Sometimes it feels like people really want some sort of homogenized groupthink in the Church. People having differences of opinion just rubs them the wrong way. But that’s pretty dangerous. Unity is not conformity; instead, it’s togetherness in the midst of diversity. In fact, it revels in diversity. It finds it delectable. But sometimes the notion is we all have to have identical lists of what is important to each of us, as if mine needs to resemble a brand of American Christianity. You may say, “Nelson, that’s not how it is,” and I would tend to agree . . . but that’s not always how it feels when I walk into church or when I sat in Bible classes during my undergraduate studies.
I guess it’s frustrating because Christ himself doesn’t seem to present a model of assembly-line, carbon-copy unity. If that were something he really wanted and strove for, then he would’ve picked twelve guys for his group of disciples who thought exactly like he did, but we know this is nowhere close to the truth, for there are countless times in the Gospels where the disciples are just standing there scratching their heads, looking at Jesus, and going, “I’m having trouble understanding.” Actually, for that matter, Christ probably would’ve picked twelve guys who were also all similar to each other if he viewed unity as vanilla. But this isn’t the case, either. You have both Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector in Christ’s inner circle. If that’s not diverse, I’m befuddled as to what constitutes its definition, for Zealots would jump at the chance to slaughter a tax collector should such an opportunity present itself. And yet Christ is able to get them to sit down together at the Last Supper and at other times in unity, helping them recognize that the thing binding them together is so much more important than their own misguided earthly agendas.
We expend so much caloric effort and acquire numerous stress lines on our faces when we try and bring myriad issues to the center of the religious circuit: abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, gay parenting, politics, etc. as if what we think about those things matters more than what we believe about Christ. And are those things important? Sure, I guess. But they’re not the big picture. “But they make up part of the big picture.” Yes, but they’re not the big picture.
You know, C. S. Lewis made the point that focusing too much on our differences of opinion or religious practice is a dangerous mission to undertake. In a preface he wrote for St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Lewis noted that while people inside Christianity see all these disparities and feel the need to call attention to them and bemoan their presence, the Christian community as a whole (that is, all denominations lumped together) formulates an intimidating presence, bothersome in the sense that Lewis was looking at this through the eyes of his former atheism. He said the outsider looking in does not see the differences the way the Christian does. Instead, he sees a formidable force. Granted, though, Lewis said that in the middle of the twentieth century. I’m skeptical that he would still say the same if he saw the Christian community (or lack thereof) today.
Consider this: Satan—as hokey as he may sound to some—has a goal and it’s not to get you to be immoral, but rather, for us to waste our time. Now granted, depravity with its addictive pattern is the chief way to get us to do that, but simply distracting people from what’s important can be just as effective. It would make sense that Satan loves it when he sees us spending all our time debating abortion while homeless people go hungry every night.
This relentless sidetracking weakens our resolve. It sucks us dry. Church should be a place to reenergize, to get ready to go back “out there.” But too often it isn’t. When I go to church, it shouldn’t feel like I just stepped into the Republican National Convention . . . but often it does. It shouldn’t feel like I just entered an anti-Islamic rally . . . but it has at times. And I get the feeling that at many churches the “powers that be” would like to see such thinking proliferate throughout the pews. But I want no part of that.
Because it’s a beautiful thing when we don’t all see eye to eye. I have my passions, and you have yours. Think about it: if we all had the same mindset, our mission and goals wouldn’t have the flair of variety. We’d get maybe one or two things done. Three if we’re lucky. Or in contrast, sometimes views can be so various that still nothing gets done. Worship is a prime example. We can sit here all day and debate about what it should or should not include—musical instruments, or only 4-part harmony; eyes being closed and hands raised with a charismatic attitude, or a stoic complexion; a praise team, or just a song leader; hymnals, or PowerPoint; sitting, or standing; clapping and dancing, or a rigid posture—and by the end of the debate have accomplished nothing. How about instead we just agree that worship is essential because we all worship something (yes). People within the Church need externally-focused worship (yes). People worship differently (yes). People with different preferences can worship together (uhhhh . . .). You can bring yourself to worship in a style that may not be completely comfortable for you (wait a sec) and come to appreciate it (whoa whoa whoa . . .). And that’s where people draw the line. They leave churches over this stuff.
