Why does the church, the body of Christ, remain so divided? Is there an essential unity in the worldwide church we just don’t see?
When I look back on the last fifty years, I see many things that seemingly contributed to the unity of the church. Here is my list of some of them with my analysis:
1. The Ecumenical Movement. This probably reached a peak in the 1960s in the wake of Vatican II. There was a hope that the initial moves of the Roman Catholic leadership to modernize its church and give some recognition to non-Catholic Christians might progress to something big. It didn’t really happen. The big ecumenical organizations like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches are barely surviving and don’t wield much influence today. Why? I’m not sure, but here are a couple of suggestions. First, the funders and influencers in these groups were white European/American church professionals. The ecumenical movement was always top down and never had a grassroots swell of support. Second, the denominations most involved in the ecumenical movement are generally in decline now. Third, as Christianity wanes in Europe and North America, it thrives in South America, Africa, and parts of Asia. These newer communities never were a part of the WCC style ecumenical vision, seeing it as a type of continued foreign domination of their national churches. They wanted to stand on their own.
2. The commercialization of evangelical Christianity. Money has always fueled a great deal of what looks like cross-church cooperation, but this reached almost absurd heights in the 1990s and continues today. Yet Christian media (especially TV) has little appeal to Generation X and even less to the Millennials. It is seen by many as overly political and aligned exclusively with one political party and one foreign policy viewpoint. Another aspect of this is the prominence in Christian television of the prosperity gospel preachers who appeal to a narrow group of Christians and are near pariahs to others. The commercialization of Christian music and worship has had some unifying effect, but this has also caused a doctrinal leveling and blandness that robs the Christian message of some of its vitality and counter-culturalism.
3. The rise of mega churches. This may be the most hopeful development in the realm of Christian unity, because there is an interconnection between large churches and their pastors that has broken down many long-standing barriers in the Christian world. I mistakenly thought that the mega church was dead in the 1990s, a victim of pastoral hubris and immorality combined with staggering debt loads, but there has been a rebirth and renewal of this type of Christianity. The inability for observers to pigeonhole many mega churches in a denomination way is, I think, also a good thing. I’m not sure where this is going, but the new trend to multi-site churches has some appearance of the renewal of denominationalism with a different face. It will be interesting to see where this goes.
4. The opening up of Christian institutions of higher education to all comers. The huge capital investment to build colleges, universities, and seminaries by churches of the past was unsustainable unless these institutions broadened themselves in whom they admitted as students, in whom they allowed to be teachers, and in what programs they offered. There is no single model in this, so it is difficult to generalize, but this sort of scenario wold not be uncommon: a young man who grew up in a Baptist church attended trained for ministry in an Evangelical Free seminary and ended up as a pastor in a Christian Missionary Alliance church. The hyper-sectarian schools of previous generations have either broadened or are dying. Yet I also see the rise of new sectarian schools of a different stripe, some being generated from mega churches. I also don’t know where this is going.
Nebraska Christian College