Friday, June 5, 2015

Grassroots Christian Unity Is On Fire!

Below the surface, unseen connections and strength.

A big part in the movement for Christian unity is reconciliation between the denominations themselves.  People often look to their church leaders to work out the details.  Indeed, there have been many extensive efforts to reconcile nuances of theology between large churches with hierarchical structures.  Teams of theologians and clergy members have been working tirelessly for decades on behalf of the cause of unity.  They have made great progress, but there are reasons to believe this method has either run its course or needs to be paired with something else.

In the evangelical world, this is generally not even an option.  Most evangelical Christians do not even belong to churches with that kind of structure.  There is no one to speak for them. Church membership is a much looser concept than it is with churches that have stages of initiation in the sacraments and structured leadership.  Even if people look to their local pastor for this kind of leadership, there are literally thousands of independent pastors and churches all over which makes for a substantial logistics puzzle.

The only way unity can happen with evangelical Christians is that it has to be built person by person and church by church.  The cause has to be taken up by the people, because there is simply no other mechanism.  Everybody has a role to play when it comes to Christian unity.  Even large churches such as the Catholic Church would affirm this.  Vatican II's Decree on Ecumenism states that "the attainment of union is the concern of the whole Church, faithful and shepherds alike. This concern extends to everyone, according to his talent." Subsequent popes have affirmed this.  Every Christian is tasked to work for unity. In the case of dialogue with evangelicals, circumstances make this recommendation non-negotiable.

Whether this is a barrier or a blessing to the movement for Christian unity remains to be seen.  Longtime workers in the ecumenical movement may scratch their heads and wonder how Christian unity can be achieved when so many evangelicals are "independent."  Even if another unifying figure such as Billy Graham were to rise up, it would be debatable whether this person would have the authority to speak for the whole evangelical community. 

It is hard enough to work through existing structures, but what about when there are few structures at all?  While that is a very reasonable concern, the evidence from our world indicates otherwise:  The official movement for Christian unity has found itself stalled with an uncertain future, according to many experts. 

Documents of understanding have been made with questionable impact on the people in the pews.  Some differences remain that have no reconciliation in sight.  Even still, churches may resist formally integrating with each other.  There is a potential loss of culture, identity and, admittedly, power, than can come with that.

Catholics and Lutherans, for example, have been working hard at unity for decades and have many official documents to show for that work.  There has been some disappointment that the breakthroughs between Catholics and Lutherans had not filtered down to the local levels. The main church dividing issue for Lutherans has always been on justification by faith.  Catholics and Lutherans released a joint statement on justification in 1999 that some would argue ironed out those differences.  Yet, the two respective churches still basically function as they have.  Perhaps more time is needed for those changes to filter down.  Perhaps another method is needed.

However, at the local level the movement is on fire.  Individual Christians are not waiting for their leaders to hash our documents of understanding.  They are largely unaware of the documents that do exist.  Evangelicals largely do not have this option in the first place.  What Christians are doing is meeting in table fellowship for common prayer while advocating for common causes.  They are reading each other's books and learning from each other's practices.  They are enjoying each other's presence in their lives and in their thoughts.  This is where we will find our common Christian identity. 

Cross Pollination of Ideas.

Cross Pollination

20 years ago, it was not uncommon for Catholics to come up to me and say something like:  "I'm a Catholic, and I plan to remain one, but I quietly attend an evangelical Bible study that is a huge part of my spiritual nourishment."

Last summer, I heard the following from an evangelical leader, which is not an uncommon thing to hear these days:  "I am an evangelical, but honestly the only people I read these days are Catholics... mostly the ascetic tradition, Thomas Merton and the Church Fathers."  In addition, some evangelicals are studying what have traditionally been Catholic practices, such as natural family planning, as mentioned in my previous post.

Dr. Stephen Long of Marquette University self-describes as an "ecumenical hybrid."  He shared this at the National Workshop on Christian Unity:  "I was baptized by Anabaptists, went to college with evangelicals, was pastorally formed by the Methodists and by the time I finished by PhD, only the Jesuits would hire me!"

This amazing thing about his story is that it is not very amazing anymore.  A couple generations ago, this would have been either the feat of a daring trailblazer or a chaotic romp into blatant heresy, depending on the philosophical bent of the observer.  In just a short time, this has become much more commonplace.  For better or for worse, people are rarely just one thing, anymore.  Add on to that the fact that around half of all marriages are between people of different traditions, we have quite a mixing going on.

