Can we walk together?

July 31, 2006

A MONTH AFTER RETURNING FROM ROME, I AM STILL PROCESSING THE THOUGHTS AND IMPRESSIONS OF THE ‘FOCOLARE TRAIL’. Travelling for ten days in a bus from Trent to Rome with fellow passengers from a wide church background-Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, Pentecostal and free church-produced lively dialogues.

For me this was no mere academic exercise. In YWAM, we are asking ourselves how inter-confessional we want to be-or are called to be. To label YWAM as ‘evangelical-pentecostal’ truly describes our origins. But does that prescribe who we are called to be?

As we have grown and spread our activities worldwide, we find ourselves increasingly in contact with believers from traditions other than the evangelical-pentecostal roots of YWAM. These include the Armenian Apostolic, the Egyptian Coptic and Antiochian Orthodox Churches, all of which claim to precede the Roman Catholic Church and other Orthodox churches.

Such traditions are very distinct from Protestant free church traditions at the start of the 21st century. For most westerners they require quite a cultural adaptation. So what is our task as YWAM in such cultures? How can we avoid the classical mistake of assuming our job is to win people over to our cultural form of Christianity? What could and should we learn from these ancient traditions? Many assume such traditions are just dead and that no-one could be a genuine believer in such a structure – but is that always true? Can we be part of healing some of history’s most painful schisms? Or is it simply na√Øve even to raise the question?

Clearly God desires brotherly love and unity with diversity among his people. He wants a witness of unity that testifies to the world that Jesus has been sent from the Father, as we read in John 17. We believe our calling as a mission is to work with ALL of the Body of Christ. Obviously that is not the same as saying we must work with every institution that calls itself ‘Church’. But how and where do we draw a line?

The safest way is to live within a ‘bounded set’: simply draw up a statement of faith and decide we will only work and fellowship with those who agree with us. But our experience in YWAM is that we have met many who genuinely love Jesus and want to live in obedience to him, who may not fit our bounded set. That is true for young people from Armenian, Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox traditions on different continents. It may not be ‘safe’ to seek ways we can walk and fellowship together, and to explore common ground and encourage each other towards biblical faith-but do we really have an option?

Real problems do exist, of course, for example in countries where Catholicism has been a majority. Animosity if not outright persecution of evangelicals and pentecostals is still common in parts of South America.

So we have set up a task force as YWAM International to explore our relationship with the so-called ‘ancient churches’ – churches which emerged in the first millennium. We need to address some key questions: what ancient treasures are there to recover? What ancient wounds need healing? What gifts do we as YWAM bring to the table? How can we bless these ancient traditions? What temptations are there to compromise on our values? How do we create an ethos compatible with YWAM values and old traditions? Are there ways to partner in missions together with these ancient churches? How can we do the above without causing offence to parts of the body of Christ?

Some felt, for example, that the ‘Focolare Trail’ simply demonstrated na√Øvet√©; that such movements as I have been describing over the past weeks are powerful arms of the Catholic ecumenical strategy aiming to absorb other Christian churches and movements into the Catholic fold.

One respondent to an earlier Weekly Word even wondered if we believed in a different Gospel than most evangelicals. I wish he could have been part of the dialogue on board our bus.

On my return, I found perspective on some of these issues from an article in a journal awaiting me in the mail, explaining four theological categories-of opposition, of taking distance, of walking together, and of acceptance.

Next week I’ll explain how these concepts apply to the questions raised above.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,


Leave a Reply

Sign up for Weekly Word