Intervarsity Press recently published Letters to a Future Church, written by an array of men and women, addressed to the North American Church. IVP is sponsoring a contest in which you can participate. I was asked to contribute a letter through the Patheos Book Club.
Dear members of the North American church, all of you, liberal and conservative, Catholic and Protestant and Orthodox, black and white and Hispanic, immigrant and native, gay and straight, old and young, able-bodied and disabled, spanning the economic spectrum . . . all of you,
What on earth might I say that would actually reach all of you? One of the glories of the church is her, is our, diversity, that we worship God through hymns and through rock bands, through Quaker meetings and megachurch microphones, through kneeling at an altar and sipping coffee in a comfortable seat, through liturgical prayer and healing services and small groups and missions teams and soup kitchens. I have often called myself “denominationally confused” because I have been shaped and formed by seemingly disparate wings of our tradition. I received the seal of baptism as an infant in a little Episcopal church in rural North Carolina. I was confirmed in a Presbyterian Church in Connecticut, and there I learned about sin and grace and Jesus and the Bible. I had my first experience with the personal power of the Holy Spirit at a Young Life camp. I grew in faith, alongside my then-boyfriend-now-husband, at a conservative Congregational church with a female pastor. And on the story goes, of men and women from disparate backgrounds who have taught me what it means to know God’s deep love for me in spite of me, and to seek to follow Jesus’ way until he returns. Perhaps I should call myself denominationally blessed.
I could write out of my particular experience—as a mother of three young children, or as a seminary graduate, or as someone who lives in the Northeast among many who do not share my beliefs, or as the mother of a child with a disability. But I want to find something worth saying to everyone, to all of us who call ourselves Christians, “little ones in Christ.” I don’t want to do away with the diversity within the church. I have been shaped and pushed and strengthened by the array of worship styles and Biblical interpretations and recognizing the Spirit at work in the midst of everything from infant baptism in a Cathedral to adults dunked into the water of a little pond, from faithful men and women who hold out the gospel of grace and come to very different social and political conclusions, from street preachers to the silent witness of a nurse in a Planned Parenthood clinic holding a frightened woman’s hand.
I want to hold onto our distinctions, we who make up the Body of Christ, and yet I am also aware of my own idealism here. Liberal and conservative, even within the Body of Christ, are more likely to yell at one another than hold hands. High-church and low-church folks are more likely to ignore one another than call upon Jesus together. Megachurches and mainline congregations are more likely to compete for members than serve their communities side by side. Public figures are more likely to debate hot topics surrounding marriage and sexuality and politics than stand together as those who proclaim that Christ is Lord. And the people unlikely to be in the spotlight—the ones with physical and intellectual disabilities, the ones without economic or social power—are often silenced altogether. And yet Jesus’ prayer for us on the night before he died was that we might be one.
On that same night, Jesus told his disciples that he no longer called them servants. Instead, he called them friends. And friendship, I believe, has the power to allow us to retain our individual distinctions—our stained glass windows and outdoor chapels, our grape juice and our wine, our liturgical dance and our praise songs and our organs, even our political disagreements—while nevertheless proclaiming the miracle of the church. The miraculous truth that Jesus considers us friends. That he treats us as equals. That he wants reciprocity with us. That he gives to us and receives from us. That we can talk and listen and talk again. That we can break bread at the same table.
From that friendship with Jesus comes the power and vision of friendship across the dividing lines. In meeting other friends of Jesus, we hold the most important thing in common, and we can begin to discover Jesus’ imprint within one another. We can assume a posture of humility with even those who are most different from us, acknowledging that as friends of Christ, we trust that they have something we need. We can assume a posture of confidence as well, trusting that we have something to offer in return.
If we began to be friends with one another, especially friends across the typical dividing lines of politics and theological disagreements and social status, not only would the Body function with greater harmony, but we would also offer a portrait to the world. We would offer a portrait not of a Church that solved all her problems or agreed on every theological point. Instead, we would offer a portrait of neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, neither gay nor straight, able nor disabled, rich nor poor, young nor old. We would offer a portrait of unity within diversity. We would offer a portrait of friendship, of mutual giving and receiving, and we would bear witness to the God who has befriended us.