Are Today’s Trials Pushing the Church Back Together Again?

I had a cool encounter last night at a panel discussion on Christian Unity at the Newman Centre (the Catholic Student Union) at McGill University.

During a break, another out-of-place looking guy walked over and introduced himself: “I’m Terrell, and I work as a Parish Vitality Consultant for the Catholic Church.”

Surprised, but excited, I replied back, “No way! I’m a Congregational Vitality facilitator in the Protestant church! In fact, I just finished a graduate certificate in Congregational Vitality.

Him: “I didn’t know that such a thing existed!”

Me: “…I didn’t know Catholics had Vitality coaches!”

And the conversation went on. We exchanged information and we will soon be having lunch together.

This exchange highlighted one of the evenings purposes: to assert that Catholics need Protestants, and Protestants need Catholics.

1

An Ecumenism of Suffering and of Globalization

One of Pope Francis’ celebrated phrases is, “the ecumenism of suffering.” That is, that our mutual suffering draws us nearer to each other from all sides of the Church—Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and Evangelical. A level of ecumenism unthinkable 100 or 200 years ago is possible today as Christians of different traditions engage an increasingly complex, secularized, and globalizing world.

From two sides of a divided church, my new friend Terrell and I are both chipping away at the same problem: the overall decline in religious practice, and the Church’s challenge to keep up with the rapidly changing world.

I believe that the rules have fundamentally shifted when it comes to renewing the mission of the church in a globalizing world.

Among other things, globalization is undeniably a movement from division towards integration. We live in a hyper-connected world that defies cultural, political, economic, and social boundaries. I think this will have more of an impact on the mission of the church than we realize today.

Today, Christians, and new seekers, are able to cut through hundreds of years of Church division and connect with the message and the mind of Christ in the context of a globalized world because boundaries are more permeable than ever.

Alternative Communities to Our Own Histories

It struck me during the panel discussion that many flourishing expressions of the Church are growing precisely because they can bend or defy the boundaries that their denominations historically reinforced. In my own experience, it often seems the less ‘Baptist’ a Baptist church is, or the more ‘evangelical’ a mainline church is etc., the more there is a chance of innovating and reaching new people. The Church has always flourished as an alternative community, and at times that means being an alternative community to its own institutional forms and history.

In short, people are hungry for the message of the Gospel, for Christian community, and for connection with the broader global and historic Church. And, people are more skeptical of doctrinal nuances, especially ones that divide and reinforce unnecessary limits. New converts don’t have an ‘axe to grind’ concerning past church divisions. They are simply looking for sound theological reflection and missional engagement.

Different church traditions can offer the best of their own identity to people and they can offer a charitable attitude and respect towards other church traditions too. Christians today can draw from and be resourced by various traditions of the Church (i.e. integration) while being ‘centered’ on the Gospel of Jesus and on historic orthodox belief.

St-Augustine said: “A Christian is a mind through which Christ thinks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.”  What if the Church, the body broken as it is, was also the combined mind, heart, voice, and hands through which God’s is working today?

We do need each other… and maybe we each hold a piece of what the world needs today.  We can pray for the unity of Christians and perhaps… the loss and pain being experienced by the church today is actually drawing us closer together.  Brokenness is so often the condition through which God works.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as youwere called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5

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