This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Radical ecumenism digs in the dirt

Chapel Hill Fellowship joins Friends to tend plot of land where they worship.

When people talk about ecumenism, it usually refers to something church leaders do. But our congregation’s summer morning of ecumenism had more to do with the ordinary—the everyday—not an annual gathering. It was, literally, about grass and about roots.

We were a handful of Quakers and Mennonites who gathered to tend the plot of land where we worshiped. A few people from our Mennonite congregation joined folks from the Friends Meeting House for a summer work day. Our bodies combined forces to rake leaves, pull weeds, trim hedges and perform other necessary chores to keep up our common worship space.

Our small Mennonite church rents space from the ever-so-friendly Quakers. They have their silent meeting on Sunday mornings, and we get together in the evenings for our different form of worship. Our ecumenical relationship is rooted in local intimacies: We share the same sacred space that is at the heart of our different lives of faith.

While we worked at the level of the roots that dig into the everyday, leaders present at the 2007 Mennonite Church USA Delegate Assembly in San Jose, Calif., worked in the leaves and branches. Our delegates decided to link our denomination to the ecumenical organization called Christian Churches Together.

As the Delegate Assembly handbook says, this union will “enable churches and national Christian organizations to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen our Christian witness in the world.” The vision for this organization, and our participation in it, takes seriously Jesus’ prayer to his Father for all his disciples: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You sent me and have loved them even as You have loved me” (John 17:23). Our Christian unity across differences displays the kind of love God has for us. It’s an essential task of tending to the body of Christ.

But now we ordinary, everyday sorts of Mennonites discover a temptation: Since someone else in our denomination is taking care of ecumenical concerns, we don’t have to worry about it. We can wash our hands of the whole matter and get on with what we consider to be more important goals. Now we can focus our time and money on the missional call to convert our churches into spaces that welcome popular culture. For, as the barrage of Christian books and conferences declare, missional programs and outreach will save our dying churches. But many of our missional experts forget the fundamental relationship between our missional call and our ecumenical call. We forget that our ecumenical work is also our missional work.

Lesslie Newbigin, a quotable missionary and pastor of the 20th century, is a favorite among our contemporary missional thinkers. Newbigin taught us Westerners to see how missions not only take place overseas, but must happen in our own culture. We need to be missionaries in the lands we call “home.”

But for Newbigin, we fail to be missionaries of the gospel when we divorce our witness from the call to be a unified church. His insight may be an important midstream correction to our emphatic “missional church” sloganeering. For Newbigin, the missional church is nothing other than the ecumenical church. As he says, “That which makes the Church one is what makes it a mission to the world” (quoted in Geoffrey Wainwright’s Lesslie Newbigin, page 83). This line is simply a reflection on John 17 where Jesus tells the disciples that their witness is their unity, their bond of love, that is the movement of God’s Spirit. Our love for one another is our missional preparation and invitation.

For Newbigin, this ecumenical work that accompanies our missionary encounter with our cultures is not something that must happen among denominational representatives. Instead, our ecumenical vision must focus on the local landscape, on what he calls “organic unity.” The hard, slow and messy work of church unity finds success in “the emergence of reconciled local communities.” The goal is to “express locally the whole of the Catholic church.”

By no means does this discourage our denominational involvement with large-scale ecumenical organizations like Christian Churches Together or the Mennonite-Lutheran dialogue. In fact, Lesslie Newbigin was an important participant in worldwide ecumenical organizations. But Newbigin helpfully reminds us that those organizations, like Christian Churches Together, are important only in so far as they serve our communities as we rub shoulders with other local churches.

To be missional is to be ecumenical. The missional church is the ecumenical church. They are two arms of the same body—and if we think we can separate them, if we think we can pursue one and not the other, then we tear apart the body of Christ. The Spirit that beckons us into the wilderness of this world is the same Spirit that draws us into fellowship with friends and strangers and enemies, even across denominational lines. If we choose one and not the other, then we should wonder if we are following the winds of a different spirit.

Tending to the grass and roots and weeds with a bunch of Friends on a humid summer day is our ecumenical work, the fertile soil that sprouts missional plants. It’s not glamorous. Dirty nails and sweat-soaked shirts are what we have to show for our work. This is not spectacular, like a visit with the pope at the Vatican. Pulling weeds and trimming trees is far too ordinary and unremarkable.

But it’s radical—in the traditional sense. “Radical” comes from the Latin word radix that literally means “roots.” (Think about the earthy vegetable named “radish.”) “Radical” is an invitation to look at what happens on the ground amidst the roots. Thus ecumenism, of the radical variety, takes place where roots grow—where people of different local churches get together and tend to worship spaces and gardens, and all sorts of other local, grass roots (radical) moments of fellowship and friendship.

If we are to hope for any lasting ecumenical witness, then we have to get our hands dirty. Slogans and strategies shouldn’t distract us from messy work. We have to tend to the roots—where we live, where we call home, our local neighborhoods and cities. What takes place among denominational leadership, at the spectacular heights of the leaves and branches, means nothing without those of us who tend to the roots—the everyday messiness of relationships across ecclesial boundaries.

Radical ecumenism has to do with where we walk and live, where we gather and with whom we read our bibles. It’s about the places where we can dig in the dirt and those people who share the same dirt under their fingernails. Radical ecumenism is about how we cultivate friendships that provide space for our mission to proclaim God’s love. And our ecumenical hope, if we want to take Lesslie Newbigin seriously, looks like moments of organic unity among local communities discovering the movement of the Holy Spirit as we share from the overflow of God’s love.

No plot of earth is the same. Soil cultures vary from place to place. Similarly, our churches are planted in various contexts across the land. And each church must discern what kind of ecumenical organisms can grow in the land where God has planted them.

Our Mennonite church in Chapel Hill, Durham, N.C., receives its organic unity with the Friends from necessity—we don’t own a building, so we have to rent space. But this necessity is an unexpected gift, the gift of relationships across denominational lines. Our separate fellowships send out roots toward one another, even if it’s only one hidden root at a time.

Our radical ecumenism is only one version among a multitude of others. Creative examples abound. In Chapel Hill, churches participate in a pulpit exchange one weekend a year where each congregation sends their pastor to preach at another church, while receiving the Word from a neighboring pastor. In Durham, Pastor Spencer Bradford cancelled the regularly scheduled Sunday service at Durham Mennonite Church and led the congregation to Mt. Calvary Church (UCC) for worship. In another neighborhood, churches started a communal garden where people have a chance to nourish unexpected friendships while providing food for families.

These are a few examples that witness to the various possibilities for local ecumenical movements. If ecumenism is to be truly radical, then it’s not something that distant leaders can create in the branches and leaves. Rather, this kind of rooted ecumenism emerges from the local soils where our churches grow. Congregations test their soils and decide how and where to sow ecumenical seeds that produce plants bearing fruit of the Spirit for all the neighbors to enjoy. That’s when we find that our ecumenical church is also our missional church—one embracing movement of God’s love.

Isaac S. Villegas

Isaac S. Villegas of Durham, N.C., is president of the North Carolina Council of Churches and an ordained Mennonite minister. Read More

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