For the past two years I have spent most every Thursday between 10:30 a.m. and noon with a group of pastors to pray for our community of Antioch. It’s an odd group, composed of quite few Baptists, some independent church pastors, an Ethiopian missionary, a worker with international students, and me. As I look around most Thursdays, I recognize that I am the only “mainliner” in the bunch. I’ve invited others, and they have come for a time or two, but they rarely see this gathering as a priority as drop out.
I understand their ambivalence for frankly it takes an intentional effort to give up an hour and a half each week for an activity that seemingly has little direct payback for our church. However, as we’ve all discovered, the payback that we receive has been immense for we find that our gathering is breaking down barriers that have existed between our churches for years.
When we began to sense God’s calling us together, we spent some time talking about groups that we had experienced earlier in our ministry, and sought to avoid some of the traps of “ministerial associations.” We decided that we did not have a specific agenda, such as sponsoring community events or pushing a political policy. Rather, we recognized that we could agree on only two essentials: 1) that we were all called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus; and 2) God had placed us all in Antioch. We took seriously Jesus’ prayer in John 17 for his disciples that it be God’s will that the church “is one,” holding to a belief that there is only one church in Antioch, with different manifestations. To think of it another way, each of our congregations is a part of the total Body of Christ in Antioch.
So, we gather each week. We gather to share what God is doing in our lives. We gather to support those who are experiencing struggles and pain. And, we gather to pray — for one another, for each others congregations, and for our community. It is a rich time, and as we’ve prayed unity has arisen.
Not long ago, we were talking with one another and I shared that sometimes I was hesitant to put everything on the table as the token liberal mainliner for I knew that some of my theological and socio/political beliefs were a challenge for others in the group. One of the gathered pastors, the Senior Pastor of a large independent Baptist church, piped in:
“The other day I was talking with someone in my church,” he said, “when that church member asked ‘How can you in good conscience meet with a pray with that liberal Methodist pastor?” He went on. “I immediately replied with a loud voice, ‘That’s a lie! He’s not a liberal!”
I smiled, for I needed to say ” Uh . . . actually I am probably a bit liberal.”
But I also quickly recognized the reality of our common life together, the life of Christian conferencing and mutual support in prayer. You see, no longer were we conservative and liberal. No longer were we divided by labels like “mainline” and “evangelical.” We had laughed with one another, cried with one another, and prayed with one another, so those labels had no meaning. We were and continue to be brothers in Christ, fellow disciples striving to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
This group provides for me a picture of unity in the Body of Christ. Unity doesn’t require conformity. It doesn’t require us all be become clones, living out a cookie cutter faith that is homogeneous. No, unity in the Body of Christ is simply about the willingness to love as God loves, knowing each others weaknesses, but trusting that they are seeking after God just like we are seeking after God.
I once was a liberal mainliner. This friend was once a conservative evangelical.
But now we are Jay and Al, colleagues and co-workers in the task of bringing forth God’s kingdom here on earth.
In the name of the one who calls us.