October 6, 2014 / Seth Richardson

What’s So Scary About Ecumenism?

Ecumenism has always seemed like a good idea to me. No church or network wants to be fragmented, selfish, and crippled by myopia, right? So as we explore how to move forward in unity, I find myself asking, Why wouldn’t we partner with other theological tribes and traditions for the sake of mission?

We wouldn’t partner because of fear – fear that reaching out and linking arms might threaten core convictions about who we think we are. If we look back into our middle school lunchroom self, we all know this experience. Welcoming or joining another tribe at the table – an invitation to an outsider to join the team – can have seismic effects on personal and group identity. Many pastors/churches balk at ecumenism because, implicitly or explicitly, there is a need to protect the purity of the group’s identity.

When our primary frame of reference for our identity is, for instance, a set of second-tier theological convictions we’re constantly defending (like a particular atonement theory), then co-laboring with another tribe will always be a potential threat. In suspicion and fear, we reject ecumenism because of the risk that partnership with another tribe would disrupt or convolute the theological particularity we need in order to know who we are.

But more than that, we wouldn’t partner with other tribes and traditions because we know deep down that genuinely reaching out to another means change. In other words, movement toward ecumenism might reveal that our current communal habits and practices are built for tribal competition and self-preservation. And the only way to truly embrace an ecumenical posture toward mission (if we want it to be more than a special event) is to make changes to the status quo.

We might want to be ecumenical, but our structures, missional or otherwise, might be completely captive to a world in which everything depends on having the best game in town (even when we’re not consciously competing, we’re often still acting as if everything depends on the successful delivery of sermons, music, programs etc). This world cannot afford the slowness and inefficiency that comes with collaborating for the sake of a common mission. So, in the end, we wear the badge but continue to operate in a manner that keeps us from what we want.

In a world of tribal competition and self-interested preservation, seeking a unified way forward through missional-ecumenism looks like local, patient listening framed by Eucharist and prayer between friends.

In this posture, we are reaching out and saying, “let’s break bread together in the name of Jesus, pray together, and talk about where God’s reconciliation in Christ is breaking forth in the neighborhood.”

This type of ecumenism is more than an abstract ideal that we can be “for” or “against.” As long as it remains a concept to support (or reject), it lacks the substance to be a transformative force among us. It is, rather, anchored from beginning to end in those gritty, locally spaces we inhabit where we are being invited to enter more fully into Christ’s fullness.

Most importantly, this type of ecumenism is built on friendship, which subverts our propensity for competition and self-interest and puts us in the posture of a learner. Friendship does not seek control but rather seeks to listen and receive. Friendship does not pursue self/corporate fulfillment but rather pursues mutual flourishing.

In fact, the path toward ecumenism, I suggest, comes through friendship in Christ. That is to say, partnership with other tribes and traditions for the sake of mission is necessarily rooted in vulnerability and trust between friends.

This is not a relationship of convenience. Friendship is not a technique employed to accomplish some other end (then it’s not friendship). Rather, we trust that Christ is in the encounter itself and will lead us where we need to go.

Friendship is not about leveraging a relationship to maximize access to a market or increase market share – like a corporate merger born out of the necessity to survive. Mergers erase distinction and particularity, but friendship respects the other. Friendship allows the other to be herself.

Friendship ultimately leads to change, no doubt, but not in a way that collapses distinction.

The cultivation of this friendship – and the exploration of God’s reconciling work in the neighborhood – all takes place around the (T)able and in prayer because that is the first and only place where we can come together in/with our fear and lack and find fullness. This ecumenical friendship is oriented there because we cannot presume to go out trusting in our own life or presume to know beforehand what unified mission might look like.

In this posture, around the Table and listening to the Spirit in prayer, is where we learn what to do with our fear, where we discern just what it means to be unified, and where we see together where the Spirit is leading us into mission.

 What do you find most scary about gathering ecumenically for mission!