National Workshop on Christian Unity

The registration for the National Workshop on Christian Unity is now open. The meeting is in Louisville, April 18-21. I hope many friends will join us for this year’s event. Here is the link to register: National Workshop/Network Registration is now OPEN

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, Unity of the Church | 4 Comments/Likes

Ecumenism and Interfaith Harmony: What’s the Difference?

31WUBwzsmdL._UX250_We have just come out of the January 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and are heading into the February 1-7 Interfaith Harmony Week put in the calendar for annual observance in 2010 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. How are the two different?

The question is real in the minds of many. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity I led a five-day retreat at the Providence Spirituality Centre in Kingston, Ontario on the theme of “Together in Christ.” Although the primary focus was on the importance of an increasingly more visible unity among us as Christians, given the tensions in the world today between people of different religions, towards the end I devoted a few of our conference sessions to interreligious relations as well.

In doing so, the questions from participants indicated a fogginess concerning the difference between the goals of work for Christian unity and the goals of interreligious dialogue. Some referred to other denominations of Christian faith as “other religions”.

But Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Evangelicals are not “other religions.” They are simply traditions of faith in the religion called Christianity. Denominational names like Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Pentecostal are all adjectives. The noun is “Christian,” and grammatically the noun is called the substantive in the sentence because that’s where the most substance is. It’s not in the adjective or qualifier.

The substance of our Christian faith is expressed in the Nicene creed and that substance is embraced by every denomination of Christian faith. These different denominations represent the variety of traditions in that one faith, so it is not appropriate to think of them or refer to them as “other religions”. We are all members of the same world religion called Christianity.

But while our unity with one another through our common baptism into the one body of Christ is real, it is also incomplete. In 1991, the Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia, described the marks of what it called “full communion.”

“The common confession of the apostolic faith; a common sacramental life entered by the one baptism and celebrated together in one eucharistic fellowship; a common life in which members and ministries are mutually recognized; and a common mission witnessing to the gospel of God’s grace to all people and serving the whole of creation.”

It further specified that full communion would be expressed on the local and universal levels of the church through councils and synods. In other words, we would also make important decisions together. These are the goals of the movement called “ecumenical”. The very word comes from the Greek word “oikumene” referring to the whole faith of the church as opposed to that which is partial.

How is this unity different from what we seek with those who genuinely do belong to other religions—Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists? We do seek unity and solidarity with them, but the bar is raised less high. The goals of interreligious or interfaith relations are mutual understanding and respect, with collaboration in meeting the challenges we commonly face in the society and world in which we live.

Analogically, a way of putting that would be that other Christians are members with us of the one body of Christ by virtue of our common baptism. And members of other religions are brothers and sisters in the human family, but not members of the particular body of which we are a member, the body of Christ.

To be sure, there is a level of intimacy and solidarity with all our brothers and sisters, but the intimacy and solidarity we have with other members of our own body is of a special nature and even deeper.

Think of it in terms of the difference between your relationship with your own arm or leg and your relationship with other members of your family. Both are special, no question, but the level of connection you have with the members of your own body is deeper, more personal and more intimate.

And the body that we are—the body of Christ—has been given a special mission in the midst of the human family: to witness to God’s love for all by responding as Jesus did to their concrete social needs by caring for the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.

Jesus has opened the gates of heaven to all, even to those who do not know him.  And the Holy Spirit is at work at large in the world to turn hearts to God. Those  who make up the body of Christ are called and sent to share the good news of God’s love for all.  To witness to what God has done for us all. And to share God’s call to us all to live as brothers and sisters, members of God’s one human family.

Ecumenism and interfaith harmony are certainly related, but they are distinctive movements, each with its own goals.

Author: Thomas Ryan, CSP, resides in Washington, D.C. and is a very dear friend of mine. We work together in the Gospel Call, a unique four-day mission with churches to spread the flame of missional-ecumenism. You can check out Gospel Call and prayerfully consider inviting us to serve in your city. He is the author of numerous books. His most recent book, Christian Unity: How You Can Make a Difference (Paulist, 2015) is an absolute must for pastors and leaders who want to work at ecumenism at the grassroots level in their communities.

