Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Coming Together Under a "Big Tent"

This summer the churches my wife (and I) serve are doing a preaching series based upon a book written by Adam Hamilton called Christianity’s Family Tree: What Other Christians Believe and Why? In this series we are looking at what a couple of United Methodist congregations in Southeast Baltimore might learn from other Christian denominations—as well as from our own. On the whole, I think it’s been a good experience for our churches. We’ve gotten quite a bit of positive feedback.

Now, the purpose of doing this series was not to suggest that we should give up our unique denominational identity as United Methodists and join hands with all other Christians to sing Cum Bah Yah. As much as Jesus prayed for unity among his followers, I don’t think this kind of literal joining together will happen—nor do I think it needs to. Over the two millennia since Jesus walked the Earth, his followers have always disagreed and divided. In fact, studying the “family tree” reminds us that in many ways, these disagreements are what have defined us—especially in the West. So to say our differences don’t matter at all would not be a realistic assessment of our present situation.

But on the other hand, I do think that a series like this reminds us that, once we get to know our brothers and sisters from other faith traditions, we actually discover that there’s a whole lot of “family resemblance” between all of us. To say it another way: all Christians have common roots in Christ. And even those beliefs and practices that may at first seem to be very different from ours don’t have to bitterly divide us. If we choose to, we can actually learn from them—and they can learn from us—and in the process, perhaps we can all embrace a more generous orthodoxy[1] without ever compromising our unique identity.

It is in that spirit that Christians from all over the world will gather in Raleigh, NC on September 8-9. Some two-dozen leading Christian speakers from around the country will be participating. They will share new and innovative forms of church-based ministry and renewal—new ways of being and becoming the church in the time and places where we find ourselves. The conference hopes to cast a vision for how we can speak even more powerfully in and to the post-Christian world of the 21st century, a world where denominational identities no longer carry the same meaning that they used to. I think the conversation they are going to have is extremely important, and one worthy of our prayers, and our participation. We may not be able to be present personally, but we should definitely pay attention to these and similar conversations that are taking place all around us—if we can only tune our ears to hear.

Many of us realize that our churches are less than we wish they were; many are a shadow of their former selves. The reasons for the decline, especially in mainline churches, are complex and multi-faceted. We have lost members, we struggle to attract youth and young adults, and we struggle to keep up with the rapidly changing post-Christian world outside our doors.

Can this damage be repaired? As God once asked the Prophet Ezekiel: Can these bones live again[2]? Those of us who have been in the church for many years ask the same question. We hope the answer is Yes, but to be honest, we aren’t sure what the future holds for Christianity[3].

There is recognition from most Christians today that the world is rapidly changing and the church must also change in response[4]. The question we don’t all agree on is: How do we do it? In the late 20th and early 21st century, a conversation has begun within the various streams of Christianity to wrestle with this very difficult question and the myriad of other questions that follow from it. The conversation seeks to be inclusive as possible—thus it needs to take place under a “big tent”. J

If you consider yourself a follower of Jesus—whether you are Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, or “other”—you are invited to join the conversation. You don’t have to stop going to the church you currently attend; you just have to be willing to participate in the dialogue, in whatever context you currently find yourself. The aim here is to have a conversation, not to start another denomination[5].

I believe that it is through this kind of inclusive dialogue with other Christians—some of whom may at first glance seem very different than us—that we become more well-rounded followers of Christ, better equipped to follow the way of Jesus in our rapidly changing post-Christian world. I might also add that I think we need this diversity of Christian perspectives if we ever hope to effectively address the daunting global crises that we face in our world today—almost all of which have spiritual roots.

My personal experience suggests that as we expose ourselves to the beliefs and practices of other Christians, we stand a better chance of becoming the kind of people (and the kind of church communities) who actually do the things that Jesus did on a regular basis, as opposed to simply learning about those kinds of people on Sunday morning. We become people who more naturally live as Jesus would if he were living in our time and place, and who are ready to be sent forth to live out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) today—baptizing others and teaching them to obey Jesus. We can then invite these people to add their voice to the Spirit’ed dialogue that has been going on among followers of Jesus for over 2000 years, and by God’s grace will continue for many years to come.

I believe that the emerging conversation has the potential to breathe new life and vitality into the Church universal. The question is: Will we take a deep breath and inhale this fresh wind of the Spirit or continue to hold our breath until we suffocate? The choice is ours….. by God’s grace and mercy, may we choose life, may we breathe deeply and live again!

[1] Orthodoxy means correct belief. In this context, I refer to what we believe and why, and how those beliefs shape our perception of God. The term generous orthodoxy—from Brian McLaren’s book A Generous Orthodoxy—is just another way of suggesting that exposure to the beliefs and practices of other Christian denominations—and maybe even other religions—doesn’t have to be a threat to our identity, but rather can help enrich us, broaden our perspective of God, and give us a better appreciation of our unique identity.

[2] See Ezekiel 37:1-14 for the story of Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones.

[3] To be clear I believe God’s Church will go on, but I think many local churches will not survive as presently constituted. To frame this more positively, when the “dry bones” come to life, the walls of our existing churches won’t be able to contain them. “Church” is perhaps returning to its roots; it is less about a place we go and more about a life we live

[4] Christians believe that the message of the Gospel transcends time, but that we must constantly adapt how we deliver the unchanging message of Jesus in a world that is constantly evolving and changing.

[5] In fairness, many movements that eventually became denominations actually started out with the same goal. For example, the Methodist movement in England began as a conversation within the Anglican Church. It remains to be seen whether the emerging Church can successfully plot a different course.

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