Christian Unity Is a Task for Christian Formation

In the course of trying to convince evangelicals that they might actually be Pietists, yesterday I argued again that the beginning of Christian witness is the unity of the church. With Jesus, we ought to pray that his followers “may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).

If nothing else, churches that can model unity will instantly stand out by contrast to the surrounding society. Consider this dismal summary from Paul Taylor of the Pew Research Center:

In an era of head-snapping racial, social, cultural, economic, religious, gender, generational and technological change, Americans are increasingly sorted into think-alike communities that reflect not only their politics but their demographics…. These days Democrats and Republicans no longer stop at disagreeing with each other’s ideas. Many in each party now deny the other’s facts, disapprove of each other’s lifestyles, avoid each other’s neighborhoods, impugn each other’s motives, doubt each other’s patriotism, can’t stomach each other’s news sources, and bring different value systems to such core social institutions as religion, marriage and parenthood. It’s as if they belong not to rival parties but alien tribes.

…Two-thirds of consistent conservatives and half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. And liberals say they would prefer to live in cities while conservatives are partial to small towns and rural areas. In their child-rearing norms, conservatives place more emphasis on religious values and obedience, while liberals are more inclined to stress tolerance and empathy. And in their news consumption habits, each group gravitates to different sources.

Graph showing growing ideological polarization among Republicans and Democrats since 1994
In 1994, 64% of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat; in 2014, 92% were – Pew Research Center

So on the one hand, there’s a tremendous opportunity for unity, if only the church could model a different kind of community. Not one in which uniformity prevails, but one marked by something like Pope Francis’ “reconciled diversity.” One like, well, the church of Pentecost — as Scot McKnight observes in A Fellowship of Differents:

McKnight, A Fellowship of Differents…if Genesis 11 scattered the people at Babel by creating languages, the miracle of Pentecost overcomes our many different languages with one language to form a new unity among people. Amazing, isn’t it, that the first thing that happens at the birth of the church is many diverse peoples become unified and one through the Spirit!

But miracles require hard work. There is nothing natural about unity, after all. “For what else is the Fall but this,” I asked in eulogizing a good friend last month, “created for relationship, we were made strangers — to our Creator and to each other? By sin, we see God and everyone made in his image with fear and suspicion rather than awe and wonder.” That instinct doesn’t go away when we darken the door of a church.

So if churches are serious about Christian unity, then they need to regard it as a task for Christian formation.

This is the flip side of being on mission in a polarized society. If churches are not intentional about forming disciples of a Christ who prayed for unity, then the work of formation will take place elsewhere. As Dallas Willard once warned, “Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one” (The Great Omission, p. 69). Our instinctive anxiety and suspicion of others is being hardened by our politics, our economy, and our media (especially the “social” kind).

If we are to avoid being “conformed to this world” (Rom 12:2), then churches need to engage in the kind of transforming, renewing practices that will prepare its people for unity. We could do a whole series of posts exploring this theme, but today I’ll just suggest a few ways in which this might happen:

Worship

Let me start in a wholly uncreative way, by encouraging churches to return to ancient liturgical practices that shape us for life together. I’ve written before on how an image of Paul giving Peter something like “a holy kiss” (Rom 16:16) is a wonderful icon of Christian unity; if you can’t be that intimate in your congregation, at least pass the peace. Confess your sins together. Make baptismal vows together. Above all else, come to the table together. “Everyone in the church gets connected at Eucharist,” emphasizes McKnight. “Everyone.”

(I was teaching on Communion to one of our AWANA groups last week and asked why we practice that sacrament. God bless the third grader who shot up his hand and screamed, “Because we’re the Body of Christ!”)

Small Groups

But as a Pietist, I also have a deep-seated inclination to think that it’s hard to experience authentic Christian community in the fullness of its complexity when it’s confined to an hour on Sunday morning. We’re more likely to join the Acts 2 church in having “all things in common” — including opinions, questions, doubts, and anxieties — when we gather in smaller groups for study, prayer, accountability, and fellowship. We’re more likely to have the kinds of honest conversations about difficult issues that I keep urging when we do it in smaller groups with people we already know for the flawed, complicated bearers of God’s image that they are.

But small groups could also have the opposite effect, if they become echo chambers where the like-minded gather to ratify preexisting beliefs and deepen preexisting grievances. Some degree of affinity is probably necessary to start these groups, but it shouldn’t be too narrow — and membership should probably be somewhat fluid.

Listening

Whether in large congregations or small groups, Christians cannot achieve any meaningful kind of unity unless they learn to listen to each other. Here again, the church must engage in a kind of counter-formation, since so many forces outside its walls are training Christians to tune out voices they’d rather not hear — whether by getting news from just one source (most common among conservatives) or by removing from our social media networks those with whom we disagree (most common among liberals).

Congregation Singing
Members of a congregation in the Church of Scotland singing – Creative Commons (homileo)

How do we form a listening church? No doubt it starts with spiritual disciplines as basic as prayer, silence, and meditation, since those who don’t train themselves to listen to God aren’t likely to listen all that hard to merely human voices. Individual Bible study is also important for this reason — but so is the corporate study led by a preaching pastor. Which is why I’m increasingly uneasy with sermon series that seem to reflect the individual preferences of one person and risk leaving enormous sections of the Bible unheard. (If nothing else, I can’t imagine why any Christian worship service shouldn’t incorporate some mix of psalm, prophecy, gospel, and epistle — if only to provide the vocabulary of liturgy.)

Perhaps less obvious is the nature of music in worship. Think how four-part harmony or call-and-response train us to pay attention to the nuances of other voices. Of course, it would help if we could hear those voices; in my experience, the sheer volume of instrumental and vocal music from worship leaders can be so overwhelming that I can rarely make out what anyone not immediately adjacent to me is singing.

Kids and Youth

But perhaps the most important consequence of viewing Christian unity as a task of Christian formation is that we cease to look for quick fixes and instead understand that it is a lifelong process continuing from generation to generation. For all that we ought to try to engage mature adults in practices like those I’ve mentioned, it’s at least as essential that churches ask themselves whether they’re forming children and youth for unity.

Start with what I’ve already named. Are you engaging children and youth in the formative practices of worship, or are you ignoring or removing them from those gatherings — in a sense, already teaching them that the church is a place of division? Are you helping them cultivate disciplines that will tune their ears to listen well, to God and their neighbors?

But go further. As you prepare Sunday School, VBS, or other Christian education curriculum, ask yourselves:

  • Are you encouraging the children and youth of your church to ask questions and share doubts, or are you making clear to them that the church is just another of Taylor’s “think-alike communities,” in which unity is maintained either by stifling or exiling divergent opinions?
  • Are you teaching them how to hold convictions courageously, but also patiently, humbly, and in conversation with those of different convictions?
  • Are you teaching them how to resolve conflict?

What does your church to do form Christians for unity? What would you add to, subtract from, or modify on my initial list of suggestions?


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