In late March I had the chance to visit Austin, Texas, for the first time. After the obligatory visit to the Capitol and a misadventure seeking Texan BBQ—who knew they sell out and close for the day?—I found myself at the University of Texas—Austin, where students were setting up for an event called Rez Week (Resurrection Week). It was an annual outreach hosted by all the Christian campus fellowships, offering a weeklong, 24-hour prayer tent, whiteboards with a thousand opinions, a worship band, and students painting colorful silhouettes.
We ended up joining a couple hundred students in the drizzle for the first worship session and evening speaker, who was part of YWAM. One particular quote caught my attention:
Rez Week is not what unites us. It is a symbolic declaration of the unity that already exists in Christ.
Put another way, our events and programs may bring us together physically. But the connection we share as the body of Christ transcends our limited spiritual and organizational buckets.
Finding Consistent Unity
Now, it would be excellent if this unity were manifest on a regular basis, outside of conferences and inter-fellowship nights. In my experience, this has not always been the case. Perhaps you can relate.
That’s not to say that there is necessarily conspicuous hostility. But the rivalry, gossip, criticism, and apathy I’ve often witnessed among ministries do not reflect the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17:20-23.
Nor is it to say that we all need to be the same. Each ministry and tradition has its merits and reaches different groups. So it’s great that people take pride in their church or fellowship and promote its work. But ultimately, we need to be excited about the Church as a whole and engage in what Jesus is doing.
Why We Are Not United
Reasons for our lack of lived-out unity are many. I offer four themes I’ve observed and questions to consider.
1. Differences in methods. Sometimes we get lost in the details—the terminology, music genre, evangelism techniques. These may be rooted in deeply held beliefs and Christian traditions. Or they may simply be the habits of a certain church. In many cases, there’s no right or wrong way. But getting mired in the methods can cause us to forget our purpose.
Nothing realigns our hearts to the kingdom more than prayer. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “our Father in heaven.” It focuses our attention first on God our Father—not on a church or denomination, but rather on the collective community of believers. In that light, how can we view methodological differences as opportunities to learn from each other and see his mission go forth “on earth as it is in heaven”?
2. Disagreements on how to engage culture. American society has increasingly adopted a secular, relativistic worldview. Morals and values that were once accepted without question are now challenged. Former taboos are now embraced—and those who believe otherwise are denounced. Christianity has become irrelevant in the eyes of many. And within the church, we disagree as to how to respond. The spectrum ranges from silent acceptance to outspoken defense. Different perspectives clash and heated arguments arise among believers, even church leaders.
It is beyond the scope of this article to explore each complex social issue and its implications. But let’s consider two facets when engaging with cultural trends:
·Among the world. Peter reminds us: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Do we treat nonbelievers, even those hostile to our faith, gently and respectfully? Are we helping them know Jesus or are we just trying to prove a point?
·Among the church. Jesus commanded us: “Love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35). Does the way we interact with fellow believers represent this unified love? When society looks at the Church, does it see Jesus?
3. Pride. A serious problem occurs when we allow differences in methods and disagreements about cultural engagement to breed feelings of superiority. This prideful attitude often manifests as “us versus them” language: We know the right way. They are too charismatic (or too legalistic, too conservative, too seeker-friendly, etc.).
The apostles wrestled with questions of inclusion and positional authority: Who was in or out? Upon witnessing a man exorcising demons in Jesus’ name, they commanded him to stop, “because he was not one of us” (Mark 9:38). Jesus, however, rebuked them: “Do not stop him. . . . Whoever is not against us is for us” (vv. 39-40). Even among themselves, the disciples argued about who was the greatest. What would it look like for the Church to embrace humility, examine ourselves, and seek reconciliation?
4. Feelings of scarcity. Some ministries operate out of a mentality of deficiency: we need more members, donors, and resources. The need is real. Thousands of churches close each year due to low attendance and financial woes. College fellowships often struggle as well. A mindset of scarcity, however, generates disunity. It says that there is not enough to go around. Outreach becomes a zero-sum game in which ministries compete for a limited pool of potential members.
Thankfully, this perceived shortage is a lie. The harvest is plentiful—if only we lift our eyes and look at the fields (John 4:35). We serve a God of abundance, with whom all things are possible. And he who has called us to his good work will equip us to follow through. How can we remember this truth and operate not from a place of scarcity but from a place of security in his provision?
Unity is rare in our ever-divisive world. As those with the greatest unifying hope, we must exemplify what it means to have one Lord, one faith, one purpose (Ephesians 4:4-6). Before being members of a Catholic or Protestant church, of InterVarsity or another fellowship, we are members of the body of Christ. May we love one another as Jesus loves us, for through our love the world will know him.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Matt Kirk.
Christopher K. Lee is a freelance writer and founder of PurposeRedeemed (purposeredeemed.com). He often speaks at colleges about work, meaning, and identity. Chris is an InterVarsity alumnus from Southern California.