When Jesus looks at your village, town or city he sees just one church. You may be a different expression of that from the one down the road. But Jesus sees you as one. Claire Farley unpacks what this might look like for you in your community
What goes through your mind when you hear the word ‘unity’?
Before you read on, think for 60 seconds about that word, talk to God about your thoughts and invite him to speak.
Recently we have seen many events highlighting disunity in the world around us: Brexit, the war in Ukraine, riots in America to name a few. Sadly, in Church history we have also seen much disunity and division, but we have also seen how God is still able to work through his Church and in our increasingly fractured world.
I believe we have an opportunity to demonstrate unity in our work and ministry through our interdenominational relationships.
My understanding of inter-church unity comes from my experience growing up in Winchester in an era when my church and churches of other denominations were coming together to pray for the city.
These churches had united services, taking it in turns to lead worship, preach and lead prayers, and the church leaders’ good relationships were modelled from the stage. Unity was highlighted as a priority within ministry.
My youth worker took us along to united services, worked collaboratively with other local youth workers and led us in praying for our city, our friends, our schools and communities.
In those formative years I watched as united worship, teaching and ministry paved the way for united mission events and youth work, and then at 18 I co-led an outreach youth cafe in a school at the end of the summer holidays.
Thankfully young people from across the city’s youth groups were willing to staff it and it ran for four years and then a youth congregation began in its wake.
Then I went to university in London and when I asked about local churches working together, I expected to find the same beautiful, not perfect, not easy, but still awesome inter-church unity. But it was not the same, and I realised that I had had the privilege of seeing something that not everybody sees.
“Unity is clearly a big deal to Jesus”
Jesus and unity
Theologians far more equipped than me have reflected for many years on unity and interdenominational dynamics in ministry and I think we must continue to be brave in asking who God is. And how are we meant to follow him?
In John 17, Jesus prays for his followers to be united just as the Trinity is united. He prays for people to recognise his divinity through the unity they see in the Church.
Unity is clearly a big deal to Jesus. These are big prayers. Moreover, this priority is echoed in Paul’s letters to the early churches and in Revelation 7, in the image of a great and diverse multitude worshipping Jesus together.
Before we think about how unity can work on a practical level, I want to ask some questions about what we believe.
- Do we believe God is at work in denominations other than our own?
- Do we believe God wants us to build relationships with Christians from denominations other than our own?
- Do we believe that these relationships across denominations are part of our witness to the world?
- Do we expect interdenominational unity in ministry and mission to be part of our work?
A starting point for unity
In the past, I have fallen into the trap of spiritual intellectual elitism and I am so grateful for the grace and kindness of those who have helped me think more about why I believe what I do and how those beliefs shape the good and bad practice in my work.
Critical reflection and the power of God helps us get better at youth and children’s ministry and this benefits us as well as those we serve.
I am sure most of us would agree that there are some things that we can easily unite on – our core belief and trust in Christ, the Trinity and the mission of God in the world.
However, we can still be united on these things and diverse in the nature of our worship, our styles of prayer and the way we gather within our own denominations and church communities. The diversity within the body of Christ is something to recognise and celebrate and not squash in the pursuit of unity.
A wise friend of mine who has served in youth and children’s ministry for years said this:
“United evangelism, social activities and some leadership training can be done well on a regular basis. United worship and teaching (eg on residentials) can occasionally be done well across denominations, but please don’t get an idea for a great new worship and teaching event and expect everyone else to get similarly excited and come to it.
That’s not united working. Instead, meet with other youth leaders and hear what God is calling them to. Share what you feel God is calling you to and take it from there. Maybe God will be leading all of you in the same direction and you can work together in unity.”
And if God is calling you into different things, then that is not disunity. We can be each other’s allies and cheerleaders, supporting, enabling and empowering each other in this work.
We can be praying that God’s kingdom will come through each other’s work because we know that in the kingdom of God there is no such thing as competition.
When I look back on my own experience of inter-church work I see that during my time at university unity did seem to grow between churches in my area. Ministers began meeting to pray together and doing pulpit swaps where they preached in each other’s churches.
Churches Together activity increased, youth workers met and prayed together, and some inter-church youth-work events took place. It was good for us in leadership, for young people and people of all ages in our churches and it was good for the witness of the Christian Union at the university, and for people in our local community.
