Jesus Creed

Jesus Creed

Your Church is too Small

MonteriggioniChurch.jpgWhat did Jesus mean, in John 17, when he prayed that we might be “one”? Did he mean some kind of ecclesiastical organization? 

What does the Church mean when, in the billions of times of reciting The Apostles’ Creed, it says “I believe in the holy, catholic church”? 
What do we mean when we recite from the Nicene Creed the following words? “One holy catholic and apostolic church.” 
Are these words even meaningful for you? Do you ever long for some kind of visible unity? Or does this issue never arise for you? 
It has arisen for John Armstrong and his new book, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church
, can only be called a robust call for evangelicals to drop their sectarian individualism and to work hard in local communities for all churches to work together for the mission of the gospel in this world. He calls his approach the missional-ecumenical church.
Big one: Is there any sign of a unity of the church in your town or community?


I read John’s book recently and I find it hard to summarize without this becoming a lengthy post, so let me mention some of the highlights of this book: John tells his story of moving from a sectarian evangelical, tied as he was into his own personal salvation and his own personal reading of the Bible. He also talks of his profound encounter with God when he recited The Apostles’ Creed and came to terms with the profound meaning of “catholic”: that the Church of God is universal and that God would want us to cooperate and work together in God’s kingdom mission.
John has some pragmatic suggestions, like cooperating at the local level by different pastors and churches, and he wants us to see that unity we have will be more along the line of the missional work of God in this world instead of our explicit theologies.
Along the way, and this is a big emphasis, John discovered the Great Tradition — the ecumenical creeds — and how this Tradition can’t be ignored by evangelicals and that, when acknowledged, can bring more unity to our missional work in local communities.
John, is this the sort of thing you envision?
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Mick Porter

posted March 5, 2010 at 5:43 am

Scot, what an important topic and great questions!
Yes, I do find this important – although, when lots of things are important, it becomes hard to know what level of priority to assign to it. I try to engage across various churches etc., and I’ve attempted at times to get some basic programs happening (such as getting a group of guys from different churches to teach a series of classes), but the common scenario is they’re too busy with their own ministries.
There are some smaller regional towns/cities in Australia that have reputations for churches working together. I believe Toowoomba in Queensland is one such city.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 7:35 am

In Farmington, Maine, where I attend the Catholic Church, a number of churches are taking turns being a “warming” center. This means that their church halls are opened up for a couple days a week for anyone to come and enjoy each other’s company, eat soup and snacks, play games and have their own heat at their homes turned down at the time. So you have folks from various denominations all getting together just to be together. The soups and snacks are made by people from the church who is hosting for that week.
There is also a church in town that invites anyone in the community to join them on top of a tall hill early Easter morning for prayers and songs. Then they join back at the church hall for coffee and snacks.
A number of the churches will also offer free meals for the community.
I know there is also a group of ministers/priests that get together throughout the year to discuss common concerns in the community.
When it comes to fund-raising types of things, I think the churches usually do it on their own.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 8:09 am

In Ft. Lauderdale, several of the larger evangelical churches are starting to work together around the issue of homelessness. I have worked in this field, and with churches here for 25 years and this is a first. At a recent meeting the discussion continues to be about “coalition” building!
I have also been part of a small “men’s fellowship” for a couple of years where men who “attend” different churches are close brothers.
As a non-denominational Christian, these are encouragements in my life. I love the phrase, “missional-ecumenical church!”

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Michelle Van Loon

posted March 5, 2010 at 8:11 am

Catalyst in Lake County, IL ( is involved in linking churches together in mission, prayer, learning and relationship. One great example that emerged from this networking: youth pastors from a number of different local churches put together a local missions trip last summer. The teens stayed at a local camp for a week and went out each day to serve the community. At night, they participated in teaching and worship together.
Though Catalyst includes mostly evangelical and Charismatic churches, there has been participation in some of the big events by friends from both mainline and Catholic congregations.

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John W Frye

posted March 5, 2010 at 8:37 am

Since Jesus prayed (John 17) before the birth of denominations, I can’t imagine he prayed for *that* kind of unity/”one.” I do think the driving force for oneness in John 17 is missional in nature and is grounded in the character (“name”) of the Father. The Father and Son are one, and the Father “sent” the Son, who, in turn, sends the Eleven (the church). So, I agree that we need a binding that transcends sectarian distinctives and the ancient, yet pertinent Creeds of the church will help create that unity.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 9:16 am

