“Paul, Peter, Luke, John, James and the writer of Hebrews repeatedly and emphatically make the same point:  The unified church is the vehicle through which the kingdom of God is powerfully communicated to the world (Acts 4:32, Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17, Ephesians 4:1-7, 12-13; Hebrews 2:10-11; 1 Peter 5:5)”  Christena Cleveland

One of the most amazing things about my role at Embrace Richmond is that it affords me the opportunity to be in circles with Christians from all different traditions. Growing up unchurched in the heart of the Bible belt, I found the divisions between my Christian friends to be confusing.  As a young adult I found these divisions reinforced my resistance to the church – they can’t even agree amongst themselves, why believe any of them?  Now that I am “one of them” I find that I have a very strong desire to help bridge the divides and my ministry context affords me that opportunity; both as it relates to the divisions caused by doctrinal beliefs as well as those resulting from cultural differences.

Christena Cleveland’s book “Disunity in Christ,” is the most helpful book I have found on bridging these divisions within the faith.  Below are a few of the quotes I found most helpful:

“The homogeneous culturally isolated church, denomination or organization is not truly participating in the body of Christ. The broken and fragmented body needs to be healed.”

“As churches have maintained and even increased cultural segregation, their ability to operate in and impact the diverse world has diminished.”

“By focusing on smaller, distinct categories for church groups, we erect and fixate on divisions that are far less important than the larger, diverse group of members of the body of Christ.”

“The brilliant and challenging metaphor of the body of Christ preaches the need to engage in cross cultural relationships because other groups are our lifeline. “

There were three specific actions that I found helpful for those of us working cross culturally and ecumenically:

  1. Use Inclusive Language

“Language powerfully shapes the way we think of ourselves.  When something is part of us, we like it more.  When different groups in the body of Christ are part of us, we like them more.  What if there were no them in the body of Christ?  What if all were simply we?”

  1. Identity as Christian is superior to cultural identity

“The primary problem is that our identities are too small.  We tend to rely most on our smaller, cultural identities and ignore our larger, common identity as members of the body of Christ.”

“If Christians keep in mind that their identity as Christians is more important than other cultural identities, then they should naturally begin to like culturally different Christians.”

“Research suggests that diversity initiatives are doomed to fail among Christian groups that idolize their cultural identities.”

“Research suggests that creating a common group identity is key to overcoming the divisions caused by categorizing, identity and conflict processes.”

“Focusing on shared characteristics and taking the perspective of the other are small but powerful steps that will lead us toward unity.”

“The act of adopting a common identity that supersedes all other identities is a daunting, even painful one. However, research shows that it is the key to true unity.”

  1. Finding our true source of self-esteem

“We tend to remain in the group as long as it’s good for our self-esteem.  But if the going gets tough and our self-esteem starts to suffer, we’re likely to change group membership in order to preserve our self-esteem. “

“We must find our true source of self-esteem, restore our true identity and relativize all others if we going to have a fighting chance at unity.”

  1. Cooperative projects that require cross-cultural contact is the best way to overcome divisions

“Cross-cultural contact: it is the most powerful antidote to divisions.  It works by requiring people to see different group members as individuals, rather than nameless, faceless members of a cultural group, and creating a context in which the two different groups are encouraged to form a common identity.”

“Ultimately, the type of cooperative project doesn’t really matter as long as it is relatively long-term (so as to foster authentic and lasting friendships) and requires each group make unique and necessary contributions to the common goal in order to achieve success (so as to foster interdependence).”

  1. Importance of leadership

“When it comes to cross-cultural unity, leadership is vital.  Pastors and other leaders must lead the charge in building cross-cultural bridges.”

  1. Celebrating unique contributions of all cultures

“When we don’t recognize the differences, the uniqueness in other individuals or groups, we can’t be interdependent.  It means they have no significant resources, talents or experiences to offer us that we do not already have. Colorblindness is simply disunity disguised; it falls short of the unity to which we have been called. Colorblindness is to lose important information about individuals and their distinct cultures. “

While I found the entire book helpful, there was one observation that struck me as particularly insightful.This observation was new to me but was something that resonated with my own experience.

“The collectivist’s socially oriented faith includes the possibility of social guilt and requires that individuals who are connected to oppressors be responsible for sins of oppression.  However, the individualist’s individual faith only knows individual guilt and is offended by the idea that one person can be held responsible for another person’s actions.” The collectivist says, “Your people did this to my people”, the individualist says, “I’m not responsible for other people’s actions.””

I highly recommend Disunity in Christ.  I do believe that the church is our greatest hope for building a more unified society.  I have personally been blessed over the past 10 years to be a part of a number of groups that have done what Cleveland suggests. Groups that have formed a shared identity by working collaboratively across race, class and geographic divisions and my life has been greatly enriched through these relationships.

I would love to know more about your experiences in helping to foster greater Christian Unity.

Do you think working toward Christian unity is an important goal for Christians?

What practices have you found most helpful?