Outbreak of unity
Soul in the City in 2004 was helpful for many churches across London. This mission supported churches coming together in local outreach by providing opportunities for young people and youth workers to help run events and lead mission activities. I led a group of six young people and we joined in with the work in Barking and Dagenham.
One afternoon we went to a large park to invite anyone we met to events happening in the evening. There weren’t many people around and as I was sat on the grass, I suddenly felt like there had been Christians worshipping there in that park.
I questioned my sanity as I regularly do, and prayed that if I was wrong that there would be Christians worshipping in that place again and that God would do his work there. We went back to the church hall for dinner and afterwards I spotted a couple of the local church leaders talking together.
I wandered over and shared my slightly weird experience from earlier that day with them.
It turned out that they had held a united worship event in that park, and they started talking about doing it again. I don’t know the next part of the story, but I know that for Jesus’ unity was a priority in his prayers just before he died and rose again, and that he connected our unity to our evangelism.
In Barking and Dagenham on that day unity in worship and unity in mission were colliding.
A few years later in 2008, Hope Together began as Mike Pilavachi, Roy Crowne and Andy Hawthorne brought together churches of different denominations to put faith into words and action.
1,500 areas got involved with young people taking the lead. As church leaders saw the impact of churches working together, they asked HOPE to continue as a catalyst for mission nationwide.
The Hope Together website states: “Prayer, faith, words and action characterise all HOPE does – and we realise we are stronger together than apart, so we encourage churches of different denominations and ethnicities to work together with others in their village, town or city.
We provide support, ideas and resources to equip Christians to put faith into words and action to make Jesus known.”
I am sure there will be many places across the UK where this combination of youth work, mission and inter-church unity are found and are powerfully at work. I wonder whether after the disruption of lockdowns as many churches and youth groups are gathering again and re-establishing themselves, it might be a good time to look at rebuilding interdenominational relationships and considering working together in unity again.
In Torbay in south-west England, LiNX Christian Youth Trust was established by church leaders with a heart to serve young people and secondary schools across the area. Over the years the team has grown and the work has developed and continues to this day.
In the area, it is a well-known example of churches united by a heart to serve and love their community by providing excellent youth workers to secondary schools. As well as other interdenominational events, every Monday at 6am a group of Christians from a variety of backgrounds meet together to pray for this work and all the work God is doing in the local community.
Attending a prayer meeting at 6am was not an idea I was keen on but whenever I made it along I was blown away by the power of God as people prayed.
Unity in prayer
I love the image from the 24/7 prayer movement of prayer as a boiler room. Boiler rooms offer an image of prayer as an engine of growth and that rings so true for me as I reflect on the complicated task of pursuing interdenominational unity.
Prayer helps us draw near to God. Prayer helps us care more about our community. God speaks to us in times of prayer with ideas on how to reach people with his love and then prepares the way for us within our communities, working in the hearts of people who do not yet know him.
In all the places I have lived I have seen how God has used prayer to move people’s hearts. As people have drawn near to God in prayer, he has met with them and inspired them by his Spirit with ideas for mission that have made a profound impact on the lives of individuals and communities.
For example, Thy Kingdom Come is a prayer movement that seeks to inspire Christians to pray for more people to come to know Jesus. It started in 2016 in the Church of England and has since become global and ecumenical.
It seems to me that prayer is a good place to begin when thinking about and pursuing interdenominational unity and mission. If Walter Wink is right and “history belongs to the intercessors”, then this is an opportunity to shape the future of villages, towns, cities, nations and the world.
For those who feel like they want to take this further I have compiled a list of a few resources below to help you start. I hope and pray God inspires and encourages you in your work. Maybe you are wondering what one thing you could do next. Here are some ideas:
- Pray for people in your village, town, city or nation.
- Walk or run around your area and pray for every church that meets there.
- Talk to Christians you know about interdenominational unity.
- Build up a friendship with someone from a different denomination.
- Read a resources from a different denomination to your own.
- Look up Hope Together and think about what God might want to do in your context.
- Map the history and current status of interdenominational ministry and mission in your area. Praise God, seek his forgiveness and or pray about what has gone before, what is happening now and what God wants to do in the future.
Holy Trinity Brompton (Anglican church)
The history of Hope Together
Pais Movement, a missional movement that enables young people to grow and lead in mission and ministry, always works with and promotes unity between churches and is reaching communities around the world in innovative ways.
The Difference Course – following Jesus in a conflicted world. Watch the trailer below.