“I’m a theological mutt.”
Lots of folks laughed when a young guy said that, some nervously sipping coffee while others nodded in agreement to share the statement. We were doing the go-around-the-circle method of introductions as we gathered in a church planter cohort of the denomination in which I’m serving– which happens to be different than the denomination in which I’m credentialed and different from the denomination in which I came to faith, which is different from the denomination in which I grew up.
My ears perked up as I heard someone share. For some odd reason, my theological background is something I’m usually hesitant to refer to with the high-ranking officials of any denomination, possibly worried I’ll be considered a half-breed or not truly “one of them.”
Going into the meeting, I was cautious of being the oddball, the exception to the rule, but as people’s stories unfolded, so did their multi-denominational, nondenominational, and non-church ties. “Presbyterian.” “Lutheran.” “Campus Crusade.” “Catholic.” “Young Life.” “Holiness.” “Church of Christ.” “Evangelical.” “Episcopal.” “Foursquare.” The list went on. And so did the number of other pastors who had also received multiple denominational and life-experiential blood transfusions.
Mutts and the Work of the Spirit
Not only was I surprised, but I was intrigued. Here was a group of credentialed church leaders whose faith not only had been influenced but had been formed by other tribes as well as experience living life outside church. It wasn’t that we didn’t appreciate the denomination that supported us and with whom we were aligned in many ways—we just sensed that perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence that many of us were “mutts.”
Unlike our predecessors, who were born and bred in the denomination in which they were later called to ministry, the majority of us, especially those under age 40, had a different story. And when I thought about it, most of those in my growing church and even my small group had a different story—a story of various Christian backgrounds and even no Christian backgrounds before they came to faith. It was a story where the Holy Spirit was at work.
And it was a good, life-giving story.
Is denominational crossbreeding necessarily a bad thing?Is denominational crossbreeding necessarily a bad thing? Click To Tweet
Cross-Breeding and Diversity
In biology, when a plant or animal species finds or is planted in a conducive environment, the tendency is to continue growing and populating the region over multiple generations. Farmers who discover an area to be good for wheat will plant more of them and save the seeds from last year’s crop to be planted in the next year, and a tortoise population that finds adequate resources in an area will tend to grow in number.
However, if those populations are only pollinated and bred with those surrounding them, there will come a time that productivity decreases, even if there is still good soil and resources available. This is because everybody’s genes have become similar. The plants and animals grow in the same way, have the same needs and the same way of approaching life. And though the wheat may be the best and the tortoises may be the strongest at some point, there will come a time that a change in conditions, a sudden event, or an introduction of disease will threaten the continuation of the species. Biologists have even discovered a way to indicate what biological populations are at risk of extinction by estimating their rate of genetic diversity loss.
But when individuals from other populations of the same species are introduced, something different happens. Genetic diversity increases, as does the hardiness of the species and the different expressions of the species. The population can also expand into new areas, regions that the old genetics would not have supported. Genetic hybrids are best suited for new territory.
Jesus and the Right Denomination
Being a leader or a church with a hybrid pedigree can be a healthy thing. It’s intriguing that even Jesus’ followers represented multiple denominations of his time: Simon the Zealot; John the Baptist, who was most likely an Essene; Paul the Pharisee; the Samaritan woman at the well; Mary Magdalene. Despite their differences in what they believed about the resurrection and how one should engage with the world while waiting for the Messiah, they all came to have impact in building God’s Kingdom.
Jesus doesn’t quite tell us who had it “right,” he does tell us that they all followed him—and became leaders in their communities, starting churches. When we look at leaders and churches in our day, it’s interesting that those of hybrid influence—especially within a denomination—tend to be the ones who are most innovative, relevant, engaging, and able to “meet people where they are.”Hybrid leaders tend to be the ones who are most able to “meet people where they are.” Click To Tweet
Instead of limiting their learning, limiting the articles they read, the conferences they attend, and the people they engage with to those of the same tribe, these are the ones who look around and acknowledge that our brothers and sisters in the other camps are probably also hearing from God too. Hybrids are not afraid to get involved with other groups, even those with whom they disagree, because they see that engagement as an opportunity for enrichment rather than as a threat of contamination. The Kingdom grows when our knowledge, practices, and stories are cross-bred. And we, too, are equipped to engage in other, new territories, with new people.
Laborers or Fences
Embracing a cross-linked influence of multiple denominations upon our churches and leadership doesn’t mean we abandon the support, the accountability, and the theological approach of our denominations but rather see others as being on the same mission and trying to figure out how to impact the world and culture that we are all facing. Our denominations and Christian “tribes” group us together with like-minded people, but they can also serve as islands that induce extinction.Tribes group us with like-minded people, but can also serve as islands for extinction. Click To Tweet
We must realize that the denominational “mutts” and cross-bred hybrids among us might be descriptive of the unifying God-work that is underway. Of those coming to your church, even those from a non-denominational background could probably tell you about a denomination or denominationally-affiliated church that impacted them. Of those in your greater community who don’t come to your church, chances are, most would probably tell you that what they’re interested in is not your denominationally-sanctioned Bible study material, the denomination’s youth conference, or even whether you hold Calvinism, Arminianism, consubstantiation, entire sanctification, infant baptism, or the satisfaction theory of atonement as one of your core tenants—but rather the community that is gathered and how it lives out its supposed transformative faith.
After all, the mission field is in need of more laborers, not fences.