Posted in ACT 3, Interfaith Relations and Dialogue, Islam, The Church, The Future | 9 Comments/Likes

“Black Lives Matter” – Michelle Higgins @ Urbana 2015

Many evangelical and conservative Christians, especially older white Christians of conservative persuasion, are weary of the popular slogan: “Black Lives Matter.” Some are even angry at the actual movement that is associated with this name and believe it is harmful to our culture. I’ve heard various responses regarding this negative view of the slogan and the movement but the most common is that this is a bogus notion because Christians should say, and believe, that: “All Lives Matter.” The truth is, as often is the case, much deeper and more socially and personally nuanced.

It is true that “All Lives Matter.” From conception to the grave life matters. This is, at least for the broad tradition of Christian faith and practice, the truth. This is why I believe the death penalty needs to be abolished. It has become a “cruel and unusual punishment” in its present form. (This assumes it was right in the past and I even question this conclusion on ethical grounds as I understand the New Testament and the teaching of our Lord.) I also believe environmental concerns must become the concern of the church because life matters, all life. Regardless of your political view about this issue surely we can agree that life in this biosphere is precious and we are to “steward” it with love and care; cf. Genesis 1:26. (“Dominion” in the Hebrew of this text does not mean the right to destroy and dominate or trample down the good of this earth, our home and God’s world!)

But here is the rub. “Black Lives Matter” is not about Black being superior to White or any other race or color. It is about valuing the weakest and poorest in our society. It is about true freedom and opportunity to advance and improve your life and to be (and feel) safe in your car and on the streets of our cities. It is about justice and mercy, at least for Christians. I am grateful that Urbana 2015 included an address by Michelle Higgins on this issue. It was given with great power and clarity.

Posted in ACT 3, America and Americanism, American Evangelicalism, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Affairs, Ethics, Race and Racism | 7 Comments/Likes

ACT3 Network and Social Media

I work regularly with a leadership consultant who is lending help to me so that ACT3 Network can better use the social media. While I continue to major on face-to-face friendships and growing relationships I believe the social media can both supplement and help such friendships I also believe it can establish the basis for such a friendship. The social media is not an elixir for Christian ministry but it is important.

To the end that we better use this media I offer this update so friends can pray for ACT3 as we try to expand our vision of “empowering leaders and church for unity in Christ’s mission.” Pray that each day I respond in true love to those God brings across my path and pray that every post I write is both thoughtful and focused on this mission statement.

Posted in ACT 3, Social Networking, The Church, The Future | 5 Comments/Likes

National Workshop on Christian Unity

Since 1963 the National Workshop on Christian Unity (NWCU) has met in a designated city in the United States. It began when a group of Roman Catholics, in the context of Vatican II, met to equip local leadership for the task of ecumenical ministry. In 1969, they invited leaders of other Christian communions to join, and today the national ecumenical officers of the churches continue their oversight of the workshop, which is planned by national and local committees. There are both denominational and ecumenical sessions during the workshop. The NWCU celebrates the spirit of ecumenism by:

  • providing meeting seminars for all who are concerned with the ministry of Christian unity: laity, clergy, ecumenical officers, theologians, staff of ecumenical organizations;
  • stimulating an exchange of ideas and experiences among people concerned with Christian unity and the bodies they represent;
  • being a resource and balance between national planning and local responsibility, general ecumenical discussions and particular interchurch conversations, and regional leadership efforts and local realities,
  • encouraging denominational networks to develop and serve as a framework within which they can interact;
  • celebrating the unity which already exists among Christians and searching for ways to overcome the divisions that remain.

