Tag Archives: church

Church Unity? Four Prerequisites for Young Evangelicals

church

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.

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Church Should be Uncomfortable

the holy book

I grew up attending Baptist churches in the Midwest–the kind where men’s quartets sing gospel songs as “special music” but no one dares raise their hands during a worship song. For most of my 20s I attended a Presbyterian church where things like Maundy Thursday and Advent candles were a big deal. These days I consider myself Reformed and read books about Thomas Cranmer for fun. My ideal church service would involve the Book of Common Prayer, an organ, eucharist and a sermon out of a Pauline epistle that referenced everyone from Augustine and Spurgeon to Marilynne Robinson and N.T. Wright. In my dream church the “peace” would be exchanged every Sunday, ashes imposed every Ash Wednesday, and G.K. Chesterton discussed in the high school youth group.

The picture I’ve just painted of my “dream church” looks nothing like the church where I am now a member. The local church where I now serve is non denominational, meets in a renovated warehouse and has no liturgical bent. The music is loud and contemporary. It’s Reformed-ish but Holy Spirit focused, with impromptu “words” from the congregation and quiet prayer in tongues a not-uncommon occasion. To be honest the worship services often make me a bit uncomfortable.

And I’m perfectly happy with that. I love my church.

Talking about one’s “dream church” is–increasingly, I’ve come to think–an exercise in not only futility but flat-out gospel denial. The church does not exist to meet our every need and satisfy our various checklists of tastes and “comfort zone” preferences. If anything it exists to destabilize such things. The church should draw us out of the dead-eye stupor of a culture of comfort-worship. It should jostle us awake to the reality that comfort is one of the greatest obstacles to growth.

The two years I’ve attended my current church have been difficult and full of discomfort, but also probably the most spiritually enriching two years of my life. There’s serious wisdom in the familiar adage to “get out of your comfort zone.” Nothing matures you quite like faithfulness amidst discomfort.

For too long the mantra in Christian culture has been seeker-sensitive and “have it your way.” The mentality has been consumer comfort. Find a church that meets your needs! Find a church that feels like home! Find a church where the worship music moves you, the pastor’s preaching compels you and the homogenous community welcomes you! If it gets difficult or uncomfortable, cut ties immediately; there are a dozen other options waiting to be discovered!

But this model doesn’t work. Not only is it coldly transactional (what have you done for me lately?) and devoid of covenantal commitment (seeker-sensitive church attendance is basically a Kim Kardashian marriage without a prenup), it’s also anti-gospel. A true gospel community is not about convenience and comfort and chai lattes in the vestibule. It’s about pushing each other forward in holiness and striving together for the kingdom, joining along in the ongoing work of the Spirit in this world. Those interested only in their comfort and happiness need not apply. Being the church is difficult.

In Love in Hard Places, D.A. Carson suggests that ideally the church is not comprised of natural “friends” but rather “natural enemies.”

What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything of the sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says – and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.

Taking up the challenge of committing to a local church is incredibly difficult but decidedly biblical. You don’t have to read much of the New Testament to see how messy things get when natural enemies commit to being the unified people of God (e.g. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, etc… Gal. 3:28). It’s inevitably uncomfortable but undeniably important.

The thing is, young people today resonate with this. They’re sick of being sold spiritual comfort food. They want to be part of something that isn’t afraid of a challenge, something that has forward momentum and doesn’t slow down so that the fickle, oh-so-important Millennials can decide whether or not they want to get on board. They want a community that is so compelled by the gospel and so confident in Christ that they pay little heed to target-demographics and CNN articles about what twentysomethings are saying today about their “dream church.”

College students I know are not interested in a church with a nice shiny college ministry. They want a church that is alive, bearing fruit and making disciples. The young professionals in our life group do not meet week after week because hanging out with a diverse array of awkward personalities after a long day’s work makes their lives easier. No. They come because there is power in living beyond the comfort of one’s own life. There is growth when believers help each other look outside of themselves and to Jesus.

Looking outside of oneself. Serving someone beyond the self. Putting aside personal comfort and coming often to the cross. This is what being the church means.

It means worshipping all together without segregating by age or interest (e.g. “contemporary” or “traditional”). It means preaching the whole counsel of God, even the unpopular bits. It means fighting against homogeneity and cultivating diversity as much as possible, even if this makes people uncomfortable. It means prioritizing the values of church membership and tithing, even if it turns people off. It means being OK with the music that is played even if it’s not your favorite style. It means sticking around even when the church goes through hard times. It means building a tight-knit community but not an insular one, engaging the community and sending out members when mission calls them away. It means bearing with one another in love on matters of debate and yet not shying away from discipline. It means preaching truth and love in tension, even when the culture calls it bigotry. It means focusing on long-term healing rather than symptom-fixing medication.

None of this is easy, and none of it is comfortable. But by the grace of God and with the Holy Spirit’s help, uncomfortable church can become something we treasure.