I’m a pastor in a denomination that is in the middle of (yet another) divide. I sat through another discussion about exiting churches at our Presbytery meeting a couple of weeks ago. It was like being part of a divorce negotiation with a couple that still loves each other yet one spouse can’t fathom being married any longer.
The parties involved are trying really hard to be civil, to be respectful, to be fair. All in all, they are doing a good job. This is a Presbytery with a lot of mutual goodwill. If anything, it’s the kind of place where a “good” divorce could happen.
And still it was so depressing. It would be easy to lose heart. It would be tempting to let this swirl of inside-baseball continually be confused with where the real “game” is being played. I know I have in the past.
But thankfully, I am now looking at this moment with a different set of lenses; a distinctively ecumenical and evangelical perspective. Like two lenses that are bringing an otherwise blurry moment into focus, I feel as if I have been given a gift of seeing today from the vantage point of the future.
Recently I accepted a position at Fuller Theological Seminary—yes, a distinctively evangelical school. But it is also a school that is dramatically ecumenical. Fuller has students from over 100 countries and over 60 denominations (and many of those fall in the “non-denominational” category).
Perhaps it’s because of that exhilarating, multi-denominational, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual pool that I swim in each day that I find myself moving more quickly through the depression to the hopeful moment before us.
Yes, my denomination is in the midst of a painful divorce. As the adult child of divorced parents I can tell you that this type of pain won’t be solved by having long talks about having long talks about how we should have long talks so that we can really hear each other. (Oh, we all wish that it would…)
Those who are “going” really left a long time ago. (So far, not one church in our presbytery that has entered “discernment” discerned that they should stay…)
Those of us who are staying are spending enormous amounts of energy and effort into trying to either convince them to stay or to give us more “alimony.”
And meanwhile… the mission is still there. The world outside our door is still waiting for witness.
Oh, we—who are so caught up in months of meetings about millions of dollars—say that this is about mission.
Those who are leaving for another denomination say that the mission of Jesus Christ is hindered because of deeply held theological differences that demand realignment.
Those who are staying say that the mission of Jesus Christ is being hindered because those who are leaving are taking their property and purses with them.
So, you think that making a new denomination is the key to renewing the church? How 19th century of you.
And we think that more money is the key to more mission? How 20th century of us.
The 21st century is upon us. And it is beginning to look really, really different.
That is what I see everyday. The global church is growing with little organizational structure and few resources while we westerners who are so focused on maintaining our share of the Christendom-dream are in free-fall.
Every week this past quarter, I worshipped in a chapel service that is representative of a wide swath of traditions and languages (recently someone prayed in Icelandic!). Our school teaches in English, Spanish, Korean and will soon feature Mandarin Chinese. At commencement, the gathered crowd went wild when a graduate unzipped his regalia to reveal his native country’s national team World Cup jersey.
Every day, I have conversations with bi-vocational church planters, filmmakers, NGO interns, artists, scientists, psychologists, missionaries, entrepreneurs, theologians, historians, anthropologists and yes, a whole pile of would-be pastors, who don’t really focus all that much on which initials are on their business cards.
While the unity of the church is never served and the witness of the church is only hindered by division, the discussions around dividing have now become at least as detrimental as the issues that divide us.
To my denominational friends, caught in this depressing discussing, let me urge you to consider:
It’s time to hug and weep and pray and bless and say goodbye to those who are leaving (at least for now…who knows what will happen)
…and get back to work.
Join hands with those who will work alongside you, build bridges with all the baptized. Strengthen fellowship with anyone who will break the bread and share the cup. The world is just outside our door. The future is calling us, the global church is way ahead of us and the Great Commission beckons us all.