When I was growing up we had tossed salad with dinner quite often, especially during the summer. My dad would make the salad, with tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, radishes, and such, cut up small and tossed together, well mixed. When we had company he would also make the salad and the mixed up tossed together nature would get comment. He used no salad dressing, only some celery salt and pepper. The rest of us often added dressing (I’m partial to blue cheese myself). Today I will add bacon bits, croutons, and cheese to the mix as well. In his new book A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together Scot McKnight uses a metaphor of a salad bowl to describe church – the way it too often is as opposed to the way it should be. He would approve of my dad’s salads, a mixture of flavors unspoiled by a strong and uniform dressing.
I read A Fellowship of Differents over the weekend and heartily recommend the book. It will make a good discussion starter in a wide range of situations, raising important and thought provoking questions.
The point is simple, but not easy. As a good tossed salad, the church should be a mixture of different kinds of people, not a uniform gathering of “likes” – the same age, race, culture, class, education, or even precisely the same theology slathered over with uniform tastes. The church is not called to be a melting pot. Scot adds personal reflection to his book, and I will take the same liberty. I was fortunate to grow up in a church with a broad range of ages, educational levels, and income. The racial mix was rather (but not completely) uniform – however, this matched the surrounding community. We were not fundamentalists, and tolerated discussion and a range of views on many kinds of issues. Not big on “end times” discussions, with something of a range of views in the church. There were also a range of views on the age of the earth. I learned later that our pastor had played a role in keeping the local conference of our denomination from adopting a young earth type position. We were not separatists – but we certainly viewed ourselves as different from the surrounding culture. And this shaped the way I view the local church – even yet today.
So here’s my claim after that romp through the church of my youth: Everything I learned about the Christian life I learned from my church. I will make this a bigger principle: a local church determines what the Christian life looks like for the people in that church. Now I’ll make it even bigger still: we all learn the Christian life from how our local church shapes us. These three principles are a way of saying that our local churches matter far more than we often know. (p. 15)
The message I learned growing up was that we were different, not on grounds of strict theology, but because we were not “Sunday morning Christians” (like those Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians). Today I realize that many of the others were as committed as we, but this was the message I picked up at the time. Church wasn’t something we did for an hour or two each week, but a community we were a part of and were committed to. This certainly shapes my views today – church focused on a short staff run service for one hour a week hardly seems real. Community requires a much larger range of opportunity for participation and interaction. Small groups were not a part of the church I grew up in, and although I’ve had some good experiences in small groups in later years, I remain convinced that they can’t bear the entire load. Small groups are too homogeneous – generally intentional gatherings of peers rather than a fellowship of differents. We need a broader range of interactions.
No local church is perfect, but the local church matters. And the form it takes and teaches shapes the people who attend. The question then becomes “what form should the church take?” Throughout A Fellowship of Differents, Scot looks to Paul’s letters, the various early (imperfect) churches described, and the picture of Christian life Paul envisions. There is far too much in the book for one short post, so I will focus on a few points that stuck out as I was reading.
We is bigger than me. Chapter 10. Christian life and the Christian church isn’t about the individual. Scot suggests that there are two major challenges to the importance of church in America. The first is the myth of the perfect church.
We are given in America the power of choice, and religion has become a smorgasbord to choose your own church based on its ability to live up to your own preferences. This leads to the first thing we need to observe about the actual New Testament pattern, one [Roger] Williams managed to avoid and one many today do not want to acknowledge: we are a messy family.
There never was a golden era when the church “did church” perfectly. Sometimes well-meaning people suggest the first-century was a golden era, but anyone who reads the New Testament knows that there were problems within weeks! In Jerusalem, ethnic rivalries meant Greek-speaking widows were neglected, and at Corinth its members were forming personality cults. (p. 111-112)
There is no perfect church. “The church was and is today the most radical social experiment in history.” (p. 113) We are called to be a part of this experiment.
The second challenge is the myth of self-reliance. Roger Williams epitomized the search for the perfect church. Henry David Thoreau leads us on the path of self reliance. “At the heart of the American psyche is the Self, and Thoreau helped form the American Me so that it is bigger than the American We or the church We.” (p. 113)
But We is bigger than Me. “The Bible’s focus – read it from beginning to end and you will see this – is on what God is doing in this world through the people of God. Page after page, chapter after chapter, book after book – sixty-six of them in all – the Bible tells the story of Israel that morphs into the story of the Kingdom and the story of the Church. … the Me Story is contained within the We story.” (p. 114)
This means that we, as the people of God, share life.
