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.
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,