This year the worship meets in Louisville, Kentucky, April 18-21. I became involved in the workshop in 2013, attending the event in Columbus, Ohio. The following year, in Albuquerque in April of 2014, I was asked to present a plenary address on evangelicals and new ecumenism. As a result I was invited by the leadership team to become a member of the national plan committee for the NWCU. I was also tasked with forming a fifth group inside the workshop that is now called Ancient-Future Faith Evangelical Partners. Last year, in Charlotte, this group came to the NWCU for the first time. There were eleven of us. I think most of the people who came last year will return. We hope for at least twenty this year.

Anyone can attend and those who are deeply interested in serious ecumenical teaching, interaction and fellowship should most definitely attend. You will be able to register online soon but if you are interested in knowing more please contact me directly to get information Join our evangelical partners group if you want to learn and become an involved ecumenical leader. I hope younger leaders, and especially students who are becoming engaged in ecumenism, will attend. Please contact me directly via the ACT3 address and/or website. I will be happy to provide information. You can also “search” for this online. I hope all our friends will pray for this year’s workshop. I will co-lead a session with my partner/friend Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, on “Ecumenism 101: Best Practices.”

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Missional-Ecumenism, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 4 Comments/Likes

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Wheaton 2016

Posted in ACT 3, Prayer, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 4 Comments/Likes

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is an international Christian ecumenical observance kept annually between January 18 and 25. It is actually an octave, which means the observance lasts for eight days.

The observance began in 1908 and was focused on prayer for the church unity. The basic idea, and the January dates, were suggested by Father Paul Wattson, co-founder of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars. Watson conceived of the week beginning on the Feast of the the Conversion of St. Paul and concluding on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Peter. The dates and ideas actually were a variant of the Protestant version of these Catholic celebrations. (Wattson was himself a former Anglican priest.) In the mid-1920’s Protestant leaders proposed an annual octave for unity leading up to Pentecost. (Many local communities also celebrate this time and offered joint prayers for unity.) Pope Benedict XVI “encouraged its observance throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church.”

What is interesting is that this observance began in Catholic circles but once it jumped boundaries it took new forms and meanings. Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyons, France, who has been called “the father of spiritual ecumenism,” (a model that has profoundly influenced me and one also openly embraced by Pope Francis) had a slightly different approach than Father Wattson. He advocated prayer “for the unity of the Church as Christ wills it, and in accordance with the means he wills.” By this Abbé Couturier enabled other Christians with differing views of the Petrine ministry to join in this movement of prayer. In 1935, he proposed naming the observance “Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” This proposal accepted by the Catholic Church in 1966. Abbé Couturier’s message influenced a number of Catholic leaders thus today this is the direction Catholics and Protestants take in their celebration of this week of prayer.

In the Chicago area there are a number of ways churches engage with this week. The Focolare and ACT3 Network, who both work for unity, have recently partnered this event in our area and this year the evening prayer service will be held in Wheaton. We wanted to put the event close to Wheaton College to invite students to attend, thus we will meet two blocks from the campus. All are invited and no registration is needed.PCU invite 2016 for printing

Posted in ACT 3, Church History, Current Affairs, History, Prayer, Protestantism, Renewal, Roman Catholicism, Unity of the Church | 11 Comments/Likes

Fr. Thomas Baima’s Short Address to the Muslim Society of Chicago

Many readers know that Fr. Thomas Baima is a close friend and a supporter of ACT3 Network. Tom and I go back more than a decade now in ecumenical work and inter-religious dialogue. Tom has one of the best minds, and some of the finest first-hand experience, in this field of dialogue. I turn to him quite often to discuss a myriad of issues.

Tom spoke a few weeks ago to the Muslim Society of Chicago at a large gathering at McCormick Place. The broad topic was “Inter-religious Dialogue.” An interfaith panel from many backgrounds spoke for nearly sixty minutes. Tom’s words come around the 12 minute mark on this video and ended at about 16 minutes. In this short address you can see him answering an important question: “What is the motive for dialogue between religions from a Christian perspective?”

