5 Ways To Pursue Unity For The Church
When I sensed God calling me into ministry, I worked hard to avoid it for 7 years. I loved God. I was being transformed by the Gospel. I wanted to help people discover joy in God’s kingdom, but I had serious reservations about serving as a leader/Pastor/missionary because as much as I loved Jesus, I really struggled to love His bride.
I grew up a Pastor’s kid, it wasn’t a terrible experience. Our little church family wasn’t terribly dysfunctional, and they loved my parents, the part that disgusted me about ‘the church’ was not the little neighborhood congregations, it was the relationships between congregations and believers that I found toxic. In the 90’s and early 2000’s I was witnessing the waning years of Christendom, as the evangelical Christian sub-culture was falling under the weight of it’s foolishness, and what I saw was the dredges of the last generations' theological, ecclesiological and liturgical battles that had defined the lines of traditions, tribes and denominations, the demarcations that gave each congregation it’s raison d’etre.
I had heard the backroom squabbles, the innuendos and gossip about who believed what and how they preached these heresies that meant we could dismiss them and disparage them because they weren’t pure Christians like us. The political battles, the political orthodoxies that determined who was like us and who was our enemy in the culture wars engulfing the church with flames. Even in high school, as teenagers tried to worship and reach out to our friends through lunch time clubs, there were clear demarcations of who was willing to participate and who thought that the groups were not theologically pure enough.
I spent my 20’s working as a missionary to reach teenagers for Christ, and that required a lot of collaboration. I had seen the cost of disunity, so I was going to pursue the kind of unity that can only be found through proximity. As we launched campus ministries at 15 different campuses over 10 years with 50 partner churches I learned an awful lot about unity among Jesus followers and how to set aside tradition and tribal affiliation in pursuit of the gospel mission.
As my wife and I prepared to leave Boston after 6 years to move back to my hometown and plant a church, one of our biggest fears were the ways that disunity had disrupted the ministry of the gospel when we were younger. I knew the players, I knew where the bodies were buried, I had seen the fights, I had seen the angry faces and the gossip that derailed partnerships over secondary and tertiary issues of worship, style and theology. I was afraid to meet with other pastor friends and tell them that I was coming to town to plant a church. I was terrified they would tell me that they didn’t need us, that they didn’t need new churches and that we would be competition for them, but something else happened.
On a vision trip to prepare to plant we sat down with a half dozen people who were leading churches who we knew from years of ministry. Their response changed the trajectory of our ministry. What they said was: “We are so glad you are coming to plant. How can we help?”
I almost started crying in that first meeting with my friend Bren. It startled me, his openness and generosity. Then it happened over and over again. God was building a team of friends to help us plant this little church in West Boise. That was the beginnings of a network of churches who are committing together to plant 200 churches across our valley. I’ve learned alot in the journey and I want to share a little about the seeds that grow kingdom collaboration.
This is such a funny word, but I think that it means so much. Friendship is not just a relationship but a caring relationship born out of mutual respect and support. We had invested in years of partnership, working together to reach students for Christ, and in linking arms we built trust and we built respect. In the past, networks, denominations and movements were born out of ideas and commitments, theological imperatives and administrative supports. But friendship is different. It starts with time, it grows with concern and love and it bears fruit in trust.
There are many parts of friendship but they all start with initiative, one or both people stepping out, taking a risk and eating a meal together, sharing their hearts with one another. Too often in ministry, we get inundated with the work and relationships in our own congregations, but we forget that we have colleagues we share this work with right down the road, and many times they are the only ones who can share the burden of shepherding with us.
I want to propose a radical shift in the way that we think about the church: The church is unified. In God’s purview, there is only one church and it includes everyone who has put their faith in Christ. There is only one church in your city. Instead of trying to create unity, what if we learned to discover the unity of the church looking to see how God has knit us together and living in the reality of the unity, this great collaboration we are called to with the church and with Christ’s Spirit? We stop trying to get buy in to broad theological statements and instead we listen, share meals, pray for each other and listen together for the Lord’s prompting in shared ministry.
One of the main ways I have fought disunity is working hard to get close to people that I disagree with. People who are not inclined to unity, who are not inclined to collaboration, who have very different sort of theological commitments from my own. The closer I get, the more I swipe past their virtue signaling and theological purity tests, I find friends who have a deep desire to honor God and love people…and discovering each others hearts have knit us together in unity.
As Jesus people, we are marked by grace. The one defining feature of Christianity that you find nowhere else in philosophy. We are happy to offer the grace of Christ to everyone, well almost everyone. We still have a hard time offering grace to our theological enemies. Battle lines were drawn in the early 20th centuries, marking the boundaries of eschatology, ecclesiology, the ordinances, the Spirit and the Bible. When we get down to it, we still see the chalk lines of these battles when we pull back the veneer of our friendliness.
