By Rick Grover
The congregation I serve has a long tradition of cooperation in our city. We intend to continue on this path without compromising what we hold dear.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:39, 40)1.
Sectarianism is as old as the church. Within the first rank and file of Jesus’ followers, we see one of the “Sons of Thunder” trying to circle the wagons and keep others from serving in Jesus’ name. What was the basis for this attempted prohibition? The exorcist “was not following us.”
Sound familiar? To put this in our current context, some Christians and churches, at the very least, would say they choose not to collaborate with other Christian organizations, churches, or ministries because they are not following us (i.e., they do not belong to our movement). At the most, some Christians and churches would say they choose not to collaborate with other Christian organizations, churches, or ministries because they’re not fully Christian. Other churches, denominations, and movements are kept at arm’s length because of their view of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, women’s roles in the church, prophecy, end times, and the list goes on and on.
What does Jesus say about this? “For the one who is not against us is for us.” For over two centuries now, the Christian churches and churches of Christ have had a theological and practical vision for unity. Theologically, we believe the church, in its very nature, is one. The apostle Paul wrote, “There is one body” (Ephesians 4:4). Earlier in the same letter, we read that in Christ “the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21). The church is “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (v. 22). What we are by nature, we are becoming by prayer. Jesus prayed that we may all be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20, 21).
The church is a paradox, because we are sinful (Romans 3:23), yet holy (Colossians 3:12). We are earthly (Colossians 3:5), yet we partake of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). We are one (1 Corinthians 12:12), yet still divided (1 Corinthians 1:12-14).
A shining jewel in the Christian churches and churches of Christ is our platform from which we can advance the unity of the body of Christ while humbly acknowledging our own brokenness. We need to remember we are a “unity movement” that has been divided. And throughout our glorious yet challenging history, churches and church leaders have wrestled with decisions to partner with others for the greater good of the kingdom of God. If we collaborate with denominational churches and ministries, are we compromising our core convictions? But if we fail to collaborate, are we compromising Jesus’ prayer for all Christ followers to be one?
A Vision for Collaboration
Fortunately, the church I serve had a leader with a 46-year ministry who set the precedent, vision, and direction for collaboration throughout the Greater Indianapolis area. Russ Blowers served as chairman for the Billy Graham Crusade in our city in 1980, which drew hundreds of churches together for the cause of Jesus Christ. He was known throughout Indianapolis as a “city pastor” who collaborated with local officials, civic leaders, and other pastors, many with whom he disagreed politically or theologically. Without compromising his core convictions, he was able to build relationships throughout the city that led to furthering the mission of Jesus Christ.
From that tradition of collaboration, we now have much greater freedom to partner with other churches, denominations, organizations, and nonprofits. One such endeavor is City Mosaic (www.citymosaic.org), a movement of churches across racial and denominational lines for advancing the mission of our Lord. City Mosaic consists of four anchor churches, three of which are part of the Restoration Movement, and the fourth from an Assembly of God background, although that church is now a “nondenominational, independent church” (The anchor churches are Traders Point Christian Church, Connection Pointe Christian Church, East 91st Street Christian Church, and Northview Church.)
One of the most amazing developments of City Mosaic was actually birthed through the church partner that is not affiliated with our fellowship. Northview Church (www.northviewchurch.us) planted an inner-city church several years ago, but the church never developed the way Northview had hoped and prayed. Rather than continuing to see that church flounder, the church closed its doors and the property was given to City Mosaic to birth a new church under new leadership and direction from all four anchor churches! This new church will be a true representation of Jesus’ words, “For the one who is not against us is for us.” Are there theological differences? Yes. Will there be challenges in the coming months as we work through those differences? Without question. But this will be a living testament to our conviction that in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.
Practically speaking, how should a church decide whether or not to partner with another church or ministry? Let me suggest a few guidelines.
To Partner or Not to Partner?
First, identify your core beliefs, values, and practices, and never go against them. We all have preferences, tastes, and opinions, but we all can remember that in nonessentials there is liberty. We don’t have to agree on everything in order to collaborate, but we should never enter an agreement if it requires compromising our core beliefs.
East 91st Street Christian Church chooses to collaborate with Northview Church and other churches, as long as we are not watering down our understanding of truth, compromising our commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ, or losing focus on our central mission. While we have collaborated with other churches through City Mosaic, we have also declined invitations to participate in certain teaching seminars or to host certain guest speakers because they don’t align with either our mission, core beliefs, or values.
Mission drives collaboration, not the other way around. We have limited time and resources, and we allow our mission and core beliefs to guide us as we discern which partnerships to embrace and which to set aside.
Second, identify the purpose of the partnership or collaboration. Is it truly to advance the cause of Jesus Christ, or is it to advance someone’s personal ministry or pet project?
For example, we are partnering with Mercy Seat Christian Church, an inner-city church, for the purpose of “building hope and changing lives” through Momentum, an initiative to have every person in both congregations join together to participate in the nine-week Financial Peace University (FPU) course. This is not about Dave Ramsey or FPU. We are simply using this as a tool to unite both congregations together in a project that will include a “pulpit swap” and a Celebration Sunday, where both congregations will join together for Sunday morning worship.
We don’t agree with every point of doctrine at our partner church, and they don’t agree with everything about us. But we can collaborate, because we are uniting around a particular kingdom effort and not particular positions.
Third, accept ambiguity. This is hard for many of us, because we want everything to be completely aligned with all issues resolved. In all relationships, we must accept a certain level of ambiguity. My wife and I don’t agree on everything, and yet we choose to remain married. I can be right, and she can be wrong, and that’s OK (although most times it’s the other way around!). In marriage, friendship, and church relationships, we accept that we’re not always going to get our way, and we’re not always going to agree. This is equally true in ministry.
In Mark 9:38, the apostle John wanted clear lines of who was “in” and who was “out.” Jesus, on the other hand, knew that whoever genuinely served in his name would not be against him in the long run.
Is there ambiguity in what Jesus said? Yes, but for the greater good of the kingdom of God, we live with humble obedience as we work with others. We don’t compromise our core beliefs, values, and practices. We stay focused on the purpose of our partnership. And we agree to disagree on the nonessentials.
I’ve been serving as a preaching minister and church planter long enough to know that not everyone in a church will agree, let alone Christians trying to partner together from different denominations, traditions, and movements. But that should not dissuade us from a commitment to share in the prayer of Jesus that we might all be one so that the world will believe.
May we have the grace to disagree agreeably, the strength to persevere, and the wisdom to discern how to collaborate without compromise.
1All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
Rick Grover serves as senior pastor of East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. He helped start and lead the Greater New Orleans Pastors Coalition that united churches for relief and rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina.