I began attending worship at a small, rural Lutheran church when I was in junior high. I can still remember sitting down in the pew next to my classmates, the striking stained glass images in the windows and the booming organ in the balcony above. I was catechized in that church and served in it on summers home from university.
In a similar way, I can remember receiving my external call to ministry through one of the campus ministers at our university, and through the pastor of the theologically reformed Bible church where my (soon-to-be) wife Christina and I found a home. I received an education at university, but I received a second education in that church; one marked by the outpouring of the fruit of the Spirit, godly Christian leadership, and perseverance through hardship.
In our own years of hardship, Christina and I were the recipients of deep love and support from a Baptist church where we scraped by while cutting my teeth in ministry and beginning theological education. I remember evenings with men of the church—many who’d followed Christ longer than I’d been alive—playing dartball and eating donuts in musty church basements. I had wonderful mentors who taught me what it looks like to care for the elderly and those in need. I also gained an understanding of the good, the bad, and the ugly of church politics.
My first call was to a Christian Reformed Church in Ames, Iowa, serving the students and faculty of Iowa State University. The memories—of the Memorial Union and taking students for lunch, lectures with leading scholars, and meetings with ministry colleagues and friends—are still fresh in my mind. Our family made friends with people from around the world. I did my first wedding and funeral in that church. My love for the confessions deepened; my appreciation for intergenerational ministry grew; and my passions for multicultural ministry and leadership training took shape.
And now I find myself somewhere I never thought I would be—South Africa!—engaging in the kind of ministry I’ve always wanted to do: pastoring an international church in a university context. Much like me, it is something of an “ecclesiological mosaic” made up of people from a variety of church backgrounds and theological convictions. A common language (English) and a common Lord (Jesus Christ) unite us, even though we come from different nations, cultures, and ethnicities. We are students, pensioners, singles, young families, and widows.
It would be easy to follow the world, and sadly many churches are dividing along any number of these lines. And yet, just as Paul reminded the church in Corinth, we embrace the fact that though there are many parts, we are one body. This requires sacrifice and humility from everyone; the sacrifice of personal preferences for the good of the church and a humility to relinquish power and embrace the contributions brought by our members’ diverse life experiences, knowledge, and convictions.
This is something that gives me hope for the Church. As the West enters an uncertain future marked by church decline, doctrinal compromise, and rapidly changing cultures, and as we in the majority world wrestle with rampant false teaching, the power of consumerism, and the influence of individualism, I believe ecclesiological mosaics like our little church offer one picture of what the future could hold.
A church marked as much by its confessionally Reformed theology as by its emphasis on community, hospitality, and diversity. One where the worship bears the marks of a covenantal liturgy, yet is infused with the riches offered by brothers and sisters bringing music, songs, and prayers from their own cultures and church traditions. And a church that truly believes she has good news for the world in the person and work of Jesus Christ, seeking to find ways to bring this good news to bear in word and deed in all spheres of life.
In the midst of a new (ideologically) tribalistic age where so many are restless, confused, lonely, and longing for meaning, purpose, and hope, such a church may in a unique and vital way be able to embody the calling to be an embassy of grace—an outpost of the Kingdom—as eloquently articulated in the words of the missiologist J.H. Bavinck in his book, The Impact of Christianity on the Non-Christian World:
The future of human history seemed at this moment darker than ever before. The Church, standing in the midst of this confused world, began to understand that she was called to preach with great power the gospel of Him who alone can bring rest and peace. She began to perceive that she herself would be endangered unless she cast herself without scruples into the midst of the battle and emphatically proclaimed that Jesus Christ alone is the hope for a tired and drifting generation.
But these churches—these ecclesiological mosaics—can be difficult to start and sustain. They are messy and complex. They don’t often lend themselves to the growth modeled by megachurch franchises that pop up (seemingly overnight) by embracing the consumerism and individualism of the day. However, the way in which they can witness to the power of the gospel, the unity of Christ, and a global vision for mission far outweigh the limitations and challenges.
Though I am a dyed-in-the-wool Reformed pastor, over the course of my roughly 20 years as a follower of Christ, I have been enriched by a variety of church experiences and theological traditions. Each of these experiences has contributed to make me the ecclesiological mosaic I am today.
I wonder, what might such churches may have to offer to the Church going forward? For ministry. For mission. And for the glory of God and the joy of all peoples.