Reaching Across the Growing Divide

 

By Wayne Jacobsen in a continuing series on The Phenomenon of the Dones.  

According to the latest statistics thirty-one million passionate followers of Jesus regularly attend a Sunday gathering, many of those believing local congregations are the only place a true believer can engage the church of Jesus Christ today. And we have thirty-one million passionate followers of Jesus who no longer belong to a recognized congregation, many of them believing that corporations are a poor reflection of the church Jesus came to build.

So, who is right?

Neither.

And the fact that they both think they are and look down on the others tears the very fabric on which the church of Jesus Christ is sewn together. Nothing in Scripture, including Hebrews 10:25, obligates us to arrange ourselves in institutional settings, and nothing in Scripture says that God can’t be among those who do, to share his glory and invite them into his reality. So whether you “go to church” or whether your friend doesn’t is not important to God and the sooner it no longer matters to you, the freer you’ll be able to love whomever God wants you to love and walk with.

How we define the church is not of first importance to Jesus, but whether we are engaged with him and his work in the world. Arguing over church issues is like two teams showing up in the aftermath of a landslide to rescue those who re trapped and instead of jumping to the task at hand they begin to argue over who has the better brand of equipment.

Senseless isn’t it?

Paul said, “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love.” (Galatians 5:6) The Galatians fought over circumcision, we do it over Sunday attendance. In the end neither matter. What does, is a growing trust in our Father expressed by the love we share for others. Participating in a local congregation does not save you, and not participating in one does not damn you, even if others claim so. There are lots of ways to get quality teaching, find meaningful fellowship and participate in the kingdom coming in the world and doing it through a local congregation is only one of those. If you find it helpful and meaningful to your faith, be there, and if not, look for other ways to connect with people more relationally.

But now more than ever we need to reach across whatever we think divides us and do the one thing that Jesus asked us to do as his followers: Love one another as he loves us and that includes people with whom you have differences. In fact loving others has mostly to do with our differences it’s easy to love people who think like we do. We fall into the same trap Jesus’ disciples did when they saw others doing miracles that weren’t part of their discipleship group. Jesus warned them to have a more expansive view of the kingdom and a more generous view of people: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

We’ve been divided long enough by brand names, rituals, doctrine, and denominational structures. Isn’t it time we found a different reality to recognize the church Jesus is building around us? Even if you attend a local congregation, you would miss a lot of what God is doing in the world if you think it the only expression of Christ’s church in your community or the world, or that they are the only people God wants you to know.

For the past twenty years as I’ve walked alongside people who’ve lost connection and hope in institutional Christianity. They haven’t, however, lost their faith in Jesus, their passion for real community with other disciples, or their desire to touch the world around them. They are discovering that church life doesn’t require an institutional component. During that time, I also kept up friendships with people who swear by the necessity of those local congregations. I have close relationships with people who are elders, pastors, and committed attenders, who have provided great encouragement and wisdom for my journey. I have been involved with a number of outreaches to the poor and marginalized in the communities in which I’ve lived, some sponsored by denominations and others by individuals with a passion to serve their community.

The body of Christ has become so much larger and far more diverse for me, filled with people who wouldn’t agree with everything I believe, but they do share a relationship with the same Father I know. What draws us together is not our theology about church but finding ourselves alongside each other in the river of the Father’s affection. In that connection the sheer silliness of whether or not someone attends a specific meeting regularly is seen for what it is. When we make doctrine or religious practice the basis of church life we only add to the division. Most of those differences are not based on the essentials of who Christ is anyway, but on our varying interpretations of obscure passages that become less important in the face of love.

All I need to have fellowship with you is have the slightest inkling that you are getting know the Father I know. I recognize that by the love he’s pouring into your heart both for him and for others, especially those who don’t see the world the way you do. Are you learning to be generous and kind, or becoming more judgmental, demanding that others agree with you? You can be one day old in this faith with all kinds of doctrinal suppositions askew, and no idea how to live in his reality and yet we can share life because that life is in him, not the correctness of our doctrine. In time he will bring you and me to what’s true. That’s why I don’t regard conformity a condition for fellowship or collaboration. All I need to see is a Father’s love growing in your life. I trust him to take care of the rest.

Sara and I have been reading a fascinating book called The Soul of Shame by Dr. Curt Thompson, MD, who uses brain science to show the devastating effects of shame in disconnects our brain functions internally as well as our relationships externally. Shame, whether in the form of self-pity or arrogance, shatters the creation and isolates us from others. “Shame has a way of translating different into better or worse. To the degree that shame has a foothold in my heart, I can unconsciously react to difference with judgment directed either at the other or myself.”

If love were the most important thing we would be able to walk together and put his love in the world without being threatened by people who live out their faith differently than we do. I’m not suggesting by that, that there isn’t right and wrong thinking about God, because there is. I’m just harkening back to Romans 14, where Paul invites us not to try to shape each other’s journey, but trust God’s Spirit to do that. “If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.” (Romans 14:4, MSG) And the best environment for that to happen is where people are being loved and cared for, while they are being encouraged to get to know Jesus better.

