I am attending a National Workshop on Christian Unity this week in Columbus, Ohio. It is an annual ecumenical gathering that focuses on how to build bridges, foster friendly relationships, and improve communication between Christian communions. We talk about finding common ground, celebrating each other, and discovering spiritual synergy where together we are greater than the sum of our parts. It becomes painfully apparent how far apart we are — a small group of religious leaders talking about what if and what could be simply illustrates how NOT united we currently are. And this morning a brief encounter shined the light of brutal honesty on the witness we offer the world.
I stepped out of the meeting to respond to a text message, and I stood near a pair of young Latina members of the housekeeping staff at our hotel. When I finished my message, I noticed the young women, and one asked me, “Who are you?” I froze like a deer in headlights for a moment, unsure how to respond. My confusion was clearly displayed, so the young woman unpacked her meaning by asking, “What group are you with? Who are you?” I explained that we were leaders from a variety of Christian denominations and organizations gathered to talk about “unity” and working together. Both young women looked confused.
“But, aren’t you all Christian?” one asked.
“Oh, yeah, but we even want to connect with people who believe differently; who have completely different religious beliefs. We want to connect with people of many faiths.”
“But, you all believe in the same God here, right?” the other asked.
“Well, yes, but some of what we believe about God is a little different…”
“But, it IS God, right? You all believe in God?”
“And do you have the same Bible?” the first asked.
“Basically, yes, there are some different versions, but we all claim the same scriptures.” I explained.
The brows on both young women were furrowed and tense — each looked confused.
“So, why are you here?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, if you have one God, all believe in Jesus Christ, have one Bible, why do you need a meeting like this? Why aren’t you one church?”
We talk all the time about wanting to reach young people. We talk all the time about wanting to make disciples. We talk about transforming the world. Too bad we can’t all work together to do it. Too bad we are in competition for kingdom building instead of celebrating each and every soul in new relationship with God. We really are less interested in “making” Christian disciples than we are in making “United Methodists,” “Baptists,” “Lutherans,” “Roman Catholics,” “Pentecostals,” or “Presbyterians.” There are too many precious arguments about being born again to allow that “those people” might have as much right to rescue the perishing as we do. Heaven help us, someone might baptize somebody wrong or not consecrate the communion elements the way Jesus demands. Some misguided segment of the body might mistakenly allow the wrong “all” to participate in the priesthood of all believers. We might allow someone who needs the free gift of Christ to receive it before they deserve it.
I asked the young women if they go to church — they both laughed and said “no.” I walked away wondering what impression they took away from our brief encounter? When I did the seeker study for the denomination almost a decade ago, one of the top reasons why young people reported they left the church was the division and infighting they experienced. For many, they simply did not want to waste their time trying to figure out who was right and who was wrong, who was good and who was bad, who was smarter than everyone else. The very fact that we have to talk about creative ways to get along with others who worship the same God we do, who follow the same Savior we do, and study the same sacred text we do is a powerful testimony and witness to our world. Unfortunately, what it says about us is that we aren’t very good at being one in Christ and one in ministry to all God’s creation. It speaks much more powerfully to what we can’t do and what we are not rather than who God in Christ through the Holy Spirit calls us to be.