I recently watched an online panel discussion, Making Peace with Church – Finding Grace and Authenticity in an Age of Skepticism . The event was sponsored by Regent College, in Vancouver, BC, and Christianity Today Magazine. It is well worth the time.
The participants discussed what “church” actually means and why Christians need to be engaged with it. Much of the discussion was anchored around millennials, a perspective represented by panelist Erin Lane who discussed what making peace might mean for them. The back-and-forth included an insightful exchange between Lane and panelist Darrell Johnson, which laid out what is necessary to build trust with church leaders. Issues of alienation and betrayal were also discussed.
Contained in this is the implicit question of why peace might need to be made in the first place. The need for peace assumes the presence of conflict — conflict without genuine reconciliation.
An an observation by panelist Scot McKnight grabbed my attention and seems relevant to this question. He described modern church culture as “fellowships of the sames,” where we meet “with people who are like us” and have the same preferences for music and preaching styles, and share similar cultural outlooks and similar economic standings. McKnight contrasted this with the early church. He characterized it as “a fellowship of differents,” who “did not naturally belong together” but rather were brought together into a “transformative community.”
I have long wondered if what passes for diversity within modern Christianity is merely balkanization. We have enormous diversity of thought, culture and practice between churches, but not much within them. We can choose to go where we like, so that’s pretty much what we do.
Panelist Hans Boersma nudged an aspect of this when he commented on denominational choices. Boersma observed that “…there’s sin behind the origin of our many denominations, our divisions.” He went on to advise “…not to strike out on our own with certain consumer choices too quickly but to be faithful to where we’ve been placed.”
The operative concept packed inside Boersma’s admonishment is consumer choice. The marketing and entertainment culture that subsumed modern society following the development of imaged-based media has become the air which we breathe but do not see. It may not be the origin of the balkanization of Christianity in the modern world but it is a significant accelerant.
Those of us who sit in judgment of others’ exercise of consumer choice tend to be unaware that we may have merely inherited someone else’s consumer choice, either those of a parent, or of a friend/significant other who introduced us to a particular church. Social preference has turned “neither Jew nor Greek” into choosing to be around only Greeks. McKnight’s “fellowship of sames” is the fellowship of an affinity group.
The problem with doing church as an affinity group is that it plays straight into our ancient history. Before we were citizens of nations, we were ethnicities and people groups. Before that we were kinship-based tribes and clans. And before the domestication of animals and mastery of agriculture, we were small kinship bands, a state which probably accounts for most of our history as a species. Affinity groups can easily slip into very tribal behaviors. Boundaries form to protect “us” and exclude “them.” Common perceptions and habits of interaction get reinforced and social pressure gets applied to conform to accepted norms.
But modern tribalization as affinity groups may be a step down from this. For good or ill, we are often attracted to people who behave in ways we got used to while growing up. Which unfortunately includes attraction to people with shared similarities in dysfunctional family histories and social habits. Their misbehavior feels normal. This dysfunction is apt to include overlapping blind spots — as participants in an affinity group we can lose an appreciation of our personal frailty. We forget what we have been forgiven and cease to forgive.
This is not a recipe for healthy navigation of inevitable personal and group conflict. The “fellowship of sames” deprives us of any real experience of God’s help in navigating real differences.
Without exposure to real difference we also lack experience in navigating real reconciliation. And the reconciliation of God and man becomes somehow insufficient for man and man. The end result is not peace. It is only armistice, with the participants avoiding notice of each other across the minefields and barbed wire.
Perhaps in addition to talking about how to make peace with church we ought to be talking about what it takes to make peace in church. We need to regain the “fellowship of differents.”