For the past couple years, I’ve been asked to share about Christianity as a part of an annual world religions seminar with local high school geography classes. I get 20 minutes to give the same introduction over and over to groups of the 900-plus freshmen. At the end, I always ask for questions. They vary greatly. But with overwhelming predictability, some form of the same questions comes back again and again: “Why are there so many different kinds of churches/Christians?”
Having heard my best effort to offer a unified narrative of the story of Christianity, there’s always this puzzled question related to the apparent diversity of churches. Division does not go unnoticed—not by our young people, and not by our world.
I believe people long for, and are created for, something better than that.
Consider what they see when they look elsewhere. We’re reminded of late that society can seem more polarized by the minute. The gap between opposing political parties in our recent election is a reminder, but this has long plagued America’s political process. On election night, I heard a political analyst pull together the attempts of America’s most recent presidents to address this:
• Bill Clinton, in his 1997 inaugural address, set out to be a healer of this rift. “They (the American people) call on us instead to be repairers of the breach,” he said.
• During his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush promised to be a “uniter, not a divider.”
• At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, then-Senator Barack Obama claimed no red states or blue states, only a United States.
We’ve seen many years of hoping, by vastly different presidents, to bring together what has only grown—as proven this election cycle—further and further apart. Recent data suggests voters in both parties say the opposing party makes them “afraid.”
Bewildered by all the discord, the church has an opportunity to stand in stark contrast. I would suggest this frustration may send people looking for a sense of unity that transcends the divisiveness they see on the news networks. Will they find it?
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An opportunity to embody unity
With the world’s divisions in view, I am drawn to spend more time thinking about the opportunity presented for the church’s witness. Many opportunities are held before a struggling American church. One of these is unity. As the chasms that divide us are ever-widening, Christians ought to turn their gaze to this opportunity to reclaim their prophetic witness. The church needs to model for an increasingly polarized society what it looks like to experience unity in diversity.
We need to foster Christian communities that are consumed by cooperation, not competition. Our congregations and their leaders need to come together to lift up what they hold in common, rather than murmuring about their differences behind closed doors. We need to open avenues for the world to understand the unified community of Christ, rather than emphasize the uniqueness of one part, lest we forget our own affirmation of God’s reconciling work in the hearts of those outside our own tradition.
This task will require rethinking at the highest levels. Our denominations need to hold Christian unity over denominational distinctiveness. We need denominational structures that unite, not divide. But I’m inclined here to point us back to the bottom of religious circles, where demonstrations of the uniting love of Christ can be found more readily.
From the bottom up
I serve with a church staff that is committed to supporting kingdom growth above our church growth, to praying in worship each week for those who worship down the street or around the corner, and to building bridges with leaders in our city. Within the last month, I have been a part of multi-denominational efforts that enabled Christians to display the love of Christ through service projects for homeowners across our city and an area-wide collaboration that helped create worship experiences for the thousands of teenagers in our districts, and I met with ministers from other churches to support and encourage the work of the kingdom.
Is there space in your church’s life to celebrate the fact the kingdom of God is bigger than this Christian tradition or that one? Does our worship and communal life celebrate the rich theological and historical tradition so many hold in common? Do our Christian brothers and sisters have a framework of belief that leaves room for others who hold in common this faith in Christ.
If not, then our gospel isn’t big enough.
The kingdom is now—and will certainly be in its fullness—composed of a rich diversity of believers and traditions. If our Christian faith fails to embody this, then whose cause are we advancing?
The ears of ninth graders hear me tell the Christian story and immediately notice its contradiction with what their eyes are seeing. I remind them of a Christ who unifies us despite our plurality.
I hope I’m telling the truth. It is a truth our world is looking for. It is a reality the world will find nowhere else. Can it be found in your community?
Might we and our churches embrace Christ’s call to make known the love of God as we love one another.
Trevor Brown is minister to students at First Baptist Church of Round Rock.