In his new book Your Church Is Too Small (read my lengthy review here), John Armstrong suggests that one path to unity among believers is what he calls missional-ecumenism. That is, that God's revealed desire is that we (the church) would be relationally one with Him in the sending out He has called and equipped us to do. Armstrong gives some real-life examples in the book of how he has seen this lived out in communities, which got me thinking about how I have seen efforts toward church unity in my own spiritual journey.
(Mr. Armstrong, if you're reading this, is this what you're talking about?)
The churches in my very small (under 5,000 population) Alabama hometown were an embodiment of the rampant sectarianism described in the book. We attended one of two Methodist congregations, but there was also a Baptist church almost across the street, another Baptist congregation on the highway, a large black AME church, a small Prebyterian church, an even smaller Catholic congregation, and any number of Pentecostal, Holiness-type churches spread throughout the county. However, there was one intra-church event I remember: Fifth Sundays. On those evenings, about 5-6 churches would gather to worship together, rotating through different ministers and locations each time. The service included songs and some elements of worship from different traditions, (I distinctly remember gospel singing with some folks from the AME), though I mostly remember it being scaled-down, casual and Protestant/evangelical. I believe the services were promoted to the community at large, but I wonder if someone ever intentionally invited the Catholic church down the road? Is this a pattern for others to follow? I'm not sure, but I am curious as to how it might work in a larger city setting where communities are more spread out and Christians rarely have the opportunity to interact (much less hold a joint service!) with believers from other streams of Christianity.
For a number of years we worked with Apartment Life, and one of the stipulations was that the couple be connected to and supported by a local church congregation. However, we also found it beneficial to reach out to other local churches to partner with us in ministry (most often, though, God led them to us!). During our 5+ years in two different apartment communities, we saw volunteers from our own Presbyterian church and a local Methodist church work together to sponsor a Kids' Club, we raised donations for a local Catholic charity during one of our service days, and we were supported by a Baptist congregation and a local "Bible church" for some larger social events. The result, I think, was that God brought together individual believers from various congregations to witness and interact with one another. In addition, during organizational monthly large group meetings, we shared ideas and prayed together with local believers from diverse faith traditions, including some with which we had strong doctinal differences. However, by praying for the Spirit to work in their apartment complex and seeing how God used them to impact His kingdom, I think it helped us become more loving towards fellow Christians.
This ties into one theme I took away from the book: to see true unity among individual believers over just figureheads or groups. Armstrong said something to the effect that it may be easier to join together for a cause or a social justice type movement than to actually do the hard work of sharing together, learning together and praying together for true unity. "The primary progress is to be made in the trenches of shared life -- person to person, school to school, congregation to congregation, movement to movement, and, sometimes, denomination to denomination" (169).
At the end of the book, Armstrong lists seven ways that he sees the church in America converging toward a more Christ-like unity:
1. a restored commitment to the sacraments
2. an increased appetite to know more about the early church
3. an obvious open expression of love for the whole church and a real desire to be the church become one
4. the blending of practices of worship, devotion, and prayer from all three streams [Protestant, Catholic, Eastern]
5. an interest in integrating more liturgical depth and structure with the spontaneity and freedom in the Holy Spirit
6. a greater involvement of sign and symbol in worship through banners, crosses, Christian art, and clerical vestments
7. a continuing commitment to personal salvation, solid Biblical teaching, and the work and ministry of the Holy Spirit
I appreciated what he calls this "informal ecumenism" and wanted to share them here to further the discussion about how this can be done. Upon reading #5, I immediately thought about our friend who was part of a downtown Vineyard church which had regularly been using the Book of Common Prayer, now the church has officially become part of the Anglican Mission in America. I thought of a neighborhood Christian cooperative coming together and treating the local community as their "parish," adopting it and serving the needs of justice and mercy among neighbors. I think of friends we know who are working toward racial reconciliation among Christians and how embracing the ancient-future aspect of our faith might help smooth that path.
Dear readers, if you have made it this far, have you seen anything along these lines in your communities?