|Photo courtesy of ilco|
In the world today some have estimated that there are approximately 2 billion Christians. That works out to be roughly 33% of the world's population and by all accounts that is a huge number of people who say they believe in Christ. Now, I am not going to nitpick the numbers and argue about whether many of those people are only nominally Christian or any of that. What I do want to point out is that among those 2 billion people who claim the name of Jesus Christ there are also an estimated 38,000 denominations. This number comes to us from former British aircraft engineer turned Anglican priest, David B. Barrett who used his extensive technical know-how to systematize information about the Church. Now, I'm not going to work these numbers to come up with any spectacular figure that tells us how many people are in each denomination because we all know that it doesn't work that way. What I do want to point out is that there is incredible variation among what we call The Church.
I will freely admit that I fluctuate like the ocean's tide when it comes to the idea of denominations and before I go any further I want to give you a little bit of my own background to shed a little bit of light on why that is. When I was born my family attended a Presbyterian church and it was in this tradition that I was Christened. After my parents separated there was a brief period where I wasn't attending any church but I was only four or five and have little memory of that time. Soon I found myself going to either a Moravian church with some friends or a Baptist church with my new step-grandparents. If I was visiting my mother we would often go to a Lutheran church. In middle school I began going to a Wesleyan Church where I remained through high school. In college I was a member of Methodist Church and continued in that tradition until about a year ago when I came on staff at a Baptist church. Finally, throughout my life I would go to a non-denominational, outdoor worship center at Badin Lake, NC with my mother and grandparents. If you can sort all of that out you are a better person than I. My point is, I've been around the denominational block once or twice and I have loved them all. I have seen the value of the various traditions. More importantly, I have seen that the message is typically very similar among these protestant groups.
Some days I find myself thankful for the variety of traditions that we have in the Protestant church. It does allow for people of various tastes to find a spiritual home that suits them. However, more often than not I find myself crying out with Rodney King, "Why can't we all just get along?!" In seeing the inner workings of some of the denominations there is always, at some level, a few things.
1) A desire to grow the particular denomination. This, I believe, stems from the second thing.
2) A belief that one denomination has it all right while the others are wrong to varying degrees.
The truth of the matter is that no one denomination has it 100% correct. Of course, I am shooting myself in the foot because that assumes that I have it 100% correct which I also know is not true. The funny thing is most people will admit that their denomination doesn't get it right all the time. There are those, particularly in leadership positions, that would not agree with that but I think the majority of lay people would.
Here is the rub that I have with all of this. The New Testament church, particularly the Apostolic church in Acts was marked by its unity. Look again at the first part of Acts 4:32;
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul.
It goes on to say that they claimed nothing as their own...nothing. They were unified in the truth of Jesus Christ and His resurrection and that unity led to an amazing outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There are many tactics that the enemy uses to make the Church ineffective but one of the greatest ones is the infighting among believers and the disunity of the denominations. We must regard our mission with a Kingdom mindset rather than a denominational one. It doesn't matter if the Methodists are growing and the Baptists are shrinking. It shouldn't bother us one bit if the Presbyterian church down the road is packed while the Assembly of God is not. The important thing is that the Kingdom is increasing. I have often said that some people are going to be very surprised when they reach the eternal city and find there are believers from other denominations there as well.
The test for our allegiance should not be what name is on the sign out front but what sign is on the hearts of the people inside the church. We should be less concerned as to whether or not a congregation is adhering to a man-made document and more concerned over their faithfulness to God's Word. Look at the example that Jesus gives us for determining who is part of the family;
Answering them, He said, "Who are My mother and My brothers?" Looking about at those who were sitting around Him, He said, "Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother." Mark 3:33-35.
There is the test! Jesus didn't say that if we follow the Book of Discipline or the Baptist Faith and Message then we are in the family. He said, if we do the will of the Father we are in the family. We only have to look as far as the book of Acts to see that unity among believers was a powerful force in the world. Further in chapter 4 we find that there was no need among them that was not met. We see what happens when God's people unify in prayer when Peter is miraculously freed from prison and the list goes on. All too often we look around and try to find answers to our growth problems and devise strategies to make our denominations flourish. The problem, well one of the problems, is such disunity and clinging to our particular tradition rather than clinging to the great Unifier, Jesus Christ.
In American politics one of the catch phrases is that certain officials are willing to "reach across the aisle" to the members of the other political parties. The idea is that they are willing to work with, rather than against, people of different persuasions. When are we, as believers, going to reach across the denomination aisle? The sad part is, there isn't really much of an aisle to reach across. Yes, there are some doctrinal issues that are game-breakers but most of the stuff we draw attention to are not.
Rather than pointing out the problems without offering any solutions let me offer a few steps that we can take as believers.
1) This may be the most important one. Start looking at things with a Kingdom point of view. We have to ask ourselves, "Is the Kingdom of God being increased?" If it is then we should support whatever is going on. If people are coming to know Christ as their Savior and Lord then we should have very little negative to say.
2) Look to the Word of God as the authority and measuring stick. The word "canon" that we use for the Bible comes from a word that means "measuring stick" and that is exactly what it should be. This can be applied to point #1 because if something, or someone, seems to be increasing the Kingdom but is straying from the revelation of God then we know it is false. On the flip side, if a Pentecostal is preaching in concert with the Word of God then all the Baptists and Methodists should agree.
3) We need to stop breaking fellowship over things that are secondary in importance. If a church is meeting points 1 and 2 then it doesn't matter if they are contemporary or traditional. It doesn't matter if they have a formal liturgy or are more free flowing.
4) Seek and embrace unity. The early Church was unified in heart and soul and because of that God poured out His power through it to reach the world.
If we truly desire to see the world changed for Jesus Christ we, as believers and His followers, must be united. During the National Conversation on Revival John Armstrong pointed out that this is exactly what Jesus prayed for His followers. Listen to what Jesus says in John 17:21,
that they may be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in you, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.
This is a huge indictment against the Church today. We wonder why more people aren't coming to Christ and it isn't just because of our lack of evangelism, it is because we are not one. Do you see that in the prayer? Jesus wants us to be unified because through that people will see that we are His and that He is God.