* The churches in each community should feel closer to and work more closely with each other than churches of their own denomination elsewhere.
* We have to see God’s redemptive mission and our participation in it as central to our Christianity.
We just need to decide that the mission matters most and that we need to fulfill that mission by cooperating with other Christians in town, even if we disagree with them about apostolic succession. That’s about it. Get that right, and the rest will follow.
Let me explain.
My church should work more closely with other churches in my community than other Churches of Christ — even progressive Churches of Christ — because this is what God’s redemptive mission requires.
You see, if the teens go to Memphis to paint houses, then they have a great experience, but they don’t serve their friends and neighbors. They aren’t breaking down racial barriers here in Tuscaloosa. They aren’t really being driven by love, because there is no reason they should love strangers in Memphis more than the people they know here. Indeed, real love is serving people you know so well that you know just how unlovable they really are.
Just so, when the adults start a home schooling organization, that organization should serve all families in the community, not just our members. And it’s a success even if it doesn’t produce new members here, so long as it serves God’s redemptive mission in our community.
Our Celebrate Recovery effort has to be seen as a service to Christ’s church in Tuscaloosa, and well worth doing for the lives that are changed, even if the clients choose to attend somewhere else.
You see, when we see mission in denominational terms, we turn churches of other denominations into competitors and, for some reason I don’t understand, we abandon our communities and instead pursue denominational busyness.
Here in Tuscaloosa, if every Christian in the county were to meet in a single building on Sunday morning, we could fill Bryant-Denny Stadium — recently expanded to seat over 100,000 — twice. That’s right. We’d need two services.
Now, imagine that we actually did that. How would we feel about the banker or car salesman or plumber we sat next to on Sunday morning and took communion with? How differently would we act if our commitment to Jesus was on display in Bryant-Denny Stadium every Sunday before a crowd of 100,000 of our neighbors? I think we’d act better at the mall and the ballpark. I think being seen as Christ-followers by nearly our entire town would change us for the better.
I also think that it would change our churches for the better. If my congregation was represented at regular meetings of the leadership of churches from across the county, and if our success or failure in honoring God’s mission in Tuscaloosa were on display for the entire county to see, well, we might actually find some motivation to get out to do mission. (Actually, my congregation does more for God than I’m willing to demand — if that makes any sense. I mean, I’d be embarrassed to ask for the sacrifices they routinely offer up to God. But you get my point.)
And churches that are a bit unorthodox and don’t fit in so well, like most conservative Churches of Christ, which take pride in their independence, would feel the isolation if there were a larger community of faith to be isolated from.
It’s not that we have to meet in the football stadium every Sunday, but that we should feel like we’re meeting with every Christian in town as part of a common community of faith, celebrating one another’s victories, praying for each other’s efforts. If First Baptist decides to plant a new church in town — in coordination with all the other churches in town — then we should be praying for their success at church. And First Baptist shouldn’t consider a church plant without discussing it with the other churches. After all, St. Mark’s Methodist might be planning their own plant in the same place.
If we were to feel closer to and work more closely with each other, the larger community of Christians would hold their own local lectureships, they’d coordinate their care for the poor, they’d plan joint evangelistic efforts, and they’d share victories. In fact, just as the Christian Chronicle shares denominational news within the Church of Christ denomination, there’d be a website or publication that shares victories and plans and stories among the Tuscaloosa area churches. (Why doesn’t such a site already exist? Because we see ourselves as competitors, not co-heirs of the kingdom.)
And just as in the Churches of Christ we study and learn from the best practices of sister congregations, even going to visit them, that would happen here. Churches with great volunteer efforts, with great evangelism, with great small groups would be asked to share their ideas and methods. We’d learn at the feet of the best small group leader in the county — and it wouldn’t be hard to go visit his church and meet with his small group leaders and learn how it really operates on the ground.
The leadership would meet regularly for joint training. They’d study God’s mission and faithful presence together. They’d consider how the churches could work together to be the body of Christ in Tuscaloosa. And that would change us all, because not all churches think in missional terms now.
For a while, the cultural differences among the denominations would be a barrier. Some practices of some denominations would come across as very odd. But over time, we’d actually become more like each other. Love, acceptance, and shared joy does that. Hang around enough with someone, and you become like them.
Now, those are scary words to someone who grew up in the conservative Churches of Christ. The last thing we want is to become like them! But, you know, if we are really on the right path, and if we really are more effective in God’s mission, surely some of the churches will want to study us. I mean, it’s kind of crazy to be arrogant and to have an inferiority complex all at once. Are we so pleased with God’s work among us that we want to invite others in to see? Or are we so ashamed of who we are that we dread the prospect of being found out? It can’t be both!
I don’t see priests and pastors and preachers getting together to discuss consubstantiation. I see them discussing the mission of God and how we fit in it. I see them considering how to overcome racial division without being condescending or patronizing. I see them agonizing over broken families and failed marriages. And see them working on ways for the many congregations in town to work together to relieve hunger and addiction. And I see them coordinating a series of church plants in the county targeted to sub-communities that aren’t well served by any of the hundreds of existing churches.
Ultimately, working side by side with fellow Christians from all over the county will change us all in a very good way. We won’t give up our autonomy, but we’ll give up our independence and our belief that we can do this all by ourselves. Rather, we’ll learn dependence and the joys of being part of a larger faith community that has the size and numbers to make a real difference in the community. Indeed, not only will we change, the county will change in ways I can’t even imagine. But that’s how God’s redemptive mission works.