At this week’s “Future of the Church” discussion at Biola University (well worth watching online in its entirety here), the brilliant Fred Sanders ended his prepared remarks by suggesting that it may be up to the “children of evangelicalism” to make progress in the dialogue of unity/ecumenism. Such a project is perennially attempted but always met with the same pesky roadblocks (the “essentials versus non-essentials” conversation being unavoidably amorphous, given the decentralized DNA of Protestantism).
I see some signs for optimism that church unity inroads may be possible for my generation. Evangelicals today are becoming less denominationally oriented. My guess is the counterpart to the secular rise of the “nones” will be a rise of “non-denominational” Christians who recognize the urgency of solidarity and the folly of fragmentation at such a time as this. Cultural issues like marriage are forging new partnerships (built on theology and not just public policy) between evangelicals and Catholics. Papal relations with evangelical Pentecostals have never been better. Globalization and the shifting of Christianity’s energy to the Global South seem to be opening doors for cross-pollination and wider awareness of Christianity’s diverse manifestations in the world. I can see this landscape being amenable to a more unified, more global, more networked church.
But I could also see the opposite. Other signs point to a more fragmented future for the church. As Fr. Thomas Rausch pointed out in his talk, there are approximately 43,000 denominations in today’s world, whereas there were only 1,600 denominations in 1900. The Christian blogosphere and Twitterverse seem to get more polarized by the month, and divisions between progressive and conservative, Arminian and Calvinist, egalitarian and complementarian aren’t exactly diminishing. Fragmentation seems to be growing even within coalitions, as in the recent disputes within complementarian circles between traditionalists and what might be called neo-complimentarians, or in the fragmentation within the CCCU over LGBTQ policies at Christian colleges. Things are only made worse by technology and the limitless availability of pontificating platforms and Internet subdivisions for any possible tribe of Christianity.
Still, I believe church unity is important and progress is possible if we really want to prioritize it. But if the “children of evangelicalism” are going to make any headway in the direction of church unity, there are a few underlying issues we must first confront:
1) We must focus our time and energy on a particular local church rather than trying to fix The Church.
I’ve found that younger Christians are much more likely to pontificate or wax prescriptive about “The Church” than they are to actually join and serve faithfully in a local church. There are a lot of Christian bloggers (I’ve been one of them!) who have ceaseless opinions to offer about The Church but whose commitment to a particular local church, warts and all, is negligible. Certainly there is a place for prophetic and prescriptive writing about The Church in a large sense, but working and worshipping in a church in the local sense is where progress actually happens. It may sound somewhat counterintuitive, but I believe a more unified Church will come more naturally if all of us are primarily concerned with the health of our proximate, particular church community. That said…
2) We must encounter, listen to and learn from other churches and other Christians.
Focus on local community does not mean insularity and ignorance of the diversity of other church expressions. Indeed, stronger unity among churches will require a relational outwardness infused with humility and teachability. Too many in my generation have a real problem with teachability; they think they’ve figured it all out. When they land in a church that feels like the “perfect fit” for them (a problematic term… more on that in a bit), they view other iterations of Christianity with suspicion. This sort of provincial hubris is inimical to church unity. If we’re all utterly convinced our church is perfect and ideal, how could we ever be open to learning from or being challenged by our brothers and sisters in Christ from other cultural or theological contexts? We need to get out more, and it doesn’t need to mean traveling across the world. Try down the street first. Practice hospitality and conversation with churches and believers from across the beautiful spectrum of the body of Christ.
3) We must give up the idea of a “dream church” and instead embrace and commit to a local church, even if it’s awkward and uncomfortable.
The more you experience the diversity of church expressions in the world, the more clear it becomes that there is no perfect church. And yet we’ve become so conditioned by consumerism to expect that there is. We “church shop” like we shop for a new car, looking for one that checks all our desirable boxes and is the “perfect fit” for our unique tastes and preferences. When we find one that seems a match, we give it a test drive. But the minute the ride becomes bumpy (pastor says something disagreeable, worship music is nauseatingly prosaic), we take our leave and begin to shop around again, choosing from the dozens of other options on the ecclesiological “lot.” My generation seems especially prone to this sort of hyper-consumerist approach, yet this is not how church should be. We must rid ourselves of “dream church” ideal and the “perfect fit” fallacy. No church is perfect, and “how it fits us” is exactly the opposite of the approach we should take (isn’t Christianity more about being “fit” into the likeness of Christ?). We must approach church with the knowledge that it will be uncomfortable, awkward, challenging and stretching. But that is the point. We grow spiritually not amidst comfort or because it’s the “perfect fit,” but by being willing to be fit into the mold of Jesus among fellow sojourners on the bumpy road of sanctification. Not only will this produce growth in us, but it will broaden our minds and soften our hearts toward believers of all stripes, both within our diverse local church and within The Church at large.
4) We must move beyond a Christian identity defined by “buts,” caveats, embarrassment and negation.
This is a real problem for my generation of Christians. We’re utterly concerned with how we are perceived and we go out of our way to distance ourselves from a looooong list of evangelical stereotypes and inherited baggage. The recent Buzzfeed “I’m a Christian, But…” video captures it well. We are quick to define our faith in terms of what it’s NOT, but sadly slower to offer compelling articulations of what it IS. Who Jesus is and how he saves is frequently downplayed (or ignored altogether) in the rush to offer endless caveats about how we are not like bigoted Christians, or Republican Christians, or teetotaling Christians, or Christians who wear pleated khakis, or Christians who liked Fireproof. Not only is that sort of self-definition exhausting and unhelpful, but it’s unsustainable. If Christianity is only ever a “not this” religion, it will soon enough become a “not worth it” religion. At some point we must get over our PR hangups and worries about being associated with all the weird Christians out there. We must simply accept our place in the continuum of an always imperfect and always reforming faith, and do our best to live faithfully as followers of Christ with a mission in the world. We must stop our pendulum-swinging ways in reaction to what Christianity has been and focus instead on what it IS and has always been. This will force us to develop a more cogent conception of what it is actually that defines Christianity, which is the question at hand in any conversation about church unity.