectively SUCK at “getting our hands dirty” and serving regularly AND relationally. When we do serve, it is usually low time-commitment, and with a low relational component. Food lines and sock drives take precedence over long-term commitments to the poor.
The opportunity is here, though, for that to change…. if pastors would take their congregations through a long-term visioning process, where they would a) pray, b) seek as a community to discover the meaning of Christian mission in scripture, beginning with the words of Jesus, c) do Asset Mapping of the community, and see where other local churches/organizations are already involved, d) pray some more as a church, e) choose one local, and one global, missional endeavor to focus the church’s resources and energy, and f) begin to organize around these activities and consider them the church’s central purpose.
I firmly believe that NOTHING…. brings the church together better, and opens churchgoers up to change and humility more, than serving together.
MOVEMENT 3: From theological assurance—-> to admitting our limitations.
Instead of pastors that take difficult passages, difficult circumstances, etc…. and sugarcoat them with “fluffy, feel-good Jesus,” ® I find it FAR more compelling when church leaders can feel the freedom to stand up and say, “I don’t know,” or “I don’t understand.” It’s a simple yet incredibly difficult switch to flip, where we refuse, in the words of Peter Rollins/Karl Marx, to “use God (i.e., comfortable doctrines about God) as a crutch” when things become trying. Instead, if pastors and church leaders could simply begin to be more comfortable with people’s questions, doubts, fears, opposing opinions, etc… as well as demonstrate to the congregation a willingness to admit one’s own faults and failures to understand (not in a self-deprecating way, but by a truly humble, authentic expression of oneself), the church might also begin to give each other some grace, and be more accepting of both the opinions of others AND of their own admitted struggles with faith…. which would open people up to LEARNING from each other.
Here, the unity is found when Christians come together to affirm… that at the end of the day, none of us know jack.
MOVEMENT 4: From private spirituality—-> to communal spirituality
The old adage “The family that prays together, stays together” [that is a popular saying, right? I’m not just making that up?] applies to churches as well. Nurturing hearts of prayer is ultimately about nurturing hearts to listen to the Spirit of God; doing so as a community can both facilitate the sense of the community’s collective dependence on God, and the sense of the community’s collective purpose and mission. It’s an acknowledgement, further, that God is the one who ultimately unifies–and it is around His purposes that we unify, not our own initiatives, good ideas, or… of course, our lusts for conformity, uniformity, or control.
All Christians, at the end of the day, pray.
MOVEMENT 5: Eat together!
Most churches already do fellowship of some kind…. but this is just a reminder that fellowship is an essential component for church unity. Seriously, there’s some kind of magical glue that sticks to everyone, when communities meet together regularly to chow down.
In which case…. if your fellowship times are or feel exclusive; if any group in your church does not feel welcomed to join the fellowship, or if the community is shut out, either literally or figuratively, from the fellowship… than you might want to consider tweaking it.
MOVEMENT ?: Reconciliation
As an addendum, since many churches have “skeletons in the closet,” deeply-entrenched wounds that often cripple the community without them even aware of the effects, if one attempts to nurture unity in the church without addressing these hurts would be futile, and possibly nuclear.
I don’t have a process for reconciliation to share (although I would suggest every pastor read No Future Without Forgiveness and Exclusion and Embrace; there are probably more practical books out there that would help), except to say that 1) real reconciliation will require the truth to be brought to light, including hearing from the voices of the margins of the community which are often the first silenced, and 2) true justice seeks not only for the wronged to forgive the offender, but for relationship to be restored between the two parties, whenever and to whatever degree possible.
MOVEMENT X: From MY church—-> to OUR community’s church
See, our unity can begin with either one or more of the following affirmations— We are unified by scripture; we are unified by Christ-centered service; we are unified by our collective ignorance, and we’re unified by prayer and the Spirit. [A church wouldn’t necessarily have to tackle all of these at once, either; church leaders could just start with one of these which they perceive are the most likely to take root… because I believe that they a]l bleed into, and consequently open the doors for, the others.] And of course, spending fun time together, esp. eating, can build relational unity.
If a church nurtured these things within it’s own life, I believe that a sense of unity (especially if unity were talked about as a value in the community regularly) would permeate…. and not a “feel-good” unity, “anything goes” unity, or a “we are believe the exact same thing”-unity….but an authentic, deep unity of purpose and love. And… I hope… we would begin to see more gracious dialogue (and actually a greater valuing of the dialogue itself) on the World Wide Webs, too.
BUT I don’t think we can be satisfied here… even though it may seem like a stretch to even get to this point.
The next Move– “Movement X,” as I am calling it, is a theoretical move that I have been concocting in my head for about six years now:
What if ALL the churches in a particular community began to work together, for the good of the city, town, or area in which they lived?
What if the movements listed above were attempted in ANOTHER dimension… between CHURCHES within communities, and not just individuals within churches?
What if churches in communities, putting an end to all competitions for members, began to consider themselves together “THE body of Christ,” not ONLY in order to be a stronger, collective witness to the unity of Christ to the community… but ALSO to be a greater strategic FORCE for LOVE and CHANGE in that community?
How would such a unity be truly reflected, while still honoring the complexity and variety of the Christian witness as presently represented by these various traditions?
How would we do this? I don’t know. I have ideas, though…. ideas that one day I hope to explore more fully. But I leave these questions with you as-is, to ponder yourselves…and personally I’d love to hear any ideas you might have.
Until then, I leave you with my signage contribution to the Rally: