By JIM NICHOLS
It was one of the “Ah-ha” moments for me; I suspect you have had a few in your life too. One might call them “revelations,” although that sounds a bit pompous. They are times when something dawns on us that, apparently, everyone else seems to know already. We stammer around and smile knowingly while we try to incorporate that piece of new information into our knowledge base.
In my early life I was connected to three churches. My grandparents on one side lacked what we might call a church home, but the other grandparents were deeply involved (“pillars of the church”) in University Heights Christian Church. When my father returned from WWII, my hunch is that we attended that church with his parents, although I was too young to remember.
My boyhood church of memory was Oak Park Christian until we moved to the suburbs and connected with Countryside Christian. Note that all three of these are designated as “Christian” churches.
I was in seventh or eighth grade and for some reason we were completing an information sheet in our Unified Studies class. It was name, address, father’s occupation, names of siblings, and such. One of the blanks read “church.” I wrote “Christian.”
I can still remember where I was sitting in the room when Steven, sitting nearby, looked over at my questionnaire and said, “You can’t write just ‘Christian’ there; they want to know what kind of Christian.” I did not understand what he was talking about. “But I go to the Christian church,” I replied. He said, “They are asking Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian—what type of Christian church.” My ignorance showed up quickly as I tried to argue with him but had no words to use. It was my introduction to denominations, and I was clearly naïve.
It may be positive that I had not yet picked up the separations in the Christian world from my home churches. I remember thinking that I did know friends who said they were Baptists, Methodists, or Lutherans, but I lacked understanding of what that meant. I knew the Catholics were different because they had nuns and I had seen them in “The Sound of Music.”
As I became closer to an adult, the denominational world became more obvious (how could I have missed it so badly?) and I had serious confusion as to what it meant.
If you are a church-going person, you have probably made some sort of mental accommodation to the denominational world; I know I have. We understand that there are multiple expressions of the Christian faith and have, rightly or wrongly, accepted that reality. When we visit another type of church, we realize the songs, service format, liturgy, and preaching are different. Because we are people of good will and may well be visiting along with some friends, we have learned not to be judgmental about it. Although there are still some in each group who insist “my way or the highway,” we generally feel sorry for them and wish they would be concerned about weightier matters.
If our thinking tried to incorporate other non-Christian religions, matters moved to a new level of complication.
It is reasonable to me, however, to wonder if this separation of his followers is what God has in mind. Perhaps it is acceptable that, given the variety of people, there would be a variety of ways to follow God and to worship. Indeed, if we could somehow snapshot all the versions of Christianity that have come and gone throughout history, it would be a maze of options. Many of those communities appeared for only a short time or were local events, but it is logical that they developed for positive reasons; people were seeking God and community.
The disciples did not leave Jesus’ side with a set of instructions as to how to start a church. As Jews, they might well have wished for some clear guidance as to the “next step” in their discipleship. What they received from Jesus, however, was an unexpected set of behaviors modeled by him. They saw compassion, care, tolerance, inclusion, a sensitivity to woundedness and weakness, and self-sacrifice. It is as if he left it up to them as to how to play out those attributes in their lives and witness. That has become our challenge too.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain
Jim, I appreciate your confusion about denominations within the Christian church. As a youngster, I felt the same way. I also appreciate your reference to the larger concept of faiths other than Christian. As a member of the Abilene Interfaith Council, I have opened my heart and mind to the concept of a God big enough to encompass faiths beyond Christianity.