October 16, 2014 / John Armstrong

My Journey to Missional Ecumenism, Part Two

This is a continuation of John’s article from last Thursday. Read Part One here.

The cost for affirming and living the oneness of the holy, catholic church was high. My entire ministry suffered, both publicly and privately, in ways I cannot begin to explain. We went from being in demand and popular to being uninvited and nearly broke. My dreams crashed and my life was never to be the same. But the Lord has assured me I would spend years in a desert where I would come to know him as never before. Here I would gain something of Christ’s view of the church, his one church.

During the latter stages of these years my wife urged me to tell my story so I wrote a book on John 17: Your Church Is Too Small (Zondervan, 2010). This book became my way of telling the story and sharing my vision, a vision I now call missional-ecumenism.

My thesis is simple: God designed the church to experience union with the Trinity in his eternal love. This love empowers our diverse relationships so that when the world sees us, especially in our respective churches, they should see that the Father loves the world (cf. John 17:20-24). By seeing us loving one another the world can come to know Christ! Simply put, unity would become the divine apologetic for the future as it had been in the ancient church centuries ago.

This journey has been amazing. I have experienced profound misunderstanding and amazing joy. One of my greatest joys has been working with Christians from across the entire Christian family. The chairman of my board, a Baptist minister, became an Orthodox priest. Catholics soon became some of my dearest friends. Francis Cardinal George read my book and asked me to come to his home. I asked him to dialogue with me about unity at Wheaton College. (You can see this dialogue at www.act3network.com) A trip to the Vatican followed. Now the Protestant mainline has become a major part of my vision as well. I thought the Spirit has left those places. (Remember, my church really was too small.)

I see two things that I believe the church needs today in a fresh encounter with the living God. First, we need to understand that being a missional church is not a buzzword. Deep inside this word, and the recovery and development of an ancient-future faith it puts before us, is divine power. Mission is not what we do but who we are as the people of God. In this simple, but profound, theological idea is the renewal that I believe we need.

But being missional is not enough. We must also become deeply and intensely ecumenical. We need a John 17:21 perspective on being missional if this movement is to be more than another fad.

I see missional movements rising in various contexts but most seem to have missed the call to live faithfully inside the whole catholic church, as a true ecumenical work of the Spirit. And I have seen ecumenical movements that have little or no idea how, or why, to be missional. I hope and dream that a new paradigm is emerging and I pray that this one will put these two great truths together – missional-ecumenism.

If you want to engage in this vision you must get outside your church paradigm and learn how to listen to the “other.” You must lay down your cherished opinions, at one level, and listen with deep love. You may hold on to many of your cherished views in the end (you are likely to see how irrelevant many if them are along the way) but you can never be the same once you listen in love.

The great hymn-writer John Newton wrote what is perhaps the best-known hymn in Christian history: “Amazing Grace.” Entire books and film documentaries have been made about this one song. Even a popular Hollywood feature film bore the title: Amazing Grace. In this hymn the great Anglican minister John Newton said of God’s purpose, and our future, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, we’ve only just begun.” His perspective is, of course, eternal. He is referring to the kingdom that is to come, the ages upon ages of time that we cannot comprehend.

But I’d like to remind you as God’s people that we are already the recipients of God’s amazing grace through the good news of Christ’s kingdom. In fact, all our churches are mini-outposts of that great spiritual kingdom. Our churches are each called to be communities of the Spirit in which we celebrate kingdom life as God’s dearly loved people. This means that we are all citizens of God’s kingdom; his kingdom of light, peace and deep reconciliation. Whether we are Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Presbyterian, Catholic, Orthodox, Quaker or Pentecostal we are “fellow citizens” of God’s commonwealth, the kingdom of God.

How long has the church of Jesus been around? That is not a trick question. One could answer that as God’s people it has existed from the time of creation, at least in one sense. And one could argue that it was constituted as a covenant community in the calling of Abraham. But in another sense, we can say that the church, at least as we now know it, has been around for approximately 2,000 years. Over the course of these centuries we have found many, many ways to take our rich diversity and then turn it into disunity. We have celebrated our own convictions, in distinction from the other, and then found ways to build walls that divide us, walls that segregate us. These walls are based upon differences of culture, practice, race and gender. But they are walls that we build and they stand against our oneness as God’s people. 

My friends, if Jew and Gentile were called in the early decades of the ancient church to share life together in the same household, and thus they were no longer to be strangers and aliens, then Christians of all persuasions, twenty centuries later, can find loving, creative and powerful new ways to live in the “same household” of God’s unity today. Could it be that our real problem is that our view of the church is “too small”? We think our church – our understanding about the church– is right and thus we gather with people like us and have nothing to do with others not just like us. Pope Francis was recently asked about the place of unity in the church around the world. He underscored its importance and then he spoke of martyr’s dying for their faith. He said that no one ever asks a Christian, before they kill them for their faith, “What kind of Christian are you? Catholic, Orthodox or Catholic?” He said the new reality is a that we all share in a unity of “blood.” We are all one and we die as one, not as many.

One question has pressed upon my heart and mind for over twenty-plus years now. I have concluded that our division is a major crippling illness to our witness and work. Our division is like a resistant virus that attacks out immune system, the part of the church that protects us and keeps us healthy. Our disunity holds back the work of Christ in our midst. We do not receive this gift of unity that Jesus prayed for even though he says we are one in him. Thus the question that presses upon my heart and mind daily is this: “I wonder if we even know how deeply he desires to give us this unity?”

Once we do understand his desire we can never be the same. How could we be?