I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the community Thanksgiving meal sponsored by the Gibbon Ministerial Association and hosted by our friends at Faith United. But I must admit that something has been bothering me ever since.
Since taking on my role as pastor at Gibbon Baptist and moving to Gibbon earlier this year, I have enjoyed connecting with my fellow ministers. I have particularly connected on a personal level with Pastor Mike Evans of Faith United and Pastor John Coppernoll of Open Door, and look forward to connecting with other local/regional ministers in the coming months and years.
At the Thanksgiving meal, I noticed that although three churches got together, we tended to sit in groups with people from our own churches. I hadn’t thought about it very intentionally myself. And I sat down right in the middle of a group from my church. This has been bothering me.
If anyone should be ecumenical, it is me. I have trained and worked for years as a military chaplain alongside Assembly of God, Independent Christian, Lutheran, Methodist, Nondenominational, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic chaplains. My doctorate is from a cooperative program that involves six seminaries from six different denominations, and in that program I worked closely for three years with Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian clergy. I have preached or taught in Baptist, Christian & Missionary Alliance, Independent/Nondenominational, Evangelical Free, Methodist, Lutheran, and ecumenical settings.
I don’t believe Baptists are the only Christians. In fact, sometimes I wonder if all Baptists are even Christians! I don’t believe any one denomination has a perfect handle on God or truth or grace. I believe we need each other to see God most fully and truly. I believe God’s kingdom is not synonymous with any one church or denomination. In fact, sometimes God’s reign grows more outside the institutional church when the church isn’t faithful to his Word or mission.
The reason I tell you all this personal trivia is just to say: if anyone shouldn’t be huddling with the home team, it is me. And yet there I was, hanging out with the people I see just about every week. So this column is primarily an open rebuke of myself. And secondarily an opportunity for you to consider your own approach.
Why do we stick with our group? Well, it’s comfortable. These are the people we’re used to. We know their ups and downs. We know how to make conversation. Maybe us Baptists are smarter and better looking than the Methodists. Maybe we live on the right side of the tracks compared to those Open Door folks. (I’m kidding!) My point is that I think we sometimes cluster just because we haven’t thought about it. And I am thinking I need to think about it a little more. And maybe you do to.
What is the value in intentionally seeking those outside our group? Why do ecumenical things? Why hang out beyond the boundaries of my church or my denomination? Well, these are good questions. We don’t want to give up God’s grace or truth. Maybe we could add more questions to stir the pot. Do we believe that God is bigger than any one church? Do we believe God’s heart for our community is fully expressed by any one group of people? Do we believe there are Christians of every tribe, tongue, nation, hobby, economic status, race, political view, and personality?
For most Christians I know, we would define our faith in terms of Jesus and God’s grace. My prayer for me and for you and for all of us is that we would learn to truly value and seek out how God can show us who he is and what his grace means. And I think one way God wants to do this in all of our lives is through those who are not part of our group, not part of our club, not part of our church, and sometimes not part of our mindset or our comfort zone. This is the lesson of so many stories in the Gospels. And I hope the world will know us by our love for one another.
This column is also available in this week’s edition of The Shelton Clipper, which serves Gibbon, Shelton, Wood River, Alda, and Cairo.