One of the best things about my work is the fact that I serve churches across a variety of traditions. I find it a great honor to enter into the life, tradition and culture of different streams of faith to see what God is already doing amongst a local church and help them develop small groups that fit them.
Last week, I had the honor of worshiping with, leading training sessions for and interacting amongst the leaders of Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, Texas. I participated in their high church service, their contemporary Uptown service and their very Anglo-Catholic evensong service. Then I attended the morning service on Monday at 7:30 a.m. Because I wanted to understand them so as to help them shape small groups that fit them, I needed to pray and worship with them.
This is a far cry from the low-church experience of most of my life.
I must admit, I’ve not always had this attitude toward other traditions. I grew up Southern Baptist, and to us our way was right and other ways were wrong. I’m not sure we knew why we thought this way, but our language definitely revealed how we thought we had a corner on the truth. The Pentacostals were “holy rollers.” The Presbyterians and Lutherans were “liberals.” The Catholics were “idolaters” because they prayed to Mary. And anybody who used a prayer book was just “dead, dry and boring.”
We were right. They were wrong.
While in seminary, I went to Russia on a missions trip with other students. We attended a Christmas Eve service at the grand Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in the heart of Saint Petersburg. When we arrived, an old lady was standing at the door trying to get people to make the sign of the cross. Lots of judgmental whispers were bantered around by our group. I thought, “I don’t need to do such things to pray to my God.”
We were right. They were wrong.
We were not trying to understand their worship practices. We were sitting in judgment of them.
Of course, I have my convictions that shape the ways I worship. No one can embrace everything from every tradition.
However, as I work with a variety of traditions, I’ve learned three things.
First, in order for me to worship in my tradition, I don’t have to assume that everyone else is wrong regarding the ways that they worship.
If I have to critique traditions in order for me to hold the convictions that I hold, then I must not have very strong convictions. When I try to substantiate what I believe by tearing down others, this says more about the weakness of my own convictions than about those I am challenging.
Second, I can learn from other traditions. I can experience God with them.
I can honor who they are and what God is doing in their midst. I can recognize the fact that I don’t have a corner on THE truth about all things while at the same time embracing the convictions that I do have. Here’s the shocker: I can even learn from other Christian leaders with whom I have huge disagreements. We don’t have to be an idealogue (that is one who thinks in terms of “my group is right/your group is wrong” categories) in order to serve God.
Third, I don’t have to convince other people of my convictions.
I’m not afraid to enter into dialogue about differences in convictions, but there is no need for me to try to win people over to my way.
There is a much bigger world out there than what “my way is right and your way is wrong” thinking can handle. It’s a world full of mystery, grace and fullness. It’s a world where others just might be able to see and experience God from an angle that I have not yet. This kind of thinking about other traditions has been good for my soul. I don’t have to be “right” and I don’t have to convince others that I’m right.
Let me conclude with this: This does not mean that I’ve become a relativist or that I am no longer standing up for what’s true—two common go-to accusations of those who think in terms of “I’m right and you’re wrong” when I offer this perspective. If that were the case, I would not be a writer because writing requires that I have convictions and that I believe them enough that I am willing to argue for them. It just means that I am free to offer my convictions without having to be entrapped by comparisons and the need to prove to others that I’m right.
This is a kind of freedom that I didn’t even know that I needed to experience.