Wednesday, June 15, 2011 | By: Zachary Bartels

Ecumenical Evanglism?!


Do me a favor and skim the Michigan Historical Marker to the left, which you can find outside a beautiful old church building in the happening Old Town district of Lansing, Michigan. I want to point out three phrases: “The First Presbyterian Church,” “prominent Methodist,” and “Gospel Preaching.” If you know anything about the history and family tree of Protestant denominations, you know that Methodists and Presbyterians are quite separated by doctrine and tradition. Methodism is very much Arminian, while Presbyterians have historically embraced the doctrine of election. And yet, here we read about a prominent Methodist providing land for a Presbyterian church under the condition that this church provide Old Town (then Lower Town) with Gospel preaching.

If my church (read: the congregation under my care) had one of those historical markers (which we could almost certainly procure, but haven’t because they cost thousands of dollars and serve as something of a pair of shackles, limiting what you can do with your “historic site”), it would tell a similar story:

Judson Baptist was the first church founded in South Lansing (which was, at the time, south of Lansing), an area that was booming with Oldsmobile employees and seeing new workers daily being added to the budding neighborhoods and farmers who had been working the land for generations. A group of several dozen women first started a non-denominational Sunday school program for the children of South Lansing, whom they feared would otherwise have no means of hearing the Gospel. In 1925, a Presbyterian man organized this effort in an old schoolhouse. Over the next few years, Presbyterian, Congregational, Baptist, and Methodist churches worked to support this outreach, eventually adding preaching for adults in the afternoon. Progress was very slow.

Judson Church Cornerstone
In late 1928, a representative of the Michigan Baptist Convention offered assistance in establishing a church proper, and the group unanimously accepted the offer. By 1931 (right smack in the middle of the depression), they had laid the cornerstone for the building where Judson Memorial Baptist Church still worships every week.

So, not only did we bring Methodists and Presbyterians together, but also Congregationalists and two different Baptist churches! The name for this sort of activity is “Ecumenical Evangelism,” and for some reason this has become a four-letter word in many of the circles in which I travel and operate. For example, a while back, I was looking into using the services of www.sermonaudio.com to host the growing collection of sermons we offer online. However, I found that I could not check the box of the site’s Articles of Faith, which listed rejection of ecumenical evangelism right along side the virgin birth of Our Lord and the atonement. (This proved providential, as the free services of www.archive.org are a better match for us, anyway.) Some of the major Calvinistic “coalition” and “alliance” type groups also have similar principles worked into their core beliefs and statements of faith.

Now, I acknowledge the slipperiness of this term: “ecumenical” can mean (and, today, often does mean) “spanning all religions,” in which case ecumenical evangelism becomes a complete oxymoron, as Mormons, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus could never cooperate in their efforts to proselytize or even to proclaim good news any more specific than “Some sort of God or gods love you, so be nice to each other.” If I encountered such “evangelism,” after I finished scratching my head, I would join in condemning it.

But the meaning of “ecumenical” in the Christian church, has historically referred more often to that which pertains to the entire Church universal (e.g. the First Ecumenical Council). In that sense, I would argue that ecumenical evangelism is nothing short of the most efficient and Christ-honoring way of carrying out the Great Commission. If churches and denominations can avoid duplicating efforts, many more can be reached. Christians—true Christians— of all stripes can proclaim together the basic message of salvation by God’s grace, by the blood of Christ, through faith in Him. We can together proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name, calling sinners to repent, to confess with their lips that Jesus Christ is Lord, and to believe in their hearts that God has raised Him from the dead. Sadly, this type of “ecumenical evangelism” is often what is meant when websites, churches, and para-church organizations call ecumenical evangelism a slippery slope, an affront to the Gospel, an abomination, etc.

