Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Gathering Center

When I was young, Baptist wasn’t just the church you attended, it is what you were.  I was a Baptist.  I had friends who were Methodist, others who were Catholic, some who were Presbyterian, and some who were Jewish.  What you were determined what church you attended, not the other way around.  The number of Methodists who attended Baptist churches was rare, as was the number of Catholics who attended Presbyterian churches.  Usually these were people who married someone from a different denomination and started attending church with them.  Sometimes they “converted” to the new denomination, like my aunt, a Baptist who married an Episcopalian and then went through the process of becoming  Other spouses never became something else; they remained, for instance, Presbyterian even while attending and maybe even being deeply active in a Methodist church. Episcopalian.
Being that your denominational affiliation became part of your identity, there was little mixing.  What I learned about Christianity in the Baptist church was never presented as “This is what Baptists believe,” it was simply, “This is what the Bible teaches.”  On some occasions the beliefs of other denominations were presented, but mainly as a contrast to what the Bible teaches.  Thus, “Methodists believe in infant baptism, but the Bible says…” 
I was aware that my friends believed differently than I did, but it never came up—not that theology was a likely topic for young boys.  But you just didn’t compare notes.  Methodists believed what Methodists believed, Baptists believed what Baptists believed, etc.  We didn’t have anything to learn from one another.  If a Baptist wanted to learn more about theology or biblical interpretation, they would go to the Baptist publishing board and read books by Baptist theologians, Baptist commentaries, etc.  Same with the Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, etc.  This wasn’t just true when I was young; it remained so while I was in college and seminary.  (As a Ph.D. student we read from scholars of different stripes, but that made us rather suspect to many in denominational headquarters.  I wish I was kidding.)
Then things began to change.  First there came about large Christian publishers like Zondervan that, though evangelical, weren’t tied to any one denomination and offered books by all kinds of evangelical authors (and a few that weren’t but whose writings wouldn’t contradict anything evangelicals held dear.) 
But the really big change happened with the Internet.  Now everyone has access to books written by people of every denominational affiliation.  Go on Amazon and do a search for books on spiritual transformation, and you’ll get a whole bunch of books, and you may have to look hard to find out which tribe the author belongs to.  Read the reviews and you’ll hear different perspectives, and there’s no way to identify the denominational background of the reviewer.  But you just may find yourself learning something and/or agreeing with someone, with no denominational label attached to it.
In the blogosphere you can find all sorts of Christian writers, and they may or may not have a denominational claim.  Christians are learning from each other, and not worrying so much about whether it’s Baptist, Methodist, evangelical, or whatever—just whether it rings true or not.  Go to a Christian-themed article on Wikipedia, and who knows who has contributed to that article?  It may be a combination of every type of Christian there is.  And maybe the sharp corners of denominational peculiarities have been rounded off so that all that remains are the things we most surely agree upon.  That’s not a bad thing.
Denominational headquarters no longer control what the people in their churches are learning; they no longer can monopolize biblical truth.
And that’s a good thing.
Phyllis Tickle, in her book, The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why calls this “The Gathering Center” where the lines between the different colors of Christians begin to blend and, instead of staying apart from one another, we come together, learn from each other, respect each other differences, embrace what we have in common—and, even better, increase what we have in common.
And this, too, is a good thing.  I even venture to say that it is a sign that the Kingdom of God is moving closer to its fullness.
One can only hope.

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