I grew up in a small town that had at least five different denominational congregations with at least one independent congregation. I also grew up in the era when basically, everyone when to worship on Sunday–as far as I know, we didn’t have any Seventh Day groups in the community. That meant that everyone in the town “belonged” to some group or another. It also meant that we generally knew why we didn’t belong to one of the other groups.
Of course, the reasons we didn’t belong to one of the other groups were always because of something our group did much better. We Baptists, for example, were proud of the fact that when we worshipped, it was under the leading of God, not some canned worship program written long ago by people who obviously weren’t Baptist. We were also convinced that those groups that actually used wine for Communion were just opening the door to alcoholism. And of course, we allowed ourselves to be lead by God, not the Holy Spirit because the group that talked a lot about the Holy Spirit was definitely off base. And we certainly were holding to the true Gospel, unlike that group that was moving off the theological base into liberalism.
So there we were–at least six separate groups, meeting at about the same time on Sunday morning, listening to each other’s church bells peel around the same time, singing many of the same hymns, reading from the same Bible (although some were using the RSV not the KJV), worshipping the same God of love and grace and working really hard to make sure we all knew how different we were.
Except, we really weren’t that different. Our Baptist insistence on extemporaneous prayers rather than a prayer book tended to fall apart when you actually listened to the prayers we made–the prayers tended to sound pretty much the same from week to week. We didn’t have written prayers but we did a lot of repetition and saying the same thing week after week.
And more seriously, we all had our theological strengths and our practical weaknesses. The “liberal” denomination was trying to actually show God’s love in concrete ways. The “Holy Spirit” group was trying to open themselves to the movement of God in daily life. The liturgical worship approaches were trying to tie is together with the deep historical roots of the church. Our Baptist group, well, we were trying to make sure that there was room for individuality in faith.
Together, we has a deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of what God was trying to show us and teach us and ask of us. Together, the churches in our community came close to understanding the fullness of the Gospel. Unfortunately, we were too much interested in our own small insights and understandings to really benefit from the things that we could learn from each other. We had to be right and they had to be wrong.
I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I live and work in a very different church climate. I am aware that there are still many places where the church or parts of it are more concerned with division and difference than unity and similarity but I don’t work there and don’t want to be there.
I think the process of moving to a new place began when I started to understand that it was alright to question my own group, to be open about the things that we did and didn’t do that caused problem for the faith. I moved from there to realizing that others had similar realities–there was some good and some bad. And I realized that I was free to challenge the bad in my group and import some of the good from other groups. I didn’t stop being Baptist–but I did begin to realize that before I was Baptist, I was a follower of Jesus Christ.
And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am united with all other followers and can look at what others do in their journey in a different light. When their journey helps someone else’s journey, it is great. So I can borrow printed prayers, new translations, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and couple it with extemporaneous prayers, traditional hymns and grape juice–the goal is God, not Baptist.
May the peace of God be with you.