I am seeing hopeful signs that the sectarianism of at least much of my tribe, Churches of Christ, is breaking down as many of our schools and churches cultivate relationships beyond our own fellowship. For example, the school where I teach (Lipscomb University in Nashville)has for a few years now been inviting non-C of C speakers to its preaching seminars (as you know, Scot!). We also recently launched a Institute for Christian Spirituality with John Ortburg as the speaker and a number from other churches attending. On the congregational level, churches like the Otter Creek Church of Christ (where our friend Josh Graves preaches) have been very intentional about partnering with other churches (not just evangelical churches) in service to the poor, homeless, and jobless. I think we can appreciate and love our heritage, but without the exclusive bent of our past.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 9:39 am

John No.5,
You’ve hit precisely on the message of the book.
Thanks for the Seattle connection. That is actually very encouraging. I’ve found other local/regional “collectives” of churches doing similar things.
Here in the Chicago suburb of Riverside is something called the Riverside Covenant. They are not quite as formal as the Seattle organization, but the pastors of the Catholic Church, both Lutheran churches, the Methodists, and the conservative TECs gather weekly for prayer and local discussion. Further, the men of those churches gather weekly for a morning bible study and discussion. Lastly, those churches do collective events throughout the year. VBS is really big out here in the near west ‘burbs, and this year the Riverside folks are talking about a possible joint VBS.
Further, just this week I received the monthly news letter of a ministry in India which is right outside of Burma. It’s a rough rough place. The ministry’s director spoke at a big convocation last month, and he basically delivered this message:
“Jesus Christ has reconciled believers with God. The believers become ambassadors of God to ask sinners to become reconciled with God and be one with all believers in the Family (Church) of God(1 Tim. 3:15). Being the ambassadors of God here on this planet our duty is to make all nations to become reconciled with God, and be one with all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Without accepting the one body of believers the so-called Christian faith is incomplete.” (Dr. T. Lunkim’s Declaration of One church at the Senate of Serampore Theological University – Feb.2010, Bangalore)
This isn’t just a North American thing. Disunity in mission negatively impacts the church worldwide, even in places where there are actually very few Christians at work. Yet, the High Priestly Prayer lives on and gathers momentum, even in places like remote/rural India. Those on mission recognize it’s a critical part of their work.
I think it’s all amazing so many are seemingly on the same page today. Missional unity. Creedal & ancient/future faith. A drive for authentic and credible evangelism which is relevant but rooted in Truth. I agree with some who say “something” is happening today. I hope whatever it is remains in Him so that “it” may “bear much fruit.”

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posted March 5, 2010 at 11:05 am

YES, I long for a visible unity. What Jesus meant was that his followers would not turn his movement into power grabs and back-biting and one-upmanship and…
Yes, there are signs. My neighborhood has a bi-weekly bible study for the kids in my son’s grade (6th). Parents volunteer to lead and each bring their own ideas and traditions to the discussion in a wonderfully ecumenical way.
Later this month our church is joining with other churches to do a day of projects (the website is goandbe dot com).
It’s been some baby steps, but it’s exciting. JP2 said the 1st millennium of the church was one of unity, the 2nd of disunity and this new one is one of re-unity. I think he will be shown to be prophetic on that one.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 11:09 am

Scot, thanks for posting about John Armstrong’s book. I’ve known John for a number of years and have great respect for him. I’m looking forward to reading the book myself soon.

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Craig Higgins

posted March 5, 2010 at 11:13 am

If ministry jobs actually followed giftedness, John would be something like an archbishop, charged with the responsibility of pastoring pastors. In fact, that is much of what he does.
I’m biased, of course–I’ve been blessed to receive John’s pastoring of this pastor–but he is a gift to the church, especially to us North American evangelicals. I cannot wait to see this book, and I am praying that God will use it to make us more ecumenical, more missional–less sectarian, less ingrown. I am praying that a whole generation of evangelicals will share the passion with which John has written this book.
Lesslie Newbigin, at the founding of the reunited Church of South India in the late 1940s, said that he had made a life-long commitment to praying every single day for the visible unity of the church. Let’s all share in that commitment.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 11:16 am

Big amen to this: “unity we have will be more along the line of the missional work of God in this world instead of our explicit theologies.”
I am very glad to see this locally and beyond. Locally, I’m closely tied with a para-church organization called “Urban Youth Impact.” They run a tutoring/mentoring program year-round, a free “Christmas store” at Christmas, give school supplies to kids/parents just before school starts, do evangelistic outreaches, etc. Every one of these efforts is powered by Christians of multiple backgrounds and denoms.
UYI is planting a church now and the same multiple backgrounds are present in that group. A driving unifying factor even for our church is a focus on the mission: the goal of seeing the people of our particular community put back together again in every way.
Parachurches seem to have been given a pass on nailing down the outer rims of their theology in a way that churches haven’t been. Parachurches are apparently “allowed” to focus on mission after nailing down theology at the Creeds (plus some affirmation of scripture for evangelicals).
Some other specific examples I’ve seen: churches that “tithe on the tithes” to other churches & ministries; churches that advertise in their bulletin, etc., another church’s class on a given topic and encourage their people’s attendance; shared teaching/serving events, etc.