A long time ago I gave up the need to classify someone by their denominational affiliation or lack of it, or even use it as a gauge of the depth of their spiritual passion. Love doesn’t require it and doing so only chokes the hope of relationship. Scripture does not empower any entity called “the church” to determine who is a part of God’s kingdom and who isn’t. We have too long worried about drawing the lines to determine who belongs to God and enforcing those lines with a vigor that snuffs out the smoldering wick, and snaps off the bruised reed.

Paul entrusted that work elsewhere. “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: The Lord knows those who are his,” (2 Timothy 2:19). If he knows we don’t have to. Jesus had already warned his apostles that if they tried to separate the wheat from the weeds they would destroy the wheat in the process.

What would happen if all we looked for in each other was a growing participation in the reality of his love and sharing it with others? Wouldn’t we find better connection with brothers and sisters around us regardless of what group they belong to or what doctrinal differences we had? Wouldn’t this be the fruit of the Spirit Jesus encouraged us to look for rather than some man’s wisdom, or some woman’s seeming miracle-working power?

If we’re going to be the people in whom Jesus’ prayer for “complete unity” is fulfilled, we’re going to have to put him and his love in the preeminent place and nothing else. We’re going to have to get over being threatened by people who see life differently and worry less about those who claim we can’t be followers of Christ because we don’t jump through whatever hoop they think is essemtial.

We respond to his Spirit as he knits the church together by pursuing those relationships he puts on our heart. For local church advocates, they would be blessed to reach beyond the borders of their own institution and connect with Christians in other institutions and share fellowship with those who don’t attend at all. For those who’ve stopped attending you’ll be blessed to have connections with those who still do, if they will allow it and not despise your journey.

Jesus’ family in your locale is so much bigger than the ways we’ve divided her up. How much more would we demonstrate the kingdom if we loved and cooperated beyond our different views of church or our doctrinal distinctions? Love can do that. Nothing else can.

Of course not everyone is going to see the church this way. Many will hold to their rituals, and doctrines as hills to die on, judging harshly those who do not to the same. But what we need an increasing number of Jesus followers learning to love generously, reaching across our imagined lines of demarcation and loving and serving alongside others Jesus has invited us to know.

If we let this relational reality that love allows define the church it will free us to love other followers of Christ with open hearts and hands. Recently I was invited to dialog with a group of pastors about my book, Finding Church and those who see church beyond the local congregation. At the very end one pastor spoke up, “I know a ‘done’ who used to be a close friend and elder but left my congregation five years ago. How should I treat him?”

My heart melted at the question. I’ve been a pastor. I know how painful it is to have good friends leave the fellowship. Most don’t even mean it personally, but that doesn’t mean we don’t take it that way. It always felt like a personal rejection of me, my message, or at least the friendship we shared together. But this man wanted to reach beyond that pain and see if the friendship was still there.

I found myself responding, “If he cared about him them, why wouldn’t he be your friend now? I’d take him out for coffee and just reconnect, focusing the conversation on Jesus instead of church.” He did exactly that. By the time I’d driven the two hours it took me to get home, I had a voice mail from that pastor. He’d called his friend right after the meeting and since he was available then he drove straight to a coffee shop to meet him. They hadn’t seen each other in five years, but his voice cracked as he shared the amazing conversation they had. “I have my best friend back.”

Wouldn’t it be great if our friendships could grow regardless of what we might be doing differently on Sunday morning? More than nailing down the holes in someone else’s doctrine, or spending countless hours in religious activity, we would simply learn to live in the ever-growing reality of his love. If fellowship really spreads like this our tribal distinctions will become meaningless and Jesus’ prayer that all his followers will be one would be answered.

It may only take a phone call, but in such moments the kingdom of God grows in the world.

 

______________________________

This is part 14 in a series on The Phenomenon of the Dones by Wayne Jacobsen who is the author of Finding Church and host of a podcast at TheGodJourney.com.  You can read the first half here and subsequent parts below:

If you’d like to subscribe to this blog and receive future posts by email you can sign up at the top of the right-hand column of our home page.

Share this Post!

Related post

11 Comments
  1. Jim Gordon August 31, 2016 at 1:21 pm

    Such a good message. To many of us are caught up on doctrine and interpretations and spending time with only those who agree with us. Many times as Christians we have become an us versus them society. Jesus said they will know we are his followers by our love, not by if we agree on everything or if we go to church or live outside the walls of religion. Let’s let the love of Christ shine through us as we love and accept each other just as we are today. Stop letting doctrine, interpretations and personal ways of living for Christ separate us. God created us as unique individuals and He loves and guides us through His spirit in our own unique way.

  2. Beth August 31, 2016 at 10:15 pm

    I’m sorry, but I don’t quite understand where the shame issue fits in here. Shame and judgment? . . . . . . I’ve seen people in mean churches use shaming to try to manipulate people into giving them their way. They told me God was ashamed of me. I figured I’d been through enough and paid a large enough price for their meanness that I had earned the right to speak the truth and call a thing what it was. Shame on you, they said. But I felt no shame. They did not love me or each other.

