Christian Unity and Evangelization: The Boat and the Net

Church leaders from across the denominational spectrum in the United States met recently–prior to the January 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity–in what might justifiably be called an ecumenical summit meeting.

They met to look at whether the various ecumenical “instruments,” such as the National Council of Churches and the new Christian Churches Together in the USA, represent in their present configuration the most effective use of available resources for carrying forward the work of unity among Christians.

Why is it important that the organizational instruments be as effective as they can possibly be? The answer to that question is given in the topic for next October’s international Synod of Bishops in Rome: the new evangelization.

Unity among the followers of Jesus has two fundamental motivating factors. First, for the glory of God,and second, for more effective mission. Regarding the second, the heart of the Good News is that we are reconciled to God and to one another through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But when you try to bring that good news to others when you are divided amongst yourselves, the message lacks credibility.

It’s not enough that we can recite Biblical chapter and verse, or that the individual churches have great programs. If the churches remain strangers to one another, do not share resources, do not engage in mission together, then the gospel of reconciliation we bring loses credibility.

And those to whom we bring it rightfully say to us: “I hear what you’re saying—‘We’re reconciled to God and to one another!’ But I also see that you do not pray together or work together or make decisions together. What you are—divided among yourselves—speaks more loudly than what you say.”

The Church of Jesus Christ evangelizes not just by what it says and does, but by what it is. Herein lies a call to the devotees of ecumenism and evangelization to work more closely together. They tend to launch their boats into different bodies of water and to pursue their own interests. The historical task has been to dig new canals between these two bodies of water in order to enable the two groups to contact and cooperate with one another.

They have particular spheres of interest and activity: Ecumenists focus on boat, evangelizers on the net. Ecumenists look to whether the boat is seaworthy and whether it has all the tools and equipment a boat should have. Evangelizers ask: What is this boat for?

Although the preoccupations of these two groups are not synonymous, neither are they opposite. The reason that both the boat and net were made is to catch fish! Whatever tensions and polarities exist between the two spheres of interest and activity are the result of human, not divine prejudice.

Ecumenism relates to the quest for visible unity and common mission among members of different Christian traditions. It relates to believers. Evangelization relates to both believers and non-believers. It invites believers to take their faith to a deeper level, and it invites non-believers into a community of faith.

Both are minority movements among general church membership, and both are counter-cultural in that they wish to change the status quo. Evangelists seek to make the church larger and more vibrant by bringing in new members and deepening the faith of present ones, and ecumenists seek to unite those who are already in it.

If we could all understand that unity is for mission, we could meet on a deeper level. We could acknowledge and applaud one another’s gifts and efforts, and we could work more effectively together.

The simple fact is that if your boat is leaking, it prevents you from having all hands on deck involved with throwing out and bringing in the nets. And the divisions among us as Christians are leaks in our boat. Evangelists and ecumenists today are working more closely together, and there are some pleasant surprises.

Evangelizers have discovered that whole new spiritual worlds open up in ecumenical dialogue and that these spiritual worlds are inhabited by other people who love the Lord.They have discovered that a good ecumenist is constantly being evangelized by other Christians. And ecumenists are learning to measure not only by the number of churches united, but also by the number of new churches planted as a result of unity efforts.

So if unity is for mission, evangelizers do well do know what it means to be “ecumenical,” and ecumenists to know what it means to be “evangelical.”

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  • Joe DeVet

    This post makes a very important point. We have become inured to the presence of “denominations”, to the fragmenting of Christianity. What we take for granted, though, is a deep wound which undermines our faith, hope, and charity, and is an affront to our Founder. This open wound in the Body of Christ also blunts our ability to confront a broken culture with the gospel, as the author states, and therefore ecumenism and evangelization are brother and sister. But I would like to add a couple of tweaks to the article.

    First, evangelization’s aim is not to make the Church bigger–at least, that is not the most basic motivation. The basic motivation is the Church’s mission–salvation. Evangelization will make the Church bigger, but only as a means to the end. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if the idea of evangelism is to add more members to the Church “club”, then to hell with it.

    (Pardon me for stating the obvious, which the author no doubt intended, but often enough laborers in the vineyard get lost in programs, policies and short-term goals, forgetting the ultimate objective of all their activity, and making serious mistakes as a result.)

    Second, the author states: “If the churches remain strangers to one another, do not share resources, do not engage in mission together, then the gospel of reconciliation we bring loses credibility.” This is most certainly true, but mere cooperation must be seen, not as a goal but as an interim step. Blessed John Paul the Great wrote an encyclical called “Ut Unum Sint”–that they may be one–quoting Our Lord’s priestly prayer in John 17. This encyclical emphasized that unity must be held as the goal, a unity grounded in the truth of the faith. Jesus did not pray that they all may be in different churches cooperating together. His standard is unity.

    Cooperation is a valid way-station, but unity must be the goal.

  • chaco

    Thanks Joe; For helping us to “Keep our eye on the Prize.[And cooperation is not it.] Finding common ground is vital in reaching the goal of unity though. I recall a Pope quote stating how we should “submit to one another in order to create a kinship which creates the CHARITY necessary for resolving differences”. If mere cooperation was the end goal, it would be no better than the “Plague of Relativism” (No “truth” except what is relative to each individual’s personal experience).