Your Church Is Too Small
Why Unity in Christ's Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church
John H Armstrong
One of my first memories of campus ministry takes me back to a scene during orientation week at a major university. I took some time to wander through the vast array of displays in the school's athletic center. All of the various group and clubs and organizations on campus had their wares set up in assorted booths and tables and such. I had just arrived as the new person for Anglican campus ministry in a university of over 35,000 students. I thought it would be a good thing to check out the variety of Christian groups on campus - each one having it's own location in the campus agora to recruit new students and proclaim their message.
Now don't get me wrong. I didn't lament the presence of so many different Christian groups on the campus. But that very first day on the job I was struck with the thought of what might happen if all these groups had some way of uniting. And so I was moved to do what was perhaps almost unthinkable for an Anglican in such a setting. I went around to all of the Christian displays and asked the students and leaders staffing them if we could gather the Christians together, even for a few minutes, for prayer. Right there, in the middle of the athletic center, buzzing with thousands of students.
I start with a story from the past because that is where Armstrong starts. He comes from a Reformed tradition, and he has been influenced by the ecumenical work of people like John Mott and Leslie Newbigin. His book begins with a look at two histories; his own and that of the church. In his own life and work he began what he calls a "journey to catholicity". He takes his starting points from Scripture (Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17) and from the common witness of the early church as expressed in the Apostles' Creed. These, for Armstrong, served as benches upon which he can sit with Christians from other traditions.
As Armstrong comes from a confessional Reformed tradition, it is easy to see how his passion for unity can be seen by some withing his tradition as compromise at best and dangerous pluralism at worst. I think all of us who have been involved in some such activity on a real level run up against this. The fuller unity is not one in which we merely hang out with Christians from other places or denominations whose doctrines or practices are close to our own. That is merely associating with the like-minded or the like-practiced. Which is why, by the way, I have often found that many "Ecumenical" events are rather predictable. They can sometimes merely be the getting together of similar people from different traditions.
I suspect Armstrong would strongly reject a charge of compromise simply because he has been searching for that early common ground. Biblically, it is Jesus' prayer; confessionally, it is the creed; practically, it is mission-ecumenism. At heart of course, it is Christ himself. As Armstrong points out, the quickest route between two Christians goes through Christ Himself.
Can the church's past act as guide for unity in the present? Armstrong suggests that the 4 classical marks of "The Church" - one, holy, catholic, apostolic - can at least be a framework upon which contemporary Christians might build bridges over their differences. Currently there are tens of thousands of Christian denominations, independent churches and sects in North America. Somehow each one thinks it has an understanding of what it means to be the Church. In order to address the question of unity in the present, Armstrong looks at the roots of disunity in church history, as well as some of the current thinking that has supported the particularly Protestant pastime of splitting congregations and starting new "churches".
At heart (though Armstrong devotes only a few pages to it) is the Cartesian revolution of looking at the self as the source of certainty. Here I want to draw out some points that Armstrong makes in broad terms. Opposing the "self" there is the classical understanding of God as Trinity. My sense is that once we are moved by the the unity and diversity which is the Trinity, we will have a better chance of finding the path to unity and diversity incarnated in the visible church. While we might want to go back in a romantic sense to the unity of the early church, we cannot. First, that unity was not without its difficulties and factions. Second (and here I am stealing a thought from Pete Rollins) it is not to the early church that we must return, but to the Person and Event which gave birth to the early church. So our present quest for unity, while we wrestle with practices and doctrines, traditions and Scriptures, must go back, eventually, to God himself as Trinity.
So where does the path go from here? For Armstrong, the church of the future needs to be missional-ecumenical. I know, I know: can you pack two buzzwords from different ends of the spectrum together and not have a mess of pottage at the end? Fortunately, Armstrong brings these two terms together with content (accent on the first syllable). Here I think I'll return to that episode of days gone by. Over the course of that year, the students and leaders of various Christian groups on campus tried to covenant to meet together regularly for prayer. We would take turns leading the prayer times, which in itself was a learning experience for many. As the year went along, we sensed that the places in which could really cooperate actively were in the areas of mission. This is the point of the exercise: to work together in Christ's mission to the world. I have personally found that ecumenism which tends to focus solely on having a smorgasboard worship service, cobbling together external pieces from various traditions, often misses the point and the power of the Kingdom. Armstrong encourages us toward relational and cooperative unity in mission as a place where the Church, in all its fullness, can begin to exhibit the unity for which Christ prayed.
Overall - A good basic intro to a newer and more robust ecumenism. Easy to read, questions at the end of each chapter for discussion. Lots to think about, act about, and of course, to argue about amongst ourselves.