My own history is equally mixed:  I have spent considerable time with Dominicans, Franciscans, Glenmarians, the Catholic Worker movement and "regular" diocesan parishes--and this is just the Catholic part of my experience.  I cannot also underestimate the importance of participating in evangelical prayer and mission activities as well as friends and teachers across the religious spectrum--both in person and in print.

This kind of cross pollination is happening everywhere.  Long sees it as a true "sign of hope" in the midst of an ecumenical stalemate at the leadership level, and describes it as "minding each other's traditions."  Sometimes it translates into conversions.  Most often, it does not.  But even when it does not result in a conversion, each piece of formation does exactly that--it forms and shapes a person and leaves them changed.  The sum total of all this is moving the entire Body of Christ toward a new horizon.  Who is not an ecumenical--or interfaith--hybrid these days?

Many Church leaders simply do not know what to do with this.  Denominational structures have largely not kept up with the changing landscape.  The old categories just do not fit lived experience.  It has been widely publicized that church membership has fallen in recent years, and perhaps this is due more to folks having a more inclusive identity than a lack of spirituality.  Many folks today have a religious formation that comes from a variety of sources.  In some cases, it calls people to question the value of belonging to a specific denomination or community.  Those who still find value in denominational membership usually do not attach the same level of seriousness to it that was the norm a short while ago.


Meeting in the Spirit Over Spirits

An evangelical Christian said the following at a public Catholic-evangelical dialogue:  "The movement for unity took a giant leap forward when evangelicals warmed up to the use of alcohol!"  The comment was met with raucous laugher, as intended.  Still, there was a seriousness to it.  As Catholics and evangelicals recounted some of their favorite memories of interacting with each other, the stories often involved sharing food, drink and friendly conversation late into the evenings.

I debated whether or not to include this point.  The use of alcohol has been extremely controversial in Christianity.  Many evangelical Christians remain staunchly opposed to its use.  Many others recoil when thinking about the history of alcoholism and its impact.  That being said, wine flows very freely in the Gospels.  Table fellowship is an integral part of the ministry of Jesus.  In fact, the Kingdom of Heaven is often likened to a feast.

Alcohol itself is not an essential requirement--personally, I virtually never drink alcohol and I work for Christian unity full-time.  I am not saying alcohol is essential by any means.  This point is less about the use of alcohol specifically than about the importance of table fellowship in the cause of unity.  The kind of unity that is happening between Catholics and evangelicals is less scholarly and more friendly.  It seems to happen better at the dinner table than in the board room.  In many cases, there simply are no agreed upon leaders to facilitate another kind of process.  I prefer to see this as an opportunity.  When we eat and drink together and share our faith in Christ over warm regard and laughter, I have to imagine that Jesus would be quite pleased.


You Cannot Outsource Christian Love

I will go on record and say the absence of hierarchy in evangelical churches is actually a blessing in the cause of Christian unity.  Yes, it challenges the role of longstanding denominations as individuals place the most importance on their in personal spirituality and less on the role of the community to facilitate or mediate that in an exclusive way.  But it also forces the whole people to be involved.

Some may say that promoting unity through person-to-person encounters is a kind of last resort, since previous methods are not applicable.  I am here to suggest that this may be an incredible blessing.  We cannot outsource brotherly and sisterly love for our fellow Christians, passively letting our leaders do all the work.  This is where the blessing lies.

Christian people are making huge strides toward each other.  This post is not meant to discount the documents between denominations.  For all we know, the current efforts happening are probably at least partly inspired by those pronouncements.  This may be true even of independent evangelical Christians who are seeing those dialogues and responding in subtle yet profound ways in their lives. 

The good news is that it is happening.  The people in the pews are exploring what unity means in everyday life and are making thousands and thousands of unique connections to each other.  The results are coming in different ways than leaders have expected.  There is a oneness forming among the people even as institutions have stalled trying to figure out how to merge into a more formal visible unity. 

Ultimately, they will know we are Christians by our love, not by our theological treatises, however important they may be.  The lack of hierarchy in the evangelical world forces us to live into this:  We are either going to find our Christian unity through a groundswell of friendship or not at all.  It has to be grassroots. 

For additional thoughts on this topic, I recommend: Cadinal Kasper Speaks on New Hope for Ecumenism.

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