or, getting to the heart of what really matters
When I started training for ministry in 1999 I was introduced to a whole new range of terms – well, not introduced, actually. I was expected to know them. They included the words conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, evangelical and open. I knew the first two – although I associated them with political voting preferences rather than types of theology – the others were new to me.
I realised very quickly that I was supposed to select one or two of these terms to describe ‘where I stood’ theologically. Whichever combination I chose would also tell people what style of worship I preferred. Invariably people would say, “Well, I don’t like boxes, but I suppose I would describe myself as…”, immediately putting themselves in whichever shaped box most suited.
My introduction to those terms also signalled the start of my education in how much the Church struggles with difference. I have observed over two decades how using such labels creates divides within churches and denominations. Even today there remains a legacy of suspicion, deflecting the church from its main task of demonstrating, and introducing people to, the joy of a faith in Christ.
One of my most inspiring theological discussion partners is a local Christian about my age. There are fundamental differences between us. She would probably describe herself as an ‘evangelical’, while I hail from the more ‘liberal’ end of the tradition. Embarking on a missiological journey alongside non-Christians has enabled us to set aside those differences which, in other circumstances, might have caused problems. We can accept that only one of us believes in creationism (the idea that God made the world in six days), and we can agree to differ on whether the image of the future as depicted in the book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally or not. What might potentially divide us pales into insignificance when set alongside what really matters: following Jesus and enabling others to do the same.
Moving beyond such issues, in order to hear what God might be calling us to do and be, has been profoundly important for both of us. Working alongside people, for whom these sets of labels have no meaning, has exposed how theological difference has impacted on the Church’s sense unity, and inspired in us a greater determination to follow the path that God has set for us – to be disciples of Christ in communion, each in our own way.
I am saddened when I hear of faithful Christians seemingly unable to move beyond the unhelpful divisions of the late twentieth century. I am not saying that the issues on which churches differ don’t matter; but I wish they could work more creatively to resolve them, adopting an attitude of openness and listening rather than barely disguised hostility.
Perhaps then we could focus on reaching the 94% of people in Britain who don’t go to church, rather than tying ourselves up in knots over what divides the 6% who do.
For an article about reaching the 94% of British people who don’t go to church click here.