Working Ecumenically – a necessary challenge! // #Write31Days // Day 22
Earlier this week an article I wrote for Fresh Expressions was published, relating to working with other churches and particularly to Fresh Expressions. Some of what follows is from that article, but I wanted to expand on why I think it’s important for churches to work together…
Eighteen months ago, I found myself in the perhaps somewhat unenviable position of chairing a meeting of several local churches. It was the first time that all of them had agreed to meet with a common goal, and I’ve got to admit I was more than a tad nervous. I was aware that, working as I do, for the only Fresh Expression in the area, that people were a bit suspicious of us. But I knew God was calling us to do this, so I went with confidence in him if not in myself! My hope was that we could find a way to work together; a way of working built on the essential foundation of prayer.
Let’s face it; churches are notorious about not wanting to work together. They can so often be like kids in a playground, name calling and whispering, sharing half-truths about each other, instead of recognising that at the heart of all that we do; in whatever form; with whichever words, props or attire; we all worship the one true God. In Philippians 2, Paul speaks of unity saying:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
Working ecumenically this has to be our goal, to share that same love that we all experience with those around us. Moving forward from that initial meeting, I am delighted that we have managed to do this, having just celebrated the first birthday of ‘The Melting Pot’ – a community café which the churches now run together. Our combined interest was to reach an area of a nearby village which had long been overlooked, sneered at and ignored, and it was about time we changed that.
So why is it so important for us to work together as churches? After all so often we are suspicious of others and the way they do things. We criticise the differences and overlook our own inadequacies. Well, I truly believe that there is great power in unity. After all we all worship one God, and even though we often choose to do that in different ways, we are still brothers and sisters in Christ.
Look at Acts and Paul’s letters and you can see just how hard they found it to be united. Disagreements over what we might call doctrine were clearly not uncommon! But still the church grew and Paul himself, talked of unity in Galatians 26-29:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.
We are the body of Christ. Each of us play a part in that, whether that is in our own church or the wider church.
As I prayer walked the area near our community cafe recently, I stopped and looked around. On two sides, rolling fields stretched away from me; on another was a view past a playground to the beautiful South Downs, and in front of me stood the social club in which we have made something of a home. This is truly a beautiful and blessed place. I was struck by how so often we only see things from one viewpoint, but just turn to one side or another and the view is transformed. It’s the same in the church too; we tend to view things through the lens of our own brand of Christianity, rather than through the eyes of Jesus.
The media loves to show us at each others throats, arguing over this issue or that, so what a joy when churches can come together and really show the love of Christ in such unity! I think it helps on a more local level too with people seeing their local churches working in agreement, it just gives off such a positive message. And above all I think there is great spiritual power in us working together. I bet the devil hates it when Christians come together in agreement, after all Jesus said, when 2 or 3 are gather in my name, I am there with them. Imagine then if whole churches are together!
Of course it isn’t always easy, and certainly running the café hasn’t been completely plain sailing! Making relationships is key to the heart of any missional outreach, not only with those we are reaching but also with each other. We’ve needed to work within and yet also stretch each of our boundaries and barriers. We recognised that careful conversations and planning behind the scenes would be the backbone of what we were aiming to achieve but in acknowledging that knowledge and desire, we knew that misunderstandings could still happen because – even within the same denomination – we sometimes speak different ‘languages’!
Another part of the learning curve is that we must be realistic; knowing that we are unlikely to be united in all things but being clear that the purpose of the project has to be something which we are most certainly in agreement about. There’s no doubt that having complete clarity on this can help avoid challenging conversations later down the line.
Like any relationship, a degree of compromise is required. We have had to learn to work together, pray together, and find a unity that we can focus on. 18 months into our cafe project and we are really only just developing those key relationships with each other and with local residents, so time will tell where and how the café develops but, for now, we are just taking it one step at a time. I really believe that the future of the Church as a whole relies on us uniting and reaching out: united in that love we share. Jesus’ ‘new’ command to love one another is just as relevant now as it was then: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Loving each other doesn’t mean we get it right all the time, but it means we are trying to be with each other, to pray with each other and to work with each other, united in the love of Christ. Now that doesn’t sound too hard does it…?!