There is this old myth out there at "trust is earned". I think it is the opposite. You actually cannot earn trust because it is something that happens inside of us, a choice or volition to engage….and trust is not actually trust in the other person, it is trust in God that He will provide for us even when other people let us down. Trust starts with an act of gift giving, looking across the table, choosing to believe the best, setting aside mistrust, and giving the other person the opportunity to come through for us. This happens in incremental steps, but it always starts with the gift of trust. Should you trust everyone with really important things that you can’t replace? No. But you can’t build trust without giving it away for free.
As Pastors we need to look around us and extend trust in small ways so that when big things come along we have seen God and other people be faithful. This builds our unity as the body of Christ. Distrust comes from distance, so draw near and give a little bit of trust away. You’ll be surprised at how people will surprise you with their faithfulness in relationship.
When we are emotionally unhealthy, we compare ourselves to everyone in our lives. Sizing up our contributions, our strength, our character against the people around us. When we pursue Christlike relationships we can give away respect, rather than contempt. Not because everyone deserves respect but because of who their Father is.
When you meet the President’s child, you don’t treat a 9 year old with respect because he is impressive or brilliant or even in a position of power. You treat them with respect because they have a powerful father. When we look around our valley, and we see the men and women God has called and equipped to lead the church, we have to start by recognizing that they are not only an emissary, an ambassador of God’s kingdom presence on earth, but they are also a child of God, endowed with inalienable rights by a loving creator Father. The image of God, living, standing, breathing right there.
Now there will be people you can’t partner with in ministry, significant theological differences, stylistic and personality challenges that cannot be overcome. You might even suspect that some leaders are wolves in sheep's clothing, but each of them is a child of God worthy of dignity and our respect because they are a child of God. So we don’t talk bad about each other unless we are concerned enough to act and speak directly to that person about our concerns.
As leaders, God gives us ego, chutzpah, initiative, clear vision and lots of energy. God wants to use all of those things to help people to discover life with Him, but….those are all things that if controlled by the flesh are a huge obstacle to not only unity in the church but to our own relationship with God. If we are not humble leaders, we may not be followers of Jesus….because Jesus was humble, and humility is the only path to relationship with God.
In our marching orders as leaders in Ephesians 4, we see it start with a charge to the church leaders: "Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” These 5 gifts, the leaders given to the church: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Shepherds and Teachers—Be completely humble. Thinking nothing of yourselves but in humility consider others better than yourself.
Pride is a huge barrier to the unity of the church, so our best practice is to exalt our brothers and sisters who lead congregations down the street. Share their church events. Pray for them. Give money to their mission. Celebrate them and the work of God in their churches. Unity comes from honor, and honor comes from humility. Have you ever celebrated the work of other churches in your city in front of your congregation? Have you ever brought a church planter up front and told people to go with them?
This practice of honor and humility will do more than anything to transform the unity of the body of Christ, because it becomes a visible example of not just tolerance of other congregations, but love, respect and honor, the kind that you would have found among the earliest Jesus followers.
At our first church we were in an area of huge turnover. One particular summer 1/3 of our church moved away over a 2 month period, and that fall we had the same number of people as before the exodus. We were near lots of graduate schools, so as people finished their degrees they would move away to a new work assignment all over the country. Although our church had 60 new attendees, it didn’t feel like momentum because the people who left had invested several years in the community and their contributions and relationships couldn’t be replicated right away. It is the same thing with the unity of the body of Christ in a city. When people are coming and going all of the time, there is no opportunity for trust, friendship or partnership to develop.
As we built The City Network, one thing was really clear, the reason we could work together was that we had known each other for decades. Between the 5 of us there was 115 years of longevity in our city. That sort of steadfastness gave us institutional knowledge, broad connections and deep friendships born from years of collaboration. If you want to see God build unity in the body of Christ it doesn’t happen with Johnny-come-latelies. It starts with commitment to each other and a place, and bears fruit in unity and shared work of gospel mission.
God can and does use people new to our community to connect us together. Especially leaders who are committed to relationship and shared life in the church, but there will be many temptations for church planters to come into a city with a message to everyone they meet: “I have come to bring Jesus to this heathen city.” That sort of message will help you raise funds in your suburban mega-church in the midwest but it won’t build unity in the body of Christ. Our city needs church planters to come, reach lost people and build faith communities everywhere in our city, but with humility recognize that God is at work in many varied ways among His people already. Come join in the work of God already happening and celebrate the ways God has worked in past generations. It is good for your soul and good for the body of Christ.
If you’ve read this far, you either have OCD or you care a lot about unity in the body of Christ. That is awesome. What is next for you in pursuing unity in your city:
-Do you need to take initiative and build friendships with other church leaders, elders and Pastors?
-Do you need to check your heart and offer grace to those who look different than you in the body of Christ?
-Do you need to repent of your disdain for God’s people and offer respect as a gift of unity?
-Do you need to celebrate the work of Christ in other congregations in your city?
-Do you need to commit to staying as long as God wants you in a congregation, in a city?
I’m praying like Christ for boldness and unity for His people.