Over the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the ideas surrounding “vocational ministry”. As I pointed out, I am not in a bad place at all, just one of public wondering. I would love to see some meaningful dialogue in the Christian community about some pretty fundamental issues like: has our pervasive model of “doing church” succeeded in making, maturing and multiplying disciples. If it has, great! Let’s find ways to improve. But, if it hasn’t . . . then we’ve certainly got problems with our cheeseburgers in paradise. I’m not a betting man, but if I were and if there were a market for betting on such things, I’d bet that, deep down, most Christian leaders would say we have a long ways to go in the area of actually encouraging and equipping people to resemble Jesus more and more.
When asking deep questions about the “how and why” of what many now consider to be “tradition” (it’s the way we’ve always done it!), we must continually walk the path of humility. It is easy to become bitter when recognizing our failures and it is certainly tempting to point out other people’s failures. It’s far too common for those who begin by asking good questions to end up with an “I’ve got it all figured out” attitude. Neither is helpful for biblical.
But it is also true that we will not grow without the humility to wrestle with our family issues, pushing ourselves and one another to mature, especially when we may not see eye to eye on everything. This certainly takes humility but it also requires open forums in which we may be forced to be a bit uncomfortable.
I am fortunate to live in Phoenix (I never thought I would say those words!) at this time because I am seeing a spirit of what I call “A New Evangelical Ecumenicalism”. Over the past several years I have seen pastors around the Valley coming together in cooperation for THE Kingdom rather than their individual kingdoms. I have lived in the Phoenix area most of my life and I can say that I have not seen anything like this here.
In fact, I have come to wonder whether we are seeing a new understanding of ecumenicalism. I have to clarify here that I am speaking from and about my own experience which has shaped my understanding. Somewhere along the line, I was led to a particular understanding of what “ecumenicalism” meant and why it was bad. It was thought that, since each tribe’s “hard borders” were its doctrines, and of course, our slice of the pie is the “right pie”, those whose borders are too far away from our own may not even be in the same country as us. In fact, they might just be our enemies.
In other words, different strands of Christianity were not pictured as separate but intertwining threads, they were seen as some sort of self-contained unit, a closed circle, which a gate (that group’s pet doctrines). To enter that group, you had to cross through that gate. All of this, of course, led to the idea that cooperating with another family of Christians who might have some different beliefs than us (forget whether or not both groups are well within “orthodoxy”, we just don’t like “other) meant shattering our borders and also compromising our beliefs.
This meant that, at least in my city, there has not always been a tremendous spirit of cooperation amongst local churches. In fact, you might even say that some pastors view other churches as competition and might even fit the description: “territorial”.
But I have been joyfully watching a new understanding of ecumenicalism (at least for my context) lead to a new practice of cooperation. Certainly all the churches of Phoenix do not agree on everything. We all have our own approaches and boundaries. But I think that the renewed emphasis of a missional understanding and practice of our faith has led us to give the border guards a break. That doesn’t mean we will sacrifice orthodoxy but it does mean that, in the words of Hirsch, Frost, and others, that we are seeing a willingness to move from a “bounded set” Christianity to a “centered set” faith.
Instead of viewing each of our individual camps as held together by the outer fences that divide us, what if we were all bound together by our mutual dependence on a well? Some may be closer or further from the well and many will come from many different directions, but we’re all heading to the well, which, of course is Jesus. If you and I are both trying to be closer to Jesus and made more like Him, why would I let our differences lead me into believing that we were not heading towards the same goal? What’s more, why wouldn’t I want to help you on your journey?
Now, before I hear from the curmudgeons that are not me, I am not saying that everyone is a Christian. I do believe that, “Orthodoxy” eventually must have boundaries. That’s what makes one thing “Orthodox” and something else “Un-Orthodox”. For the sake of this conversation, I would point to the Great Creeds of our faith (the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creeds in particular). There are people who are outside of even the widest boundaries of accepted Christianity. But that’s not who I’m talking about.
I am seeing a lot of local Christian churches who once saw each other as closed-off encampments cooperate together without sacrificing orthodoxy. They may grow and mature (which, means, “GASP!” change) by interacting with one another, but as long as they’re all heading towards Jesus, they’ll be the better for it.
It’s encouraging people to see their differences as talking points rather than dividing lines. In other words, “unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things”.