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Bob Smallman

posted March 5, 2010 at 11:26 am

In our small city of 10,000 in northern Wisconsin many of our churches have found it easier to work together than to worship together.
The “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” died a quiet death several years ago, not so much from any official ecclesiastical opposition as from widespread apathy by church members. They just didn’t show up for the services.
On the other hand, we do a lot of things together — sponsor a community food pantry, a monthly community dinner, a weekly Lenten soup luncheon, and a number of similar activities. And the “we” covers a spectrum of Christian churches from a Bible Church and a PCA Church to Roman Catholics to the Assembly of God to most of the mainline churches. Not all participate in everything, but most of us get along well together and do not see one another as competitors.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 11:36 am

We have seen both sides of the spectrum in our town.
Youth For Christ has a big presence here and years ago it brought the youth ministries of the community to work together in accomplishing its task: equipping students to reach their school for Jesus.
That still has a presence in our community but the youth pastors network that developed from it has grown and shifted its focus. Right now we are in the process of planning our fourth annual “Operation Backyard” which is a weekend long service trip to our own community. We have had 8 different churches collaborate on this in the past. Last week we took a list of every church in our county (well 79 of the 90+ churches) and divided them up so we could contact each one, inviting them to participate in Operation Backyard. We pray regularly for a spirit of unity and I have been encouraged by the lack of competitiveness. On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we held a community youth service and had about 6-8 churches participate in a societal simulation game and listen to a speaker teach us through one of Dr. King’s messages (probably one of the firs times Dr. King has been mentioned in a church in our nearly all white town).
The youth ministries have worked hard at unity here. We meet weekly for prayer and encouragement, and to plan whatever shared events are coming up. But when we look at the churches in general we see a lot less unity.
Pastors of the community meet together once a month and they are all very polite and have done a few community wide events together, but the meetings are a little uncomfortable. For the first time this year they are planning a really big evangelistic event together and in a rare showing of unity are really working hard together on this. Though I’m not sure I agree that a, for lack of a better term, “Crusade” type event (thankfully they are mostly refraining from using that word and using “Encounter” instead) will be helpful here I want to encourage the unity being shown amongst senior pastors in the community.
I pray for unity – unity of heart, spirit, mind and for a united focus on God’s Kingdom above our own.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 12:50 pm

I had to laugh when I read this – the Catholic church – big C- has been committed to the apostolic tradition since the day Jesus began his work on earth. The Catholic church IS universal and has been since day one – the idea of personal interpretation and personal salvation is a completely modern invention. Learn your church history – such as it is – and you will invariably be lead to Christ leaving the “keys of the kingdom” to Peter the Bishop of Rome.

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Laura Flanders

posted March 5, 2010 at 1:04 pm

All of the above is quite encouraging.
I’d also like to add to the mix this idea: What if churches were to equip and encourage their congregants and what if seminaries were to equip and encourage their students to engage non-Christian non-profits who are also doing honest and good humanitarian work in their neigborhoods?
How might we carry the good news into these contexts so that we are trying to reduplicate work that is already in place?

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Laura Flanders

posted March 5, 2010 at 1:44 pm

Sorry… last sentence meant to read:
How might we carry the good news into these contexts so that we are not always trying to reduplicate work that is already in place?

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Michael Harmon

posted March 5, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Scot, I love this! I have a feeling more often than not, we are on the same page. Example: I just posted the url above on Thursday, and had written it about a week prior, on the very same subject of ecumenics being a core value now. I am definitely going to have to check this book out!
Thanks, Covenant brother! :)

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posted March 5, 2010 at 4:37 pm

There are some attempts locally, but they never seem to gather much steam apart from their small group of like-minded individuals. I think until we as a people can let go of our selfishness, territorialism and need to demonize, I don’t see much hope for a broader unity in the Church.

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posted March 5, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Churches in my town in remote Australia have worked together for over 15 years to put on an Easter camp for teenagers which at times has involved most of the denominations in town, from the AOG to the Catholic Church. At its best, this has been noticed and valued by the unchurched families whose kids attend, and a little taste of something very good for those working side by side. At other times (mostly depending on the senior pastors) the non-participation of some churches has also been observed and commented on by those outside.
We have not done quite so well being visibly united at Carols by Candlelight but nonetheless it is still run by the the churches together, which perhaps relates to an earlier comment about being able to work together better than being able to worship together

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posted March 13, 2010 at 11:35 am

I just read John’s book and reviewed it on my website:
I really like John’s premise that it’s not doctrinal differences per se that hinder unity but lack of love for Christians in other traditions.
This leads to a ‘third’ way, one which should flow naturally from the Jesus Creed, yet, evidently it needs pointing out.

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