A couple of weeks ago, I was in Eureka, and someone read this portion of my book, Beyond Sundays, to me. They wanted to make some comments from it and ask me some questions. As they read it, I was reminded of how much I like this passage and how much it fits my heart.
Any title you wear be it pastor, best-selling author, or Done will do more to separate you from others than it will help you recognize the incredible family that Jesus is building. Claiming a label works against his prayer that his Father would make us one. The community of the new creation levels our humanity—from hierarchy and from our narcissistic notions of being in a better group than others. We are all sons and daughters of a gracious Father and that’s all the identity we need. (Matt. 23:5-12)
But once again, we risk being divided into “innies” and “outies” and falling into the false dichotomy our flesh so craves. Whether you go to “a church” or whether you don’t is a distinction without a difference. What matters is whether people are following Jesus and being transformed by his love. What I hope comes out of this study of the so-called “Dones” is those inside and those out recognize that the church is bigger than most of us would dare to believe and that his church takes expression wherever people engage each other with his love and purpose.
For those who claim that attendance at a local congregation is mandatory to be part of his church I hope they reconsider that false idea. Being part of his family is about following him not belonging to an institution. Over the last twenty years, I’ve found incredible followers of Jesus both inside them and outside. I hope this research draws all those into a conversation where “in” or “out” becomes less important than loving and affirming his kingdom however it takes shape in the world. But it will take a significant number of voices across the Christian landscape to fight for a better conversation than those we usually have.
I am convinced that people who truly know Jesus will want to reach across this divide, not exacerbate it. We don’t need identifying labels, especially ones that make us feel superior to others in the family. When Jesus becomes more important to us than finding identity in any particular tribe of it, then the conversations that most express his kingdom will grow in the world. Instead of demanding that others conform to our view of the church we will recognize her in the most surprising places as we find connection and fellowship with those who know the Jesus we know, even if they don’t follow the rituals we follow.
Then we won’t need labels to divide us. Brother, sister, and fellow saint will be more than enough identity for each of us and loving each other in a mutual celebration of Jesus himself will allow his church to flourish where we live.
Recently, I was in a conversation where every question or comment was about the church. People were looking for a model or at least validation for how they were doing ‘it.’ Something happened over the last couple of centuries that has made us more preoccupied with how we’re doing church than how we are following Jesus. I remember that trap well myself; it’s how religion has become more important than Jesus to so many of us. I paused to ask them how often Jesus used the word “church” (2 times) in the Gospels and contrasted it with how many times Jesus mentions his “kingdom” (121 times). Maybe if we were more preoccupied with his kingdom coming than we are about how we do church, we would see more of both.
Last week, I was in the Tulsa area with people who varied widely in their view of “church” and their participation in it. And you know what? It didn’t matter. What we shared in common—our belief in him, our desire to love in the world, and our desire to get to know each other—was more than enough. His church is a lovely family growing in the world—one that lives by love, not labels. If you want to be part of his kingdom, don’t look to the labels you wear or those others do, but for the fragrance of Father flowing from their lives.
Anyone who finds more identity in their institutional affiliation or lack of it, their doctrine or lack of it, their ritual or lack of it, proves by doing so that they have yet to find their identity and validation in Jesus and their relationship with him. Can you imagine what we would demonstrate to the world if we were lovers of Jesus and each other, first and only? Isn’t that what he asked of us in John 13:34-35? By that, he said, the whole world would come to know we are his followers.