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Reasons to Hope for a More Ecumenical Future

Sometimes, I’m not sure we really want to experience ecumenicalism or diversity. We say we do, but maybe we are afraid of being changed.

Most of the ecumenical events I see today seem to bring together persons who are like-minded from the start. They may belong to different churches, but most seem similar in convictions or political alliances (spoken or silent). I notice that some churches in my Baptist fellowship are more like other denominations than they are like Baptists. It’s interesting to see who’s missing at the table.

What could these missing voices offer?

I grew up in a church caught in the Southern Baptist controversy. Churches that had once partnered in youth and community events did not associate with one another. The question of whether women could preach or how monies would be designated trumped the Great Commission.

I still maintain dear friendships on both sides of the aisle. Both sides have reason for maintaining their affiliations. My heart hurts when I hear “misguided liberals” and “crazy fundamentalists” thrown around as derogatory stereotypes. Could it be possible that both sides have a sincere sense of the Great Commission, of caring for the poor, as representatives of Jesus Christ?

Is there anything we can still learn from one another?

I experienced a truly ecumenical event earlier this year. I, along with 130 young preachers, attended the National Festival of Young Preachers in Louisville, Ky., Jan. 6-8. Founded by Dwight Moody, with help from the Lily Endowment, the purpose of this festival was to encourage and empower young people of all denominations who feel the call to preach – and give them an opportunity to do so.

At 26 years, I was one of the older preachers in attendance.

My peers included Roman Catholics and Pentecostals, 14-year-olds and 28-year-olds, high school students and seminary graduates. Baptists of all stripes sat together during meals. I found myself hearing sermons from students at Morehouse College, Harvard Divinity School and Baptist Seminary of Kentucky.

In some ways, we did not feel that different. After listening to an Orthodox college student preach, I asked to see his sermon in particular because his denomination was so unlike mine. He replied, “You know, it’s not really that different.”

So what has made us feel so different? What has made us unable to be civil with one another?

My Orthodox friend, like many other preachers at the festival, had preached the Good News of God in flesh. Many young preachers possessed an inviting presence and thoughtful insight beyond their years. They discussed with one another matters of social justice and care for the overlooked and outcast.

In small talk, I did discover some theological differences and even a few disagreements. However, I never heard a hateful comment or personal attack about someone’s particular denomination or background. It’s hard to hate a friend. It’s difficult to be sour with a tablemate.

However, there were still some absent from the table. Most of the young preachers were either African-American or Anglo-American. Few, if any, Asian or Hispanic preachers attended. What might their voices offer? How could we have been better people for hearing their voices?

The National Festival of Young Preachers demonstrated that ecumenical dialogue can be done. We celebrated one another, affirmed one another and enjoyed one another’s company. The festival also gave me hope for the church in the United States. Some young people have not been caught up in denominational debates and competing ecclesial alliances. They don’t know why some churches won’t work together.

Celebrating our commonalities and doing what Jesus commanded may be the starting point in ecumenical dialogue. A variety of voices can help us grow in our discipleship and give us a deeper sense of mission. Perhaps today’s young leaders can lead the way. I hope we continue this hard, but necessary, task of ecumenicalism.

Kate Hanch is children’s ministry associate at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.