Last night I was praying about where I’ll end up next, among other things. At some point in this process, I decided to look up “church hopping in Seattle.” (I have no idea where God is going to send me, but Seattle is on my short list if it’s up to me.) I’m not sure what I was expecting to find, exactly…a meetup group of Christians who explore local churches together? Not likely. What I did find made me cry.
Church after church making statements like: “We do not condone church hopping.” “You should find a church community and be loyal to it.” “The evil of online church: churchgoers are shopping around and sometimes going to more than one service in a Sunday!” (Gasp!!) The way they talked, you’d think exploring churches was an evil straight from the pit of hell. Now, I want to concede one point, here. I also don’t condone endlessly “church shopping,” by which I mean being dissatisfied with every church you find and endlessly writing off one after another for some minor doctrinal disagreement or perceived slight. No church is perfect, and I feel it’s unhealthy to be that difficult to please. Community is an important part of our walk as Christians. We are in this together, and we do actually need to get to know people to walk with them well. So I’m all for finding (and sticking to) a “home” church.
But. The church, the body of Christ, as described in the New Testament IS NOT the local congregation. When it speaks about keeping the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace, that is with all Christians. When Jesus prays in John 17 (HIS FINAL PRAYER, folks) that all those who believe in him would be one, even as he and the Father are one, that’s referring to all of us. The congregation down the street that doesn’t even speak in tongues? Still part of the body. The other one that takes it way too far and are always crying as they sing endless refrains of “I love you Jesus”? Still part of the body. The Christians that refuse to get vaccinated because they’re worried the vaccine may be the mark of the beast? Guess what? Still part of the body. (Have I offended everyone reading this yet?) We all think one section of Christianity or another is a little crazy. But, we don’t actually get to make excuses for our judgment. We are ALL called to love each other and serve together and be unified. In fact, Jesus prayed the following.
John 17: 20 – 23 (ESV)
20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.”
I led a study on this chapter recently, and when I was putting it together I got to this verse and literally couldn’t breathe for a second. Because twice in this short section, Jesus says that he wants us to be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” He basically gives the world permission to judge the validity of our Christian claims on our unity and behavior toward each other. If this verse doesn’t scare you a tiny bit, it should. Because friends, we aren’t doing a very good job. If you’ve ever talked to a non-Christian about Christians, their overall impression is judgy, harsh, hypocritical, even hateful. And it’s all very well to say, “Well, I’m not like that.” But, is that true? How do I feel about the Christians who are like that? Maybe a little judgy? Maybe a little harsh? Wish they’d shut up so people like me could show the world what Christianity really looks like? Even this post is probably pretty harsh But I really do feel we’re in a crisis situation here, and the only way we can possibly get out is together. And with (a lot of) God’s help.
I have had the privilege, for the past year and a half, to live in a city that is actually doing a pretty decent job at this “keeping the unity” business. Bristol is not perfect, not by a long shot, but the unity they have built here was a beacon of hope and a breath of fresh air for me when I moved. Churches don’t try to hoard their congregations. In fact, Bristol is the only place where I have ever walked into a church and had someone recommend me another church to try out. Everyone tries out different churches from time to time, attends with one of their friends or goes just to see what it’s like. So everyone looks at other churches with fondness and appreciation and respect instead of distrust and skepticism. The churches work together on various projects. In fact, there’s a joint fund set up by the churches for the local government to use toward the welfare of the city. There’s a prayer group for the city, with a very active WhatsApp and members from all sorts of congregations. There are 20+ Christian community homes, where Christians from any church are welcome to live with a group of other Christians. (In fact, I’ll be moving in to one next week!) People have a home church, their primary place to “be fed” and to serve, but there’s a real sense that the “church” in Bristol consists of every Christian. That we all love each other and we’re in this together. It’s delightful. When you meet another Christian, you don’t try to “convert them to your church.” You are excited to meet them and learn about their perspective and life, and interested to see how another part of the body is functioning.
I crave the day when the church worldwide could start to look like this. It is my heart’s burning passion and I have prayed for it for years. What if, instead of seeing other churches (congregations) as a threat to our own, we could see them as another beautiful part of the body, and be thankful that they appeal to a different set of people? This would just free up each church to focus on what they truly value and not spread themselves thin trying to appeal to everyone! What if, when we prayed for Christians we don’t see eye to eye with, we didn’t roll our eyes and pray for God to “fix them,” but instead prayed that we would all come to a better understanding of God’s heart and that we could be unified even in spite of our differences and disagreements? (I once made the mistake of praying for God to fix the messed-up church and got a FIRM slap on the wrist. God made it very clear to me that His church is beautiful in His eyes, that He loves it very much, and that He would not stand for me thinking about it as something broken and ugly.) What if, when a friend at work starts talking about this or that “crazy” sect of Christians we didn’t immediately go into “distance yourself quickly so you don’t get associated with those Christians!” mode, but instead could lovingly stick up for them (even if we do clarify that their actions don’t reflect what we believe)?
This is God’s church, we’re talking about! Of course it’s big and complicated and way beyond our comprehension, but surely we can trust that God is doing something important and beautiful with each and every part. Building unity is a massive project! Enormous and uncomfortable and stretching and messy, because this is life and people are messy and, while the church as a whole is God’s, the people in it are human and it’s not going to be perfect or even pretty all the time. But love and unity, what a worthwhile goal! And if that doesn’t convince you, then consider that it’s not an optional goal. It is, in fact, a commandment. As you read these verses, instead of thinking about your family and friends and local church, maybe think about the Christians you find irksome and consider how to apply it to them.
John 13: 34, 34 (ESV)
34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
John 15: 12, 17 (ESV)
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
Ephesians 4: 1 – 3 (ESV)
1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.