The best word for church in the whole New Testament is not the word church, a word for a gathered assembly. The best word for church is fellowship, which simply means that we share life with one another. That is precisely what happened to the first Christians when the Spirit of God plopped them al together in those house churches across the Roman Empire. Such an odd box of differents. (p. 115)
The We of fellowship, then, is spiritual, it is social, and it is financial. But fellowship is not something we create; it is the result of God’s work in us. When God’s people live in fellowship with one another, when they “do life” together, the church embodies the gospel about King Jesus and people respond to the gospel about him, When they live in fellowship, the Me finds its joy in the We. It’s messy, believe me, very messy, but no matter what the mess, the gospel is at work to turn messy people into holy people, even if it takes a lifetime (or more). (p. 116)
It is in the day to day messiness of a local church that me becomes we, not in any individual regime of spiritual formation.
Faithful folks, not heroes. A second point that stuck out for me as I read came in Chapter 15. First a definition. Faith means trust and faithfulness means trust over time of faith over time. Thus faithfulness can only be measured after the passage of time. “What the church needs most is not heroes of faith, but faithful followers of Jesus. ” (p. 164)
A few themes on faithfulness from the chapter: (1) Faithfulness happens when God’s strength is unleashed in us as we look on, to lean on, God. It isn’t a matter of having enough grit and determination. (2) Faithfulness is the result of a lifetime of daily commitments. Prayer, focus, and dozens of small decisions and choices in the forward direction. Faithfulness requires effort, even as it doesn’t depend on grit and determination. (3) Most of us are ordinary Christians, and its okay to be an ordinary Christian. I’d say that all of us are ordinary Christians. Some are called to a more heroic life by circumstance, but most of life, and particularly a life of faithful following involves ordinary life.
In the evening of life, I want God to say of me that I was an ordinary person who lived an ordinary Christian life empowered by the extraordinary grace of God my whole life long. … How about you? (p. 169)
And this means that the church as a fellowship should be concerned with discipleship and faithfulness.
We need the Spirit of God, and God’s gifts. The final section of A Fellowship of Differents focuses on flourishing. The history of the church is a history of fraction, friction, and separation.
The hope of this book is that that history will be reversed by a renewed commitment to be the church that God designed, a church that flourishes in a salad bowl fellowship of differents.
But there is gospel – resurrection and new creation news here: the Spirit can take our abilities and transcend them, then take our inabilities and transform them into the gracious power of unity. To flourish, then, we need to be Holy Spirit people. The only way the church cam be God’s kind of church is through the power of the Spirit. Only the Spirit empowers us to transcend differences and to transform our preferences into love for others. (p. 195-196)
Scot runs through the importance of the Spirit in Paul’s letters (it comes up all the time). I am going to finish with one point. Each of us (ordinary Christians) has the Spirit and each of us (ordinary Christians) has gifts for the sake of the church. The will flourish as the people of God and a fellowship of differents when all of these gifts are nurtured, encouraged, and used.
The Spirit makes us bigger than a collection of (contentious) individuals.
How does the Spirit make us bigger? By assigning us a gift in the big cosmic mission of God. Through the Spirit’s gifts, we become participants, actors on the divine stage, people gifted by God with an assignment and responsibility in the church of God. We must also see the paradox here that God’s gifts makes us bigger by making us needier! How so? What we learn from the gifts is that God gives to us a gift, but he gives to everyone else a gift too, so that we need one another if the body of Christ is to function well. (p. 208)
There is no all encompassing list of gifts in the letters of Paul, although there are several lists that provide important examples. Scot points out that instead of looking to lists for guidance we should be asking “What is the Spirit gifting me to do in the fellowship?” This will identify gifts and callings. A local church flourishes when it encourages and uses the gifts of all in its body. Individual Christians flourish and grow when they are using their gifts as a part of the people of God.
The church I attend today is much like the church of my youth. It has been a church that encourages and uses the different gifts in the congregation. A church is not called to be a business with a business plan for growth and a CEO with a staff for implementation. Nor is it a weekly worship service (with “child care”), relegating fellowship to a small group of people “just like me.” A church is called to be a fellowship of differents and a family that stands together through thick and thin, ups and downs, to be the people of God.
In what way is your church a fellowship of differents?
What is the church called to be?
If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.