Words That Divide
by Dan Adler
I've discovered that some of the divisions in the Church are often created and sustained in subtle ways that most people don't even notice. Stories of division through painful rifts in congregations, moral failures amongst leaders and divisions over doctrine and tradition are well known and common - and you can pretty much get the drift as to why they happen. But there are many other divisions that happen in more subtle ways but seem to have a similarly damaging impact. And I have noticed that some of those types of divisions start with words or phrases that seem to begin with good motivations, but ultimately lead to a further divided Church. Let me give you some examples.
- "This Generation" - A little while ago we attended a really great worship and prayer gathering in the city. Lots of people showed up. They had pulled together a great modern worship band with fabulous musicians from various churches. It was a gathering with a big theme of unity in Church. So far so good right? Yeah, it was great. And it really was a great night that we were very blessed by. But several times during that evening, in this unifying service, I heard the speaker talk about what "this generation" was going to do...how it was going to change the world and "take the city" and be revived etc. Now again, all that was motivating and exciting stuff. But why "this generation"? Doesn't every generation need to be revived and change the world and work together in their collective areas of influence if we are to ever possibly "take the city for Jesus"? All of the worship band members also happened to be in their 20's. But since this event was advertised as a unity event for all ages, there were people of many different generations present. It was well-meaning, but everything about the event subtly sent a message that those who really matter in Kingdom of God are young and in "this generation". These words and this emphasis are something that leads to division and exclusivity - and truly a weakening of the Church. Will the world really be changed if a revival only happens amongst those in their 20's or 30's? Would that even be a real revival if our gatherings were so separated between generations that only one age group was impacted? Wouldn't it be better, even if you are trying to motivate a young generation, to caste a more Biblical vision of a unified church of all generations and ethnic groups seeking God together to see real revival take place? The "this generation" emphasis is much like how we separate our youth out in all of our congregations to have almost every activity they are a part of be separate from adults - so that when they get out of high school, they no longer think that church is relevant for them and they either stop going to church, or have to find a church that has mostly only people in their own age bracket. The motivation seems to be about trying to reach youth - and it may even bring in more numbers, but ultimately, it is further dividing the Church and presenting a skewed vision for what the Church is supposed to look like.
- "Current" (or other phrases like it "cutting edge", "relevant", etc.) - Now if the first theme I mentioned was just a slip of the tongue or some kind of anomaly, I wouldn't mention it. But this is a major subtle theme in the Church right now. Look at the age of those who are allowed on "stage" in most churches. Listen to the music. There's almost a paranoia amongst many Church leaders about the idea of playing any music in congregational worship that doesn't somehow reflect the perception of it being "current". Now again, of course we want to be relevant to the culture. And of course we want to reach younger people. Nobody wants to be irrelevant. But these themes lead to a divisive exclusivity between generations, that just basically pushes anyone or anything not considered "current" to the margins and out of the picture in the local church. Now that is a very "current" thing to do in our youth-obsessed culture as a whole, but it's certainly not a Biblical value or a positive trend in Christian congregations. Should we ever be comfortable when whole age groups feel marginalized every time they go to church? And then there is always the question to be asked, "how current really is your perception of being current"? Is what is being used in worship really so creative and current or is it just an often formulaic and uncreative version of pop music with often marginal poetry? And is it spiritually healthy for us to plant and grow churches that are marketed to only certain age groups? Is it a good thing to only sing songs that were just written and were only written by someone young - or visa versa - just by someone old? Does that reflect depth of theology and the timelessness of the message? Isn't it a much more beautiful idea to be a loving community of Christians all serving and learning from each other that is multi-generational - churches where children, teenagers, young adults, middle aged and older people fellowship with and worship with one another? That's not cool or "current" but it is so very Biblical.
- "Sacred" - This is a good word. The dictionary would define it as "devoted to or dedicated to a deity or religious purpose". But this has been a word that has also tended to have subtly divisive implications - especially when it comes to music. In the past, "Sacred" music was God's music. Okay, that seems to fit with the definition. But the problem is, when you look at what style of music has traditionally fit in the "sacred music" category, it has been almost primarily white European hymns and classical choral music that are religious in their themes. So yes, you could say that those songs fit the definition of sacred music. But the implication has been that the actual style of music itself is sacred and that other styles of music from other cultures would not be approved by God and are either "worldly" or "pagan". And though it's true that since Europe became the largest growing area of Christianity for many centuries, there was likely much more "sacred" music written in European styles of music, there was also plenty of "pagan" music written with those same styles of music. As the Gospel has been received by other cultures, their indigenous expressions of music used to glorify God also became "sacred music". So the use of the word "sacred" as it regards music has had subtle ethnocentric and even racist implications to it and so has caused condescension toward churches or believers of different ethnicities whose "sacred" music sounds different than traditional white European "sacred" music. It is not the music itself - made of notes of various intervals and rhythms - that make a song "sacred" or not, it is the intent of the writer and lyrics of the songs - or even the purpose of a song dedicated to God without lyrics. So all of the world's multitudes of styles of music can be used as "sacred" music and all of us, when we see the value of those diverse expressions, can participate in the joy of unified worship in diversity that truly makes our music and worship a "sacred" expression to our God. I truly believe that there is nothing more beautiful or more reflective of the Kingdom of God than a multi-generational, multi-ethnic congregation singing multi-ethnic styles of worship music together in Christian community.
- "Spirit-filled" - Again, what an important concept and vital reality being filled with the Spirit is. But in some churches and denominations, this is a phrase used to distinguish between "us" and "them" in a way that can be proud, condescending and divisive. There are "Spirit-filled" churches versus all the lesser churches that aren't. Now in some ways I get that. I could really say that I've been to many churches that seem to demonstrate an incredible lack of a movement of and even desire for the Holy Spirit in their midst while others seem to clearly manifest the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit. But I don't believe that some churches or even denominations are automatically "Spirit -filled" because they are Pentecostal or Charismatic or have more enthusiastic worship. I remember when I was in college, our college competed in basketball with another college that would have considered themselves more "Spirit-Filled" than our college. The sad thing was that their fans and team members were always markedly more rude and obnoxious than any other teams our college ever played. How truly proud and blind they were! But the truth is, I've also observed a condescending approach from the "non-Charismatic/Pentecostal" camp who see their Christianity as perhaps more rational, cerebral and less "excessively" emotional than their Charismatic/Pentecostal brothers and sisters. In this camp of believers, being "Spirit-filled" is much more of a theological positional concept than a manifest reality. But the bottom line is, the New Testament gives repeated calls to all of us to "be continually being filled with the Spirit". It's a renewing and ongoing process that has to take place daily. So this is really important! But I think a stronger Biblical sign of being "Spirit -filled" that doesn't lead to condescension and separation between Christians, churches and denominations, is the presence of the "fruit of the Spirit" in our lives. Does the fruit of your life and mine, your worship ministry and mine give evidence that we are truly Spirit-filled? I believe in the existence and value of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but they can be faked and manipulated. Having an abundance of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives will never lead to pride or division but only to the building up of the Body of Christ.
I'm sure there are other words and phrases that could be spoken about, but my purpose in bringing these to your attention is to hopefully awaken you to the fruit of our words, trends and mind-sets so that you will test and see if they truly build up the Church as a whole or if they subtly divide us. We desperately need to build more bridges and way less walls within the parameters of Biblical Christianity. How can you and I, in our areas of influence, be tools of helping the Church grow up into the fullness of unity in the Spirit that God has called us to? Jesus prayed for it and the world is desperate to see it lived out in our lives.