Last December I helped plant a new church in La Mirada – Anglican Church of the Epiphany (ACE). Not only did I help plant it but I am the pastor of the church too. Needless to say life has gotten quite busy in the last seven months. I have pastored churches in the past, during my graduate school days and for a bit after I finished my PhD and before I came to teach at Biola University. This time it is different though, because this is where I live and will be living for quite some time, if not for the rest of my life. I own a home in La Mirada and am a tenured faculty member, a combination of life circumstances that equals “long-term stability.” In the past I was always pastoring while I was a graduate student, assuming that I would eventually graduate and move on, either to a new school for the next degree or, as happened, to a university where I would teach for a living. Now, this will likely be my church for many years to come and I will likely serve as a pastor here for many years to come as well.
What I am noticing about this reality is that it makes me want to “champion” my church as the place that people should attend. It’s not that the other churches in La Mirada are “bad” (it’s quite the opposite, in fact) but I am really excited about what God is doing at ACE and I want others to be a part of it too. This sentiment, however, calls for a careful and nuanced articulation. As one evangelical church among several others that seeks to reach the community, we want to make sure that we are partners, not competitors. We are not only interested in having the already churched and already saved join us (though they are always welcome should God move them to ACE) but we are attempting to be a church that is really out in the community, telling others about Jesus Christ. We are not doing this with gimmicks or slick advertisements but the good old-fashioned way – by (hopefully) loving God well, by loving each other well and by loving our neighbors well. Our raison d’être is fairly straightforward: love.
Again, it is not that other churches in La Mirada are unloving or overly inward-looking. Several of them are clearly out in the community talking about God’s love for all people and encouraging individuals to enter into a loving relationship with the Savior of the world. So, how does ACE go about being a church in this community without implying that the other churches lack something in their own practice of the Christian faith? Or, to say it even more basically, how do we talk about ACE without implying that we somehow have it figured out in ways that other churches do not?
These questions may seem unimportant to many but they are very important to me because I have witnessed many churches either overtly or covertly insinuate that they are the church to attend. Perhaps that is the natural outworking of a cult of personality-type church, where there is a kind of “celebrity” pastor around whom everything else rotates. Or, perhaps this is a result of hyper-“denominationalism,” where a church thinks that they are the most theologically accurate church and therefore everyone should attend. At its worse, it is an out of control fundamentalism – “we are somehow purer or godlier than other churches therefore we need to position ourselves over against these other churches.” Whatever it is, it seem very unhelpful in the long run to the promulgation of the gospel and advancement of the kingdom of God. And this problem is not unique to La Mirada; it is one of the ecclesiological issues that likely rears its head in most parts of the world. So, how do churches of different “stripes,” if you will, work together so as not to suggest that one is “better” than another? (It is worth stating at this point that there are theological issues at stake that do make some churches poor church choices, but that is another discussion altogether.)
A few thoughts. First, vocalize that very sentiment to the congregation. It is the job of the pastor to communicate truth to his flock and perhaps one of the most important truths to communicate is that __________ Church is not the church but is part of the church of Jesus Christ. It’s okay to have pride in one’s church and even in one’s denomination (or in not being denominational) but it is contrary to the Christian Scriptures to suggest that any one local church is equivalent to the universal church. This is misguided pride at best and egotism and triumphalism at worst. The biblical witness is clear that there are multiple local congregations that collectively make up the church of God. Denominationalism did not make it this way; it was this way from the very start.
Second, churches should always strive to work with other churches, even in areas where they are competent and self-supporting. For example, why should Church A have a kid’s summer program alone when they could join up with Church B and do it together? This allows the two churches to get to know one another, demonstrating to the world that there is real cooperation between Christians, and it would likely allow the two churches to collectively reach more of the children in any given area. Though something like a kid’s program is part in-reach and part out-reach, it can still be done together even if there are modest theological differences. Honestly, since when do children think deeply about eschatology or the ordo salutis anyway?
Third, churches simply need to quit being so myopic and inward-focused. It is easy to create a “thing” and then champion that “thing” (as we can see from any, perhaps every, TV commercial). It is a lot harder to look outward and minister to and with others. I know this because I’ve worked at five churches. Even now we at ACE are striving not to simply do that “thing” and champion only that “thing.” We are trying to have a community-wide vision that keeps not only the unsaved in our sights but also other local churches. We want to work with them and alongside them. We are trying hard not to be competitive, but the temptation seems to always be there.
There likely is no tell-tale answer to my question but I have been mulling over it for seven months now and will likely continue to do so into the future. And I hope that other pastors in the area are doing the same. I hope that we are all trying to be good stewards of God’s mysteries and not creating and promoting only our “thing.” If we are, then God help us.