There were two churches in the village where I spent my teenage years, one on Church Street and the other on Main Street. To any tourist passing through our little town they would have looked almost identical, these modest wood-framed buildings with stained-glass windows and tin-clad steeples. When the church bells clanged on Sunday mornings and the roadsides near the churches filled with parked cars, when well-scrubbed families filed through the double doors and organ music wafted from the windows, an outsider could be forgiven for imagining that these two congregations were laboring and worshiping in synchronicity. But we knew better. Our church, the one on Church Street, was faithful to the Bible. That was something we would NEVER say about the Other Church.
To be honest, we doubted that the townspeople who attended the Main Street Church were actually Christians. The denomination to which they belonged was obviously deluded on crucial points of doctrine, and some of their practices, we knew, were weird. In matters of religion, Those People spoke with a vocabulary and tone that were different from ours — not in ways that would be obvious to a reporter from the New York Times, perhaps, but as distinguishable to the practiced ear as a Scottish brogue or a Texas drawl.
Yes, we all lived in the same town and went to the same public schools and always said hello to each other in the post office. But underneath all of this small-town civility, we were like Shi’ites and Sunnis.
Our church belonged to a nondenominational denomination, a network of like-minded congregations that had survived the wreckage of a revival a few generations earlier. Our churches, which were scattered over a radius of 300 miles or so, were in turn connected, albeit very loosely, with other churches in distant parts of the country and with missionaries around the world. These were the Christians we knew. We “fellowshipped” with our spiritual relatives at regional youth camps and men’s retreats and missions conferences, or on visits to the Bible School from which most of our leaders had graduated. Our family would drive for several hours to attend one of these reunions, but never, as far as I recall, did we even think about walking two blocks to visit the Other Church.
Over time, even our denominational events became strained. Tensions were probably always present, but not until I was old enough to interpret the interactions of grownups did I start to see the signs of internecine strife: the strategic seating, the sidelong looks, the elliptical sermon references that bore no relation to the text. And then there were the mysterious absences. We would arrive at an annual convocation to find that friends who had been fixtures at those gatherings for years had suddenly disappeared, without a word of explanation, as though they had never existed at all. Only later, when I was finally admitted into adult conversations, did I hear about the battles that had been waged for righteousness, and the casualties that our side (the right side, naturally) had sustained.
Here’s a staggering statistic: there are now approximately 41,000 Christian denominations in the world. That’s right, 41,000 separate and distinct groups of churches, each with its own organizational chart, its own doctrinal priorities, its own style.
This diversity is nothing new — nor, for that matter, is it necessarily bad. Archeologists and sociologists tell us that tribalism is universal among humans and practically as old as humanity itself. The Bible describes the Children of Israel whom Moses led out of Egypt as a very diverse population — twelve distinct tribes, each a collection of multiple clans — whose calling to be the People of God did not erase their tribal identities.
If you stop to think about it, you must admit that a monolithic and homogeneous Church could never reach a world population as culturally diverse as ours. In fact, no single church could be expected to reach all the various subgroups within, for example, just one typical high school. A gospel message phrased in a way that reaches a Geek might confuse a Jock and elude a Stoner altogether. That’s why it was so wonderful and miraculous that, when the church was born on the Day of Pentecost, foreigners who had come to Jerusalem from the far corners of the earth all heard the gospel, but each in his own language.
In employing the imagery of the human body, the New Testament makes the point that this living, breathing thing we call the Church is actually a very complicated organism whose various parts are different by design. Diversity makes it possible for the Church to adapt, to speak countless languages simultaneously, to identify and meet a whole spectrum of human needs. And whether we see it or not, the Bible insists that the Church is actually a unified spiritual entity, with “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of us all,” and that it functions under the direction of one Head, Christ himself.
Complications arise, according to the Apostle Paul, whenever one organ in this body begins to regard the others with contempt. It is there, at the point where believers take so much pride in their God-given identity that they lose sight of their place within the larger whole, that they fall victim to a debilitating spiritual sickness. The whole church suffers when this happens, and the mission and witness of the church suffer as well. The single characteristic that is supposed to mark us as Christ-followers is lost. “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples,“ Jesus said, “That you love one another.”
After I left home, I wandered away from our little tribe and began to explore the larger world. At university, I discovered Church History, a subject I had never encountered before. Our denomination, after all, was less than a hundred years old. Since we regarded our movement as a restoration of the New Testament Church, I had never paid any serious attention to the nineteen centuries that had passed between the Day of Pentecost and the modern descent of the dove. Had the Holy Spirit been absent from the earth during that time? Had Jesus, in abrogation of his explicit promise, forsaken his disciples for nearly two millenia?
Delving into the archives of the Christian faith, I was astonished to discover committed believers in every age and in every place where the gospel has traveled. Each of these Christ-followers was born into to a certain people-group and spoke a specific language. Each one inherited a set of cultural norms and an incomplete understanding of the physical world. All of them were surrounded by political realities and historical forces from which they could not escape. It is not at all surprising. therefore, that despite their common commitment to Christ, these believers ended up interpreting and articulating and applying the gospel in different ways. Of course they did!
It was especially humbling for me to trace my own Christian heritage. As it turns out, the movement in which I was raised did not emerge spontaneously from a vacuum, immaculately conceived by the Holy Spirit without any cultural influences. Yes, I do believe the Holy Spirit was involved in the birth of our movement. But in the many generations prior to our revival, religious sincerity regularly mated with socioeconomic factors, military and political realities, racial biases, and even, at times, naked ambition, to produce our progenitors. Eventually I came to believe that it was this half-forgotten and mostly unacknowledged genetic material, rather than theology alone, that made us unique.
Today, I live in a historic town in the American South, one with plenty of churches. Only 150 years ago, most of the white Christians in this town defended the institution of slavery on biblical grounds. Most of my neighbors still go to church. People who grew up here tend to attend the church their parents attended, or one like it. Those of us who moved here from somewhere else typically look around for a church that speaks our worship-language, shares our cultural values, and endorses our political views — and it isn’t hard to find one that fits. There is a church for every taste in Franklin, Tennessee.
My wife Allie and I joined a church when we moved here 15 years ago. It’s a good church. We’re comfortable in our church home, and we are deeply engaged in ministry. More than that, we’re proud of our church. It is probably the best church in town. At least that’s what I was thinking a few weeks ago when an unexpected email suddenly arrived, an invitation to speak in another church just a few blocks from my house.
I had walked past this Other Church nearly every day for 15 years, but I had never so much as looked inside the building. Frankly, I had no interest in looking inside. In my mind, the denomination to which this church belongs is deluded on crucial points of doctrine, and some of its practices are weird. But when its new pastor, a likable young guy whom I’d met a few times at Starbucks, asked me to lead a weekend men’s retreat and then preach on Sunday morning, I didn’t have the heart to turn him down.
I finally entered the Other Church this last Friday, late in the afternoon, feeling like I was crossing into North Korea. And what I found inside both shocked and humbled me. Rather than foreigners, I found men like myself, flawed men who are aware of their sin and grateful for forgiveness, who are committed to their families and doing their level best to follow the Savior. I didn’t know all of their songs or understand all of their jargon, but the Spirit among these men was unmistakable. It felt like I’d arrived at a family reunion for the very first time, along with relatives I’d never met before. When the introductions were over and the initial awkwardness had passed, I found that we have an awful lot to talk about.