He suggests that there is a common motive, namely the recognition of our shared humanity and shared belief in God. He believes this motive encourages tolerance and other societal goods. He calls the second motive particular. This motive allows us to learn from each other in our own respective ways while we still disagree about revelation and doctrine. This second motive allows us to know the other person as human and to respectfully engage in charity and good faith.

This presentation is not long but I encourage you to watch Fr. Baima’s four-minutes if you want to see how a Christian theologian enters into a Muslim interfaith context in love and how he retains a theology profoundly centered in the incarnation. This is a good appropriation of some of what I wrote yesterday.

Posted in ACT 3, Christ/Christology, Culture, Current Affairs, Interfaith Relations and Dialogue, Islam | 4 Comments/Likes

The Pope’s Appeal for Inter-Religious Unity and Love

In the light of the debates now raging among Christians regarding how to respond to people of other faiths Pope Francis gives us here a short video in which he expresses his heart and personal hope.

Many evangelicals will see this video and conclude something like the following: “Pope Francis believes all people are brothers and sisters and thus he believes all will be saved by God regardless of their life and faith. Therefore, it makes no real difference whether or not the church does evangelization and mission since ALL people who are sincere in their faith will be saved in the end.”

Am I right or am I wrong in the way in the way I state this conclusion?

I think I am right. I know this is how I would have heard this message twenty years ago. So, my next question is this: “Does this make me a pluralist (or liberal) who denies John 14:6 or sees no urgency for sharing the good news and making disciples of Jesus?”

The problem lies in the meaning of all the words and ideas presented here by my comments. The Catholic Church is neither pluralistic nor is it devoted to universalism. It confesses the Christian faith in God the trinity and in Christ the Son. It believes the core teaching of the historic Christianity. Pope Francis not only believes this as a devout Catholic leader but he believes it because he is a Spirit-filled “evangelical” preacher of the good news of Jesus. Search for his Spanish-speaking videos on YouTube and you find his preaching of the gospel. You can see and hear the gospel through this brother and feel his great passion to lead people into the personal knowledge of Christ. Those evangelicals in Latin America who know him testify to his making disciples by preaching the gospel for many years.

Thus, here is my conclusion: “Might it be that somehow we are not hearing one another in these debates about religions?” Or, perhaps, we are saying something like this: “We are quite sure (in a modernistic and philosophical way) that we know who really is denying the faith, thus we (I/you) know who is finally faithful.” We know the judgment before God judges!

I would like to suggest that Pope Francis is saying the following:

  1. We are all seeking God in our own way. We must respect one another and seek for love as the very basis of all life-changing faith and life together in our troubled world.
  2. There is truth in all expressions of faith. Regardless of how much, or how little, error there is in various claims to divine revelation there is some/much common truth. This varies among the great religions of the world.
  3. Religions are not “good and evil” per se. People are good and evil by their actions and by how they express whatever faith they have.
  4. We must respect others and not attack their faith claims (as if this is true biblical evangelism) even if we think that they have not yet heard the final revelation of God given to the world in his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.
  5. The world, in its present state of conflict and war, needs to see and hear people of various religions expressing love and respect for one another. Christians can and should take the lead in this matter.
  6. We are all “children of God” in the sense that God is our creator and to God we will all answer for our lives. He is the judge, not me and not you.

The greatest illustration of what I have in mind here occurs in Acts 17. Here we read (and please read the words slowly and carefully and note my italics in the text where both truths I am stressing are made):

22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26 From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28 For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

29 Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30 While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” 33 At that point Paul left them. 34 But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

What Pope Francis is not saying:

  1. He is not saying that the biblical statements about Christians being “brothers and sisters in Christ” should be denied or rejected. The bond we have, which is rooted in the incarnation and experienced by the same Holy Spirit, is one of paternity and supernatural birth by the Holy Spirit.
  2. Christians know the One who reveals the Father perfectly and finally.
  3. Christian faith and baptism are unique to those who have received the light of God given to them in Jesus Christ.
  4. Christians are to share this good news of Christ with the whole world.
  5. Christians should not deny one iota of their confessional and biblically-rooted faith.

