How can we show the world the unity in so much of the diversity of our Christian expression in the fractured culture that we live in? How can we work harder at forging that unity without theological compromise of our convictions? What might be some practical things that local groups of Christians leaders could do to show more unity and create more conversations around the gospel? Here’s some ideas that we tried. Some worked. None completely failed. All of them, we found, in our community were well worth the effort.
Examples and Ideas
I looked around the room. There was a Lutheran on my left. Next to him was a black Baptist and next to him a white Baptist. Across the table from me was a Methodist, sitting next to him was a Pentecostal and then there were two pastors from independent churches, one that was more baptistic and the other from a more charismatic tribe. My own tribe was the Evangelical Free Church of America. The Anglican and Catholic churches representatives were absent that week as were a few others. It was the monthly “Clergy Association” meeting of pastors in the village of Bolingbrook, IL and I, was just “elected” the moderator and organizer of the groups nine yearly meetings.
Elected is probably not the right word. I was appointed to the position because, as the new guy (33 years ago), I didn’t know what I was doing and no one else wanted the job. Relying on my more seasoned pastors, I learned that the job basically meant sending out invites, arranging guest speakers and churches to host our gatherings. “Who are the guest speakers to be arranged?” “Oh, the fire chief, the police chief, the mayor, the school superintendent. the High School’s principles and the a few others.” That first year was a learning experience and it was almost 33 years ago now. One of the first things I learned was, “We have got to make some changes to this!
Fast forward, to my second stint as the “Convener” of the Clergy Association. “How about we do something a bit more spiritual in nature at this meeting?” “What do you have in mind?” “Well, I thought it might be nice to spend some time in prayer together before each meeting. We could carve out another half hour, meet for prayer and then carry on our other agendas.”
I added, “My thought was we could round-robin where we meet each month and the church who hosts the meeting would also lead the prayer time. They would lead the rest of us in prayer, maybe inserting some information about how prayer is expressed in their particular tribe (denomination).” All agreed, and we entered into a season of warm fellowship in prayer to the triune God.
A few years later, I volunteered to lead again. Looking around the room, I said to the assembled pastors, “Guys, let’s be honest. Everybody in this room believes that everybody else has some aberrant theology? They all chuckled at what we all knew was true. I continued, “But there must be a common core at the center of our different theological commitments that all of us believe, that all Christians have always believed, else we cannot call one another ‘brothers.’ Wouldn’t it be great if we could some how let the larger community of Bolingbrook know of the substantial unity we enjoy but that they might not know about?” “What do you have in mind?”
“Easter is coming up. Here’s my thought: a full page ad in the local newspaper [you can tell how old this idea is!]. Some graphic feature that drew the eye, a brief statement and an invitation to attend any of our Easter services. The brief statement that keeps spinning around in my head is something like,
“The following churches believe that a relationship with Jesus Christ
makes all the difference, in this life and the next.”
“As for the common core of doctrinal belief, . . . what if we started with the Apostle’s Creed as a statement of what all Christians have always believed. Any church that says that they believe the Apostle’s Creed would be included in the ad. At the bottom of the add we would invite all to come to any of our Easter services and worship with us. The image we selected was similar in theme to the one pictured here. Above it, we put the heading, “NOT SURE WHERE YOU ARE GOING?” Below it we put the sentence, “The following churches believe that a relationship with Jesus makes all the difference in this life and the next.” And then in smaller print but still very large, “We want to invite you to any of our churches this Easter to worship the one who died and rose to save us from our sins.” Below that we listed the names, addresses and service times of Good Friday and Easter services and an asterisk. The asterisk said that all churches in the ad subscribed to the historical statement of Christian doctrine known as the Apostle’s Creed. For a number of years, I would hear from people in the community that appreciated the show of solidarity between churches.
One year I pushed for a monthly study over each line in the Apostle’s Creed. That didn’t fly, but I did get to recommend a few books for each church’s own study and encouraged all to consider doing a Sunday School class or series from the pulpit.
Another year, I offered to teach Hebrew to the local clergy as a refresher to their seminary training (not to mention my own!). No takers on that either, but a couple of years later it prompted me to offer a baby-Hebrew class at our church to an excited group of about 18 layman from every age group.
Still another year, we, the local clergy association resurrected a combined Thanksgiving Service for the community. It was packed and layman after layman approached each of us and thanked us for doing it. Eventually, the annual Thanksgiving service deteriorated. Why? Because the convener of the Clergy Association that particular year was lax in their invites and brought someone into that service that was clearly NOT a Christian and was universalistic in their theology. That was it for me and others. But the lesson learned was not that we shouldn’t have attempted it but that unity in these situations requires basic agreement on doctrinal bottom lines.
Another year, we had a discussion about the culture and determined that going forward we needed a basic doctrinal statement for membership in our local Clergy Association. Eventually, we settled on three things that defined us:
- We subscribed to the Apostle’s Creed,
- We are trinitarian.
- We believe the Bible is inspired by God.
This statement, as simplistically basic as it is, insured that we had a way of protecting against Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Bahai’s, Muslims, and other groups that might be religious in nature but non-Christian, could not be a part of our group. Having established a position we were less likely be a part of some media circus when we denied entrance to the Association. This was internally valuable and helpful in developing our fellowship with one another.
Here was another failure that was worth trying
and one I would recommend to other Clergy Associations.
One year I suggested having fewer speakers and more discussion around theological and pastoral concerns. How did we go about marital counseling? What were we doing to help the poor? How could we serve the poor better? What had we found helpful in neighborhood evangelism? How were we addressing the issues of gangs and violence in our town? Was there anything that we could do together on some of these are any one of these issues?
“For example,” I said, “All of us pray that it would never happen in our churches or any church in our town, but if we read the statistics and take note of media reports, the day might come when someone in our midst, a trusted person in our church, is accused of some sexual misconduct of some kind. Maybe we could have a discussion about steps we are taking to insure that predators get no opportunity to abuse our children or families?”
The discussion moved forward towards a plan until one pastor, of a large but shrinking denomination said, “Frankly, if somebody wants to do that, there is nothing we can do to stop them.” The plans ground to a halt, no action was taken and nothing came of it. An opportunity was lost. Six months later, that very pastor who had derailed the process, was accused of abusing a young girl in his congregation and was out the ministry, his church shaken by the discovery, the community scandalized and at least one little girls life forever scarred.
If you are a part of a local clergy association, try some of these ideas to foster unity and better ministry in the community. Expand on them. Adapt them for your time and location and culture. It glorifies the Living God when we work for the unity of the church.