Ecumenical Sectarianism

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Some times I am revolted by the Church. I am revolted when I drive down the major street nearest to my house and within two miles there are six churches. If you give yourself a two block radius from that street in the same two miles you can add four more churches.

None of these congregations are unusually large, none of the facilities are particularly stunning. I’ll be honest in telling you that I have ever only been inside one of these buildings. I know people who attend four of the ten. All of these churches have been in existence for 30 years or more. Most were built when the suburb that I live in was developing in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Two of them have “changed congregations” in the past few years – that is that one congregation sold a facility to another. Mostly this happens in suburban churches as members gradually migrate away from a large city toward the outer rim of suburbs in search of cheaper housing and less congestion or whatever. Often times they chose to move their church along with them.

I have been associated with the Converge International denomination (formerly Baptist General Conference, and Swedish Baptist Conference) since 1985. I have been a member of two congregations, and currently attend a third where I have not yet chosen to be a member. I have attended a “Christian” church as well for a few years, choosing not to be a member.

As a new Christian in my early twenties, I bought into the denominational thinking. Our doctrine is better than “their” doctrine. Our worship is better than “their” worship. We believe this and “they” believe that. We do this in our liturgy and “they” do that.

So here is where I now stand: Unless you are willing to call someone else’s (another church or denomination) beliefs, doctrines, or practices HERESY, it is just about what you like. It is a matter of taste. It is what you are familiar with. It is how you grew up. It is completely subjective.

So here is what repulses me about the whole situation: We have ten congregations who have invested 30 million dollars in facilities, who collectively have annual budgets in the neighborhood of 6-12 million dollars all duplicating each others programs. There are 10 youth ministries with less than 100 people, some less than 10 people. There are 15 worship services on a Sunday. There are 5 men’s ministry programs, 7 women’s ministry programs, 8 kids club programs (3 of which are Awana based).

All this is duplication and segregation is a waste of God’s resources. For the same reason that every family on the block that I live on owns a lawnmower that is used at most 1 hour per week, this seems like a bad investment. We all do it. We want ours. We want to cut the grass when we are free – it is the promotion of leisure. Church suffers from the same thought process. I want church my way, the way I like it. I want to be able to exert some influence over it.

As congregations age, they tend to shrink – future generations form new congregations, because their elders prefer to remain the same. Young people move back towards urban environs, find churches there, and then start their own migration towards the suburbs as their kids approach school age. Suburban communities are built, then age and slowly diversify over several generations.

Let’s try this: Why can’t all the congregations that are physically located close together find a way to come together to help the community. We all want to see the same fruit – people receiving Christ’s gift of redemption, people seeking deeper relationship with their maker, people growing as disciples of Christ. What is it that makes us all have to harvest this fruit separately. Why can’t we create ministries that partner with our brothers in Christ instead of competing with them? Why can’t we create events that allow all of our brothers in Christ to gain, instead of focusing more locally within our own congregation.

I discern two core reasons, both of which are evidence of attitudes of subtle sin in our leadership thinking:

1) Spiritual Pride – The I think my church is better attitude is clearly not productive. It one step away from the cult of personality that some leaders induce. It creeps in, as leadership starts humbly trying to do our best to serve the Lord, to produce a return on the talents entrusted to them. But at some point, there is a subtle offense when our best isn’t good enough. This creates defensiveness and rationalization – yes it is good enough. Finally leading to a comparison with others – at least we are better than them.

2) Fear or lack of trust – our desire to exert influence is mostly a lack of trust in God. I can’t see how we can do this with all these people with different doctrines, and preferences – how will we ever make decisions. Who will be in charge? How can we control this thing? I don’t believe that God ever intended for man to “control” his church. It was that “control” that started the reformation in the first place. Christ is the head of the church, period. We are just farmers and shepherds.

3) We want to get credit (glory) – maybe this is part of spiritual pride, maybe it is different. Perhaps its the “your reward in heaven” language in the new testament, but it seems like some churches view saving souls as a contest. Like if I do more I get a bigger reward. I don’t believe that it works quite like that.

Let’s each examine our hearts and then tell God why we can’t partner with our brothers in the church just down the street.

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