    I’m just very frustrated that there seems to be no way to resolve these ugly messes in organized churches. No one tries. They just pretend it’s all over and start again with the people who ran off the last pastor. People leave and don’t come back, so they blame the new pastor for not attracting them back to the church, they fire him, and the people who ran him off “hire” a new coach to grow their church, ad nauseum. I can understand why people have had enough and don’t come back.

    I don’t think most churches really love each other. They blow up. One group gets the building, so they are now “the church.” Very few of the people who leave actually realize that they didn’t have real relationships with one another to begin with; they finally have a good excuse to leave and they take it. Church fights are like divorces in our throw-away culture. Why would non-believers think the church (in whatever form) has anything better than what they already have to offer them? They can stay home and hurt without going to “church” for more of same. They just don’t come back. And the churches don’t get it. Must be the the pastor’s fault because they have always had a loving church. Jesus is merely a tag on their prayers, but that’s it.

    They can’t reach across the aisle.

    • Wayne Jacobsen September 1, 2016 at 1:49 pm

      Beth, I think part of the problem is these “church” squabbles are always about power. Someone has the numbers or the authority to force their way and others are left powerless. They can stay in the frustration, or leave and hope to find something better. You’re right, no one ever seeks reconciliation in these things, especially the winners. As Machiavelli said, “The reason there will be no change is because the people who stand to lose from change have all the power, and those who will benefit from the change have no power.” So true. And when Jesus invited us to a kingdom that doesn’t use power in the way broken humanity does, it makes kingdom resolution to these kinds of conflicts impossible.

      • Beth September 1, 2016 at 4:18 pm

        Well, I’m afraid you’re right – short of lightning strikes. I’ll hang on to the Machiavelli quote. Thanks for copying that out. Your last word above – impossible – is the bitter pill. I’ve gotten a couple of your books and links out to people who have left, and they have been well received and are being shared with others. We’ve rejected the suggestion to “retake the church.” No love in votes and business meetings.

        • Wayne Jacobsen September 1, 2016 at 4:26 pm

          Perhaps “impossible” is an ill-advised word. I meant impossible to solve them with the legal ramblings of “Roberts Rules of Order,” but not impossible for relational healing if all parties put love at the center instead of selfish ambition. But we don’t have a great track record there over 2000 years of Christian history. There is not a system humans can devise that cannot be exploited by people more in love with control than they are with Christ. The good news is, Jesus can take you and your friends on to a full expression of his life and community without the rigors of those human systems. This is a great time to begin that journey and discover how he is building his church without those institutional constraints.

    • Ed September 9, 2016 at 9:39 am

      Beth,
      From what I’ve experienced, shame divides in both directions. When an individual uses shame to try to manipulate another person to do something or behave in a certain way, by necessity they must elevate themselves over the other person in their own estimation (“I’m right, they are wrong” or “I’m behaving righteously, they are behaving sinfully”). That creates a barrier that the “shamer” then has to cross (humility and the fear of being shamed in turn) in order for true reconciliation to take place. The person being shamed on the other hand now has to cross the barrier of being belittled by the “shamer” (forgiveness). That is all over and above the significant negative mental and emotional impact that shame brings on both. In the end we are left with two members of Christ’s family separated by two barriers and shame squarely in the middle pushing them further apart. A more devious mechanism couldn’t be contrived and as you have observed, the result is “They can’t reach across the aisle.” In a group setting this becomes inevitable in my opinion when the primary focus of the group is anything or anyone other than Jesus himself ( a leader, a doctrine, a building, a program, a ministry, a practice, a style of worship, etc.). I gather from your post that you’ve felt the emotional toll being shamed takes on a person. My wife and I have as well but we didn’t know it was shame at the time we went through the last church split. Looking back on it now and having read most of “Soul of Shame” we can see it clearly now.

  3. Jane Bullivant September 1, 2016 at 12:46 am

    I can’t tell you just how timely this message is…we (my husband Alan and I) have been out of the institution for just over a year..our journey with Abba Papa has been truly wonderful…the reality of knowing Him is so much more now than in the 30 years of being inside the church walls…. growing in the father’s love and affection is the most important thing to Him and us… not about weather we attend a congregation or not… I know that, but somehow found it difficult to share our Journey without offending…. I know Abba Papa has brought this as the answer in our conversation/prayer with each other….this message is so timely.. simply put and yet very profound and powerful …..thank you so much !

  4. Jeremy September 2, 2016 at 7:24 am

    I so very much enjoy what you have to say, Wayne. Thank you! So full of love and wisdom. So glad to be a recipient of your blog and your writings (though you do need to run this through an editor/proof reader before posting – lol!)

    • Wayne Jacobsen September 2, 2016 at 8:51 am

      Thanks, Jeremy. We will when we publish it in e-book form. Blogs are down and dirty! 🙂

  5. […] Part 14: Reaching Across the Divide […]

  6. […] Part 14: Reaching Across the Divide […]

Comments are closed.