“The great thing about social movements is everybody gets to be a part of them.” – Jim Wallis
When is a church not a “church”? When it’s by itself.
One of the greatest tragedies of the modern age has been the separation not of “church and state,” but of “church and church.” To believe that you are truly part of Christ’s “one body” on Earth (1 Cor. 12) and yet not perceive your deep roots in the historical tradition of the one universal Church is staggering. We are all called to love, service, unity, peace, faith, hope, works of mercy, charity, etc., because we are The Church. We are not alone in this world, because we are The Church. We have never to fear opposition when seeking God’s will and justice in life, for united together we are The Church. The power of the Spirit and the Word seek to transform this world through the One, True Church.
And yet, when you say the word “ecumenical” among many of the believers I have fellowshipped with in certain places, you will find it either a foreign word or a bad one. It wasn’t a bad word when I came to faith through InterVarsity. But somewhere along the line it became one. In certain circles the term has meant “compromising the truth,” or “Catholic-friendly” (as if that is a horrifying perversion), or “weak-minded.” Even in some more unity-minded circles, I have been thought of as Catholic merely for sharing some of the same beliefs, as if I must hold all of them. Or, as if that is even an issue because “Catholic” must be something other than “Protestant,” or simply anything other than “exegetical” (and yes, the Scripture is one of the primary bases for Ecumenical behavior, as is history). There are even books being written now about how damaging it is not to be “ecumenical” in certain senses (for example, in a recent blog post by Scot McKnight here).
Although, I have come to realize that this is in fact just one section of the vast, deep, diverse and historical body of Christ. Maybe in times of severe disagreement, disillusionment can lead to splits. And sometimes we may need to enunciate distinctions to get along better, because fallen humanity can only handle so much, or because the Church benefits from those distinctions. That’s more than understandable. But over time, the recognizable portions of the Church are what we share in common with one another. And it makes us a stronger witness for those problems which, if we are honest, no single part of the body could ever accomplish on its own.
Take, for example, one of the organizations in my “Blogroll” to the right: The Eden Reforestation Project. That was begun by the Free Methodist Church, but without involvement from non-denom, Covenant, Presbyterian, United Methodist, American Baptist and Lutheran churches (to my knowledge; there are probably many more), this organization would not be able to do half of what it accomplishes now. We are surprised at the word “ecumenical” surprisingly often, but more often than not we have no issue doing something about social issues for the sake of God, even if it’s helping our neighbor with a meal. Dude, those actions are exactly what “ecumenical” means! And the ones who are effecting real change in the world for Christ are those who seek that same unity in common essentials with their fellow believers, for both microcosmic and macro-sized, socio-economic causes. In fact, nearly all of the major organizations you see on my links list are ecumenical. And while they are major, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Social Justice or Ecological Reform, especially from a historical perspective.
And that is why I believe a top Characteristic of the Present-Generation Church is “Ecumenical.” Those in my generation, mostly, see a great need to find common ground, a strong yearning for the fruit of a whole vine. Jesus was always sharing meals with people; even the ones society around Him thought were detestable, and would contaminate a person. Well, might I say that there’s no larger or better banquet than a potluck: Baptists, bring thy chicken wings; Presbys, bring thy cookies; Methodists, bring on the seven-layer dip! But do we see now how odd it is that some in the Church could think not that the “world” will pollute one’s mind, but that partaking with a particular portion of its own fellow believers is “contaminating”! Dude; potluck! You get all the good stuff at once! See, Ecumenism is not a question of immorality when professing holiness; this is a matter of demonstrating holiness when others would label you immoral.
This isn’t an unusual idea for the Church, to seek to be unified, so it seems hardly a “prediction” to see that this will become a primary value of the Church as my generation seeks to lead it. But I’m sure we’ll see a number of people surprised to find that it’s a core value, so much so that the Church itself starts to lose the concept of self-sufficiency within any given local congregation. As the hymn says, “We will work with each other, we will work side-by-side… and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”
You see, I don’t think just working together is ecumenical, I think using a locational identity is truly ecumenical. Think about how the Scripture says things like “the church at Corinth,” or “the church at Ephesus.” It’s not that our distinctions are wrong; far from it: it’s that the distinctions fill the branches as leaves–but the branches are still branches. Perhaps in our children’s generation, it will become not odd to “eat with” formerly “untouchable” groups, but rather odd to view oneself as anything other than a Christian who meets at a particular location with other believers at a particular time.
“You do hymns mostly? Okay, we’ll do hymns this week and band worship the next. Then we’ll do them both together the third week. We’re open; worship is awesome!”
“You take the Lord’s Supper by dipping the bread? Cool, we’ll do that this week, and then we’ll use wafers the next, and then we’ll offer both methods the third week. We’re open; Communion is awesome!”
“You want your child baptized? Okay, but the Giffon family wants to dedicate, so we’ll let them do that, too. You want to be baptized by immersion? That’s cool; Fred valued sprinkling, so we did that for his son. We’re open; baptism is awesome!”
No longer will the name of solely “Christian” be held for “non-denominational” groups, but instead held for anyone worshiping in Spirit and truth, regardless of church branch, name, pastor, ministry achievement or physical lineage. It’s already true that one’s branch affiliation is very seldom obvious on the individual building. Soon, the only prominent I.D. at all could be “Spirit-led.”
The true spirit of Ecumenism is indeed the Spirit of God.