When a visitor to our church leaves an email address, I usually follow up with a note thanking them for worshipping with us and asking if they have any questions. Most folks respond with a polite “thank you,” if they reply at all. Some will have a basic question or two. And then there was our latest visitor, who had a bit more on her mind than wondering about childcare for fellowship events. After a string of questions about baptism, our view of the Bible, and what it means to Disciples for us to be “saved” (still figuring that one out) she closed with this: “I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition. Are there any doctrinal differences between Southern Baptists and Disciples?”
Rather than try to answer that over email, which probably would have ended up being my debut as a novelist, I asked to meet her for lunch. Email can’t convey the nuances that such a conversation required, and I didn’t want any of my responses to be misinterpreted. It would be very easy for an innocent phrase like “Bible-thumping Neanderthals” to be taken the wrong way.
During lunch we tackled all her questions and I attempted to walk the tight rope between honoring our denomination’s commitment to ecumenism (that whole pesky “that they may be all one” thing that Jesus prayed for) and distinguishing us from the churches in which she had grown up. The more I talked, the more I realized I was falling into the same trap I warn others against: I was defining our church by who we are NOT instead of by who we are. Although it might give me cause to puff out my chest a bit, there’s nothing to be gained by lifting the Disciples up by putting others down (please ignore my “Bible-thumping Neanderthals” comment earlier. I’m currently repenting).
But that’s what we do, don’t we? We form our identity over and against the identity of others. I am who I am because I’m not like that guy in the turban or that lady with the dark skin or those people who believe differently than me. And the thinly veiled implication is that because I’m not like them, I’m better than them. That’s probably a function of human nature, but it’s also insidious in the way it puts a barrier between us and capital-T Them.
My lunch partner was looking for a church with a little less “Thou shalt not” and a little more positive encouragement, and I was happy to oblige by telling her just how great our church was and how we never tell people they shouldn’t drink or cuss or dance (unless they’re just really bad dancers). But what I was doing was the exact thing I wouldn’t want done to me or to my church: boiling down a complex, multi-layered, historic denomination to a caricature. Those stodgy, fun-stealing Southern Baptists! And by doing so, I was making our church look more attractive. “Come to Crestwood, where we’re not like those backwards-thinking literalists” – which, later in the conversation, I found out included this visitor’s whole gosh-darn family. Holy schnikeys! That’s not what I meant to say, but I think that’s what I said.
If it is, shame on me. In a world that has plenty of things that separate us, I should be seeking common ground, not lines of division. I should be drawing lines of connection, not lines in the sand. Sure, there are a LOT of doctrinal differences between Southern Baptists and Disciples, but there are a lot of things we share in common, as well. In my lunch conversation, I feel like I spent too much time distancing myself from fellow Christians of a different stripe, which seems to me to be the reason we have about a jillion denominations in the first place. While I think I sufficiently answered the question about the differences, I wish I had worked a little harder to emphasize the commonalities, as well. And hard work it is, because the differences are so much easier to name. But it’s the things we have in common with those least like us that will yield the most productive crop. Time to put the swords of division away; the world needs more plowshares.