Friday, November 27, 2009

The Church Without Walls or Divisions

One of the criticisms of the church I hear most often from those outside the church is thisL "Why would I want to belong to an organization that can't even get along with others who also claim to be Christians?" Good question; one not easily or comfortably answered.

The charge is true. Historically Christians have been some of the most contentious, hard to get along with people anywhere. There are some reasons for that of course. Some are valid reasons that are worth giving some thought to. For example, faith is a matter of a person's heart. It is intimate, passionate and very important. It deals with the inner most part of our being and so sometimes we have convictions that we feel strongly about and that we don't want to compromise. From the earliest days of the history of the Christian church, we read about discussions and controversy - some theological, some beased on personality difference. It is part of human nature, that when we feel strongly about something so close to our heart and our being, we are going to speak up for it and defend it.

The problem is that history has proven that, while the church has divided over some pretty important issues, most of the time, the dissension and division has been over less important or core tenets. For example, topics like carpet colors for a newly remodeled sanctuary or worship styles have divided many a church. One of the reasons we have so many different Christian denominations is because of debates over things not much more essential than these.

When the Ministerial Association in Enumclaw was struggling to decide on a Doctrinal Statement that we could all subscribe to, we were reminded of Augustine's gracious formula for getting along with other Christians: "In essentials unity, in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity." Reduced to its true core essential body of teaching, the faith that the Christian church has held for centuries is best and most concisely spelled out in the Apostle's Creed. That then became the statement that would unify us as pastors and as churches on the Enumclaw Plateau.

When it came to other, less eseential matters like church government, ordination standards and worship styles, we decided to agree to disagree on them and not make them points of division. Instead, the major tenets of the Apostle's Creed became the thing that caused us to live in one accord and purpose.

For years (as long as my Enumclaw memory allows whic is 12 years) we have not only sought to live out that unity as pastors, but also encouraged our congregations to acknowledge and celebrate it as well. As Pastors, we look forward to the fellowship and support we get from hanging out together and sharing stories, concerns and joys. As congregations this has been expressed in different ways. One year, every Pastor in the fellowship agreed that we would all preach a series of sermons on the Apostle's Creed over a period of 8 weeks. Any of our members could have gone to any of the other churches in town and heard a message on the same topic on any given week. On National Day of Prayer (the first Thursday in may) we have gathered together on the lawn and porch of City Hall to corporately pray together for our nation, our community, our youth, our schools and for each other. We have come together for wonderful celebrations of unity at Thanksgiving, Pentecost and Easter. I have always felt those joint services were forerunners - appetizers if you will - for the experience we will have in heaven where people will come from east and west and north and south to sit at the table in Christ's Kingdom.

This past Sunday, I felt the grandest expression of that unity came when 8 of our member churches radically altered their schedules and traditions to participate in Faith in Action. High Church and Low Church, liturgical, reformed, charismatic and independent church all either cancelled their weekly services or radically shortened them so that God's people could come together and collaberate to serve our community in Christ's name.

Rough estimates suggest that over 500 believers from a wide variety of backgrounds, came together to feed the hungry, clear paths and trails, paint a tutoring center, write letters to soldiers and pray. For those of us from Calvary, Faith in Action has become an important part of who we are. We observed it three times last year. It was a great blessing - to those who were served and more importantly - to those who had given up their weekly church service to become the hands and feet of Christ in the community. We longed for other churches to participate with us, and so, this past Sunday's celebration was an incredible answer to prayer.

One of the catch phrases we have used in association with Faith in Action has been "Don't just go to the church!" As a pastor, I experienced the presence and power of God by working together with about 45 other Christians from other churches. We cleared leaves, fallen trees and other debris from a nature trail behind Westwood School. In many ways, this was a more profound expression of Christ's love than any church service could provide. And now, for months and years to come, students will have a safe clean trail through which they can wander - marveling all the way at the natural beauty and complexity of the world God created. All because a group of Christians set aside their own agendas, services, theological distinctives etc.

St. Francis of Assissi is attributed as having once said, "Preach a sermon everyday. If necessary, use words." All over the city, a powerful sermon was preached and words didn't have to be used. Jesus said "By this shall all people come to know me, that you (Jesus' followers) have love one for another.

In the Book of Acts (the history of the earliest church) we are told that Christians gained favor with both GOd and man because of the quality and character of their unity and love for each other and their care for the needs of others. (Acts 2 - 4)
Somehow, I can't help but feel that not only was God honored by that demonstrable show of unity in service, but that people in the community might sit up and take notice, and, just perhaps, give thought and praise to the Lord.

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