And yet the rolls of Judson Baptist Church are filled with the names of Christians who may never have heard the Gospel preached if it weren’t for that slippery slope. As are the rolls of North Presbyterian Church, which recently moved out of the Old Town building (left) and merged with Westminster Presbyterian. The Michigan Historic Site in question is now the home of the primarily African-American (yet diverse) congregation called Epicenter of Worship, pastored by Sean Holland and his wife Tayana. I’ve met Sean several times, heard him preach, and regularly check out the church’s video blog, which is always filled with solid Bible teaching. Also of note is that Epicenter (which, until recently, met in the building of First Baptist, downtown) shares part of their facility with the Resurrection Life East Church, a charismatic-ish congregation with unofficial ties to the mega-church in Grandville. If you're getting confused trying to keep all this straight: good.

That’s right, I don’t sweat it when the labels and brand names within the body of Christ get blurred and blurry. I acknowledge that any kind of ecumenism or Church unity always carries with it potential dangers. But so does a spirit of exclusivity and ultra-separation. And I’ll face the dangers of the former—and reap its blessings—rather than build up walls and hunker down any day.

I’m sorry I can't sign your Articles of Faith; my view of the Church of Christ as bigger, wider, and more diverse than my own little corner of the Kingdom won't let me.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

6 reader comments:

Erin said...

Amen. To think that God is so small as to only truly save one denomination or type of Christian is as insulting to God Almighty as it is ludicrous. I cherish my interactions with Christians of all stripes and love them as part of my family. And those separatists? They're sort of the angry cousin you love, but you still try to make sure you don't get stuck in a one-on-one conversation with because they are just so unpleasant.

Steph said...

I agree with you. I don't know really where I fall in any of this, unfortunately, when it comes to denomination. And, the exact reason for that, is basically what your point was. (Unless I'm misunderstanding, which wouldn't be all that shocking because you talk like a dang teacher, and my brain tends not retain that language sometimes lol) but it seems that every denomination, feels that they are the way to go. The only way to go. Their way is right, while everyone else isn't. I don't want to be involved with anything like that...because I see it as a bigger picture. And good for you, as a pastor of a specific denonmination, that you recognize that. (:

Αναστασία said...

We share our church building with two different congregations, both of whom belong to different denominations.
Occasionally, we all worship together and proclaim The Apostles' Creed together, and it's incredibly moving.
Worship-style preferences and tiny nuances of doctrine cannot trump the Truth.

Josh Metzger said...

Nice work!

Brad "The E List "YRR" Superstar" said...

I definitely agree with a lot of this. Like I said before, you and I are closer to the Neo-evangelicals of the 60's (i.e. Carl Henry, J.I. Packer, Warren Wiersbe, Thomas Oden, John Stott, etc.) than being fundies. In other words, I like engaging the culture to where they believe the uncompromisable, unchanging gospel of Christ.

On that note, I also want to hammer out a few more clarifications on what one must believe to be saved. I know I'm curious about this, where does "Justification by faith alone" and "Penal Sub." and "exclusivity" fall within the "Absolutes/Convictions/Persuasions/Opinions" diagram? Some of the answers on those might not make me completely ecumenical, but at least wide in my desire of fellowship and spreading the gospel.

P.S. is this your follow up to Bob?

ZSB said...

Brad,

The follow-up to Bob is here. Hardly anyone commented on it.

Neo-evangelical is a term I've often applied to myself over the past fifteen years (usually tongue-in-cheek, since no one uses that category anymore). My mentor Dr. Ron Mayers was one of the original people to be branded a neo-evangelical and was dragged into the dean's office more than once because of it. When I used to have a personal cafepress shop, it had a T-shirt with a picture of Chuck Colson's face on the front and the words "Neo-Evangelical." On the back, it said, "We're the solution." :D

As to where I see justification by faith alone fitting in, let me just say this: that Billy Graham forwarded the "decision cards" of Roman Catholics who had come forward at his crusades on to the clergy at their home churches for "followup" does not make me think less of Billy Graham.

That's probably enough to get me anathematized in most Reformed circles...