We hear this question all the time. You have probably heard it. Maybe you’ve asked it.
“How do you get pastors to work together when they disagree about doctrine, practice, and what they should do together?”
At the Luis Palau Association, we get a front row seat to watch hundreds of local churches unite to proclaim the gospel in cities around the world. This type of church unity is undoubtedly a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. It also requires the dynamic partnership of willing leaders from diverse ethnic, denominational, and socio-economic backgrounds. When we work to unite the local churches in a city, we let pastors know that we are aware there are differing views on any number of topics ranging from theology to politics. Our aim is not to work through each point of divergence with a fine-tooth comb. Instead, we strive to keep local pastors focused on the core convictions that have marked the Church for thousands of years: Jesus, the Church, and the power of the gospel to restore lives.
Focusing on convictions we all share deters points of disagreement on secondary issues to steal the spotlight. Differences exist—and always will—between churches. We believe differences on secondary topics can add richness to the citywide body of Christ, and that unity can be sought in the midst of disagreements (Acts 15; 1 Cor. 1:10).
Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?
Eric Swanson and Sam Williams are gospel movement thought-leaders who helpfully reframe points of disagreement in their book To Transform a City. Swanson and Williams contrast “bounded-set” and “centered-set” thinking (philosophies originally discovered by Paul Hiebert from Fuller Seminary in the 1970s). “Bounded-set” leaders are those who ask: “Do you believe like I believe?” The respondents’ answer to this question determines whether or not partnership is possible. The question seeks to find points of dissimilarity rather than similarity by focusing on the beliefs of leaders rather than on a problem they could solve together.
In contrast, “centered-set” leaders ask: “Do you care about what I care about?” Centered-set philosophy invites leaders who share core convictions to work together. This does not mean that everyone looks and acts the same; instead it means we choose to focus on the things we all care about. As leaders focus more on how they want to solve the same issues, more focus and energy can be allocated toward problem-solving than pinpointing reasons why working together is not possible.
Real-life Example of Overcoming Disagreement
For Charlotte, an organization in Charlotte, North Carolina blends centered-set and bounded-set questions when inviting pastors to join other churches in the citywide gospel movement. Three simple questions are asked:
Do you love Jesus?
Do you love the Church?
Do you believe the city can be transformed by the united Church?
“Yeses” to these questions focus participants on core biblical convictions, while allowing room for particularities on other topics. Rob Kelly, President and CEO of For Charlotte, can be heard saying “We welcome those with smells and bells; those who sprinkle and those who dunk; pre-millennial, post-millennial. We just want to know whether you care about gospel centrality, church unity, and city transformation.”
Disagreements on doctrine, practice, and what leaders should do together certainly exist. But we have found pastors surprised by the unity they can experience when deliberate effort is put towards focusing on how we are better together than apart. Hungry for more inspiration and ideas? Learn how pastors are working in small cohorts to focus on one common goal in Seattle, Washington.
Idea for a Next Step:
In the coming week, we invite you to take 10 minutes to brainstorm creative partnerships that may be right under your nose.
Make a list of as many people from your city as you can who you think would say “Yes” to the three questions Rob Kelly asks leaders in Charlotte.
Ask yourself: “Are there leaders I am surprised to see on my list? If so, whom?”
Consider reaching out to one of these leaders to hear their dreams for your city. You may be surprised to recognize you share the same hopes for your city.