During my teens and early 20s, I spent a lot of time with the Canadian Army Cadet program as both a cadet and a reserve officer. Later, when one of my sons was involved in the program, I served again as a reserve officer. At that point, my job was supply officer–I was in charge of making sure that all the cadets had the proper uniforms and equipment, with all the necessary badges, insignia and so on. Military protocol insists that everyone look as much alike as possible–I am sure that if they could find a way to make everyone the same height and weight, some military somewhere would pay big bucks to make it happen.
I enjoyed working with the Cadet program and because of my colour blindness I have no real fashion sense (according to my wife and daughter) so I didn’t mind looking like every other officer. I didn’t mind too much eating the same thing at the same time or having to have the same solution to the same problem at the same time. But when I am outside of the military setting, I am not as happy with uniformity. When it comes to the church, I really don’t like uniformity. I want to celebrate the diversity of the church and its people.
Unfortunately, not everyone in every church shares this view. There is a serious pressure for churches to look the same. Denominations are pretty sure that it all churches looked and acted like theirs, it would be for the best. Within denominations, various leaders are convinced that all congregations should follow the accepted practises. Local congregations look at other congregations and wish either that they were more like their neighbours or their neighbours were more like them. There is also the pressure provided by the plethora of books, articles and seminars by leaders of “successful” churches that try to convince everyone that the church at its best looks like their church.
I don’t think that is the intention for the church. The church as a gathering of people united by their commitment to God and each other is going to be affected by a variety of factors that mean in the end each local expression is going to be very different. Congregations within walking distance of each others will have different spiritual, cultural and personal factors at work and will end up being very different. Congregations within the same denomination find ways within even the most rigid structures to express their individuality, even when there is significant pressure to conform.
Our individual response to God and our individual spiritual journey are diverse. When we come together as a congregation, that diversity creates a unique gathering of people. Certainly, the uniqueness of the congregation will change as the gathering changes–but no two gatherings will ever be the same, not should they. We need to celebrate the diversity of the church, because God is choosing to work through that diversity to give every believer the opportunity to find a spiritual home to encourage and enable their spiritual development.
A major part of celebrating our ecclesiastical diversity is the willingness to see beyond our differences and focus on our shared commitment to Christ and each other. As a Baptist, I prefer the looser, less structured denominational setting I belong to–but I also need to appreciate the fact that other believers prefer a different denominational setting and that God chooses to work through that setting as much as he chooses to work through my preference.
Congregations are as different as night and day but rather than seek to point out why the night congregations are better than the day congregations, we need to celebrate both and be willing to encourage and enable people to find the congregation that works best for their spiritual development and is the best fit for their lives. We might be different but we need to see what unites us so that we can work together to do the work of the kingdom. Just as Christians who try to go it alone end up with serious spiritual difficulties and deficits, so congregations that try to ignore others also end up with serious spiritual difficulties and deficits.
As believers, we are bound to God and each other–and as we celebrate our diversity within the essential unity of our faith, we all grow and God’s work is done.
May the grace of God be with you.