Because walking out the doors in a huff over how certain things aren’t quite the way you like them means all of the sudden you are Mr. (or Ms.) High and Mighty. I remember being told how a woman at a church I attended used a prayer request card on Sunday morning to jot down an interesting prayer “need.” On her card she wrote, “Here’s a list of songs I want sung on Sunday mornings, and if you don’t, I’m leaving.”
Apparently the Church is now there to serve us—not the other way around. Maybe we should rename it Sonic and put the building on roller skates.
Now, is there anything wrong with looking for a church that does things the way you like? No, not at all. But it’s important to keep in mind you will never find a place that is a one-hundred-percent perfect fit. I was talking to a friend once, and I told him, “I will never find the Church for Nelson Shake.” He quickly replied, “And if you do, run, because you won’t grow there.” And he’s right. If things have to be just perfect and align with your views before you can bring yourself to serve, worship, or be Christ, then you need a new religion, for Christianity has never been about comfort. Rather it is about being a body—a unified one, at that—which sets out to do the very things capable of making us uncomfortable. And to prepare ourselves for that goal, it helps to have a place of rest where we can come and restore the calm to our lives that we probably can’t find outside the church doors. But if I come to church and instead find that there’s more bickering in the sanctuary than outside of it regardless of my efforts to ameliorate that, I’m often ready to wash my hands of the whole institution.
What matters is being in agreement on the important core issues. We could sit here pretending that say, oh, the consumption of alcohol is key. Or we could bring our minds out of the fog, acknowledge that it has nothing to do with salvation, and say, “You know what . . . to each his own,” and move on. And while there are important issues out there of a political nature, they neither define the Church nor dictate the direction she is headed. At least, they shouldn’t. Or there can be issues of a religious nature that create similar dysfunction. But if those things tear apart a church those topics of debate were either never really necessary in the first place or the church in which they took place is painfully weak.
But it’s hard to get away from the mindset that homogenization in the pews is a good thing and something for which to even be grateful. I was reminded of it during the fall 2009 semester at Harding when a guy said the following in his prayer during chapel: “Lord, we thank you that we can gather together with people of like mind and worship you.” And I think it’s this very sentiment that begins to kill community and unity in a collection of Christians—this idea that we need to be on the same sort of page or have a “like mind” in order to come to together and that when we do it’s something for which to be thankful.
But I don’t think such a thing impresses God. Being able to worship with people of “like mind” is nothing. Real thanks should be reserved for the ability to worship with people of unlike minds because anyone can do the former. It’s really no big deal. The latter, though, is when growth occurs. When I am able to sit next to my brother or sister in Christ with whom I disagree on almost every issue under the sun and still come together and worship Christ with them or eat a meal with them, that’s power and a bond that can not be easily broken because we both recognize Christ is where our connection is, and we’re intent on making sure nothing breaks that.
Am I being too hard on the guy in chapel? Perhaps. I’ll acknowledge there’s the possibility he meant the very thing I’m talking about when he said “like mind” in his prayer. But knowing how chapel at Harding University works and a lot of the mixture of politics with religion, I can’t help but think he and I were on different pages. I hope I’m wrong, but even if I’m not, it’s okay. Because going back to this idea of unlike-minded community, Christ is bigger than that.
But to walk around and think that it’s some big deal that you were able to worship with someone who has the same views on abortion and the environment as you do is a mistake. I think Christ speaks specifically to that sort of thing when he says in Luke 6, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that . . . But love your enemies, do good to them . . . Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
When we do the things of ease and comfort, Christ stands unimpressed, and it’s not that life is this continuous show where we’re aiming to pull of the next great feat that will wow Jesus, but he is the proponent and supporter of living the uncomfortable life. And to only seek out those who will be easy to be around does little to further the Kingdom of God on this earth, a task which was pretty close to Christ’s heart and, I would think, still is.