Among all of the calls for unity among believers in the Bible, we need look no further than John 17, Jesus’ heartfelt prayer for His followers right before He went to the cross.
“That they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (vs. 22-23)
When I first began traveling the country speaking to audiences of church and ministry leaders about Meet The Need, I used the word “unity” quite a bit, believing it would serve as a rallying cry. I soon learned that preaching “unity” not only did not motivate, but sparked resistance. While many leaders from each city liked each other, many had questions and concerns about the theology or practices of other churches, denominations and ministries. In their view, their differences outweighed their commonalities. They had chosen to maintain a comfortable distance for a reason and were not looking for greater unity.
So I stopped using that word and began promoting unity indirectly by convincing each church and ministry to utilize the same platform for serving their community and causes. By making an offer each of them couldn’t refuse – conforming the software to look like their web sites, taking work off their staff, giving them complete control over who they connected with, and giving it to them for free – the body of Christ wound up united not by choice but because of the benefits of Meet The Need for their particular organizations.
That approach was highly effective for a while, but collaboration has continued to dissipate to the point where fewer churches are willing to join a network to serve alongside other churches and ministries.
What Works Against Unity?
Today, Satan is pulling out all of the tricks up his sleeve for accomplishing his ultimate goal – sowing discord among God’s elect:
- Distorting Truth – Misinterpretation of scripture, fostering disagreements among believers, is one of Satan’s primary MOs for fostering disunity. Taking one passage or principle, ascribing it disproportionate importance and claiming a unique understanding of it, has been the origin of all “cults” and the basis for churches and denominations throughout history to criticize and separate from one another.
- Putting Little “c” Before Big “C” – Those sensing a call to ministry to advance the Kingdom (big “C”) often find their focus gradually narrowing to advancing the interests of a single congregation (little “c”) if their path leads them to a church staff role. As we will see in a moment, attempts to grow A church can come at the expense of THE Church. In management consulting, we called this phenomenon “going native” – working with a client so long that you forget you still work for the consulting firm, thereby undermining the interests of your real employer.
- Redefining Church as a Place – A united body of Christ would adopt a biblical definition of “church” as people (the “assembly of called out ones” and “those belonging to the Lord”) and not as a place. In America, “church” is seen as somewhere people go on Sundays. That perception allows churchgoers to abdicate their responsibilities as the personification of “church” and see their pastors and buildings as the embodiment of church. Therefore, rather than all Christians uniting as individual believers around the globe, we segment into small factions labeled as “First Baptist” or “Cornerstone Church”. Our world and ministry shrink accordingly.
- Fundraising – Yes, I said it. A dwindling pool of frequent churchgoers (who now give a lower percentage per capita) and the rise of megachurches (who can offer far more attractive children’s programs) mean fewer dollars are available to smaller churches. Survival instincts breed self-interest, not unity. Also, we see fewer local ministries partnering in cities across the U.S. due to competition over a limited number of high-capacity donors. Likewise, churches are working less with external ministries, instead devising their own local missions initiatives over concerns that those partnerships could divert member giving.
- Measuring “Success” – Depending on the metrics a church uses to gauge its “success”, a little “c” may view itself as “healthy” yet may be making the big “C” more unhealthy. Among the thousands of churches we have served, not one measured its contribution toward the unity of the overall body of Christ in its city and world. The typical church closely tracks growth in “nickels and noses” while investing less than 2% of its budget in local and international missions. Therefore, they provide many more opportunities for internal “church chores” than external outlets for service. An internally-focused church concerned about numbers, therefore attracting new members from other churches and clinging to members who should be going to another church (i.e. one that offers more discipleship for a mature Christian) is actually undermining the welfare of the big “C”.
- Seeking Credit – On a weekly basis, Meet The Need sees examples of churches and ministries looking to build their own names, thereby impinging God’s name. Typically, it involves participation in an outreach event where they complain or pull out because their organization was not getting enough recognition. Nothing works against collaboration more than the desire for acclaim. Nothing stifles unity more than stealing credit that is not rightfully theirs. In contrast, not only does Meet The Need “white label” our solutions (because churches and ministries are the face of Christ to their communities), but we actually urge them not to broadcast our name to volunteers or families receiving help.
- Catering, Not Challenging – We are called to a life of discipleship, leading us to imitate Jesus, who spent His days discipling and serving. If churches still challenged members by offering intensive, personalized discipleship, then believers would unite around what Jesus commanded above all else – loving God through discipleship and loving others through service. Those Great Commission mandates are about dying to self and adopting a common Kingdom cause. A common cause is always necessary for unity (forgetting our individual interests and putting “team” first), but efforts by churches to attract and retain members have shifted the cause from pursuing the lost to placating churchgoers. And “self” as a cause always spawns discord.
Given these root causes, what should churches and ministries do to foster unity of the body of Christ?
How to Overcome Barriers to Unity
The Church in America is decreasing in growth, impact, influence and perception because it is declining in unity. We are living out the ramifications of the truths Jesus shared in the verses we looked at earlier – John 17:22-23 (“That they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”) Society isn’t recognizing our unity so it doesn’t recognize Jesus in or through us.
Therefore, we urge gospel-believing and practicing churches and ministries across the U.S. to unite by:
- Defining “church” in an inclusive way (any gatherings of believers for biblical worship, prayer and teaching)
- Making unity a Key Performance Indicator
- Alleviating the financial burden of administration and pitfalls of “competition” through cost sharing (e.g. children’s programs) and decentralizing (e.g. house churches)
- Building networks, not around our differences (e.g. denominations) but around what’s the same (e.g. mission, mandates and causes)
- Developing common goals, collaborating around evangelism and community transformation, working with local leaders to collectively identify and address specific causes
- Considering the unique strengths and capabilities of each organization and how those little “c’s” map together to form the big “C” (i.e. the parts of the body spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12:12)
- Filling gaps in the city where resources are inadequate to serve local needs and to reach all with the gospel
It’s Your Turn…
Please share great examples of unity among the churches and ministries in your community.