Finally, the questions in all of this debate come down to one: “How will we live our faith before a world that has gotten smaller and smaller and thus learn to truly love our neighbors, not just respond to other religions and religious people in fear? Can we totally embrace the love given to us in Christ without insisting that others are confused and in the dark and we are always in the right because we are in the light?” Humility and contextualization call for a better way forward. I am persuaded that it will be hard for us to find this way in our present atmosphere of terrorism and fear.

The truth has not changed one iota but the world surely has and many of us do not grasp what this actually means as we live in love with our neighbors. May God help us do better at this task in 2016. I believe the way forward is in respectful dialogue rooted in love. A great deal of everything else we have to say is worth deeper conversation and much better listening.

For further reading I suggest the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Creeds, Current Affairs, Evangelism, Faith, Gospel/Good News, Interfaith Relations and Dialogue, Islam, Jesus, Pope Francis, The Church, The Future | 7 Comments/Likes

Christena Cleveland: A Powerful Message on Unity at Urbana 2015

The recent Urbana 2015 Conference, held in St. Louis, featured a number of great speakers and topics. One of our ACT3 board members, Scott Brill, is on staff with InterVarsity and sent me links to two plenary addresses I found immensely important. I share the first of these two messages in today’s blog post. Scott Brill was also responsible for staffing a Catholic room at Urbana to network with Catholic students who were in attendance. This Catholic presence is new to IVCF and something I wholeheartedly welcome. (Catholic staff have served with IVCF for some years now, though their number is still quite small.) Pray for many evangelical mission agencies who now work openly with Catholics and do not try to “convert” students to evangelicalism but to Christ in humble faith. This is a risky strategy and presents challenges when donors do not like this direction. ACT3 not only openly supports this direction but seeks to serve it, and ministries who are doing this, wherever possible.

Dr. Christena Cleveland, author of a wonderful book titled Disunity in Christ. She is a social psychologist with a hopeful passion for reconciling across cultural divisions.  She is the first Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School where she is also the faculty director of Duke’s Center for Reconciliation.  Christena earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Her scholarly work includes integrating social psychological perspectives on intergroup and intercultural processes with current reconciliation dilemmas within the Christian church and the broader society. Her research examines how culture influences theological/ideological approaches to peacemaking and reconciliation; how social processes, such as identity and self-esteem, impede a group’s ability to reconcile with culturally-different groups; and how individual factors (e.g., professed theologies/ideologies) interact with social factors (e.g., the status of one’s social group) to allow certain individuals or groups to dominate others.

Christena has published her work in scholarly journals – such as Small Group Research for which she received a 2011 Best Article award – as well as magazines – such as Christianity Today, which named her as one of 33 millennials leading the next generation of Christian faith.

In her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart(Intervarsity Press, 2013), she examines and offers research-based strategies to overcome the nonconscious cognitive, emotional, and identity processes that pull Christians into homogeneous groups, fuel inaccurate perceptions of culturally-different others, contribute to an “Us vs. Them” mentality, stimulate intergroup prejudice and hostility, and ultimately inhibit reconciliation.  The book received a 2013 Leadership Journal Book Award. Christena is currently researching and writing The Priesthood of the Privileged, which investigates power and inequality in the church, and proposes methods for addressing and reducing this equality as a pathway to reconciliation.

A fifth generation minister, Christena comes from a long tradition of leadership in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) denomination, ranging from bishops to pastors to laypeople. She currently ministers in various ecumenical settings.

Christena is a lifelong Oakland A’s fan and holds a quality cup of tea in high regard. She lives in Durham, North Carolina. She has a wonderful web site and blog available through http://www.christenacleveland.com.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Discipleship, Evangelism, Gospel/Good News, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 8 Comments/Likes