The more time I spend in the church, the more I understand the heart of Jesus. I am not talking about the hours I spend in a church building…or even the time I spend with believers from my home church. I am talking about the time I spend leaving my community of believers and reaching out into the church, the global one.
Some of you may have a similar background as I do. I grew up attending church and my family and I still attend the same church today. It is an incredible blessing and I will always be thankful for it. I never personally experienced a church split or a pastor unexpectedly stepping down. This stable framework was a nurturing spiritual environment. So how or why did I leave this environment to engage with the global church?
In middle school, I had brief exposures to other cultures and to other denominations of Christianity. I learned to view other denominations as well-intentioned, but misinformed. To clarify, my church did not prohibit interaction with believers from other denominations, it did not condemn the practices of other denominations as sinful, and it acknowledged that the essentials of the gospel are the essentials and we should be able to hold on to these when fellowshipping with believers from different backgrounds. However, I often was on the defensive in instances when I encountered other beliefs or practices (within the realm of Christianity). As soon as the encounter was past, Bible verses would be looked up that explained why we had a more biblical view.
I reached out a little more when I specifically chose to go to a non-denominational Christian college which had a reputation for training servants of the gospel. I befriended people from all kinds of backgrounds; young in the faith, mature in the faith, some who attended house church, some high church, the conservatives, the charismatics, etc. The professors and staff also espoused many different practices and beliefs. They had the freedom to teach from their background, but they seemed to hold it with an open hand. They would often direct students to another professor with a different belief so they could more fairly represent it. At first, I was guarded. I would listen respectfully to another viewpoint, but then I would look up those verses I had learned to assure myself that I was right. After a while, I realized that I was approaching things wrongly.
It was also during my time in college that I realized something incredible. In the early church, when Paul was writing his epistles, he was writing to the church in Ephesus (for example) not a church in Ephesus. That is not to say there was only one gathering of believers in Ephesus, but that they all had community together and the letter would be passed around to the various gatherings of the church. The passages that talk about the various gifts of the Spirit and different functions of the body are not limited to how an individual fits into their local gathering. Each gathering was to work as a healthy body, but the groups were also called to live in unity and each city was to be in harmony with other cities because Christ was the head of the one church. I started to shift my attitude. When I encountered someone from another background, I would still listen carefully and note their reasoning as I had before. Instead of going back to my “apologetic” Bible verses to make myself feel more confident in my belief, I would ask myself if there was something I could learn from this different way of looking at things and explore the passages they had used to support their belief. I trusted the Spirit more and my own understanding less. I realized I could listen to other viewpoints and investigate their supporting verses without fear of being swayed from “the right track”. When I did this, many times I would still feel most comfortable with the interpretation I grew up with, but sometimes my understanding of a certain topic was broadened to include the new information I received. Sometimes I completely changed my mind on something.
Then, I went to Mexico. I did not go with a mission agency and I had the freedom to attend any church I wanted to. I was very eager to be a part of a house church because this was a completely new experience for me and was a model I had heard much about in my time at college. In a completely unexpected way, God opened the door for me to attend a house church. Of course many of the practices were different, but after a few months, I realized I was in disagreement over a major theological point. It was a much bigger jump to make than other steps I had taken for the sake of unity; it touched on the gospel itself. After a week or so of prayer, I decided to stay.
It was hard for many reasons. It was hard to walk humbly with a desire to learn. It was hard to not to speak my own belief at the wrong time. It was hard not to be divisive. I was there two years and I learned so much. I was also blown away by the doors opened to me to minister in the church, not to change it, but to serve it. Some practices I still disagreed with, one I enjoyed better than what I was used to, and my understanding of the theological difference was broadened. I did not change my mind on this issue, but the scriptures they used to support their position showed me that I was ignoring some important information in my own definition.
This has been a long story of my encounter with the church so far. I want to encourage you to step outside of the local church (maybe you consider it “your” church) into the church more. Denominations are not bad, but I think they can hinder unity. I still enjoy the consistency and like-mindedness of my home church, but the more time I spend in other churches the deeper I understand the glory of God manifested in diversity. Lower your defenses. Walk humbly and learn from your brothers and sisters nearby and around the world. If you really enter into the church humbly and stay close to Christ the head, you will start looking and thinking less like a Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, or whatever you consider yourself and more like Christ. That is the end goal, isn’t it?
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