Today at work, I had a long, meandering conversation with a coworker inspired by his looking through some of the material at Pillar on the Rock last night. The fellow in question is a convert to Catholicism who started out as a Southern Baptist—obviously our views diverge a bit on the correct form of church government, as well as a host of other issues.
As I was driving home, I was pondering the conversation with him, and thinking through some of the factors that might lead someone toward Roman Catholicism. For completely unrelated reasons, I was thinking about Christian bookstores, and how very little space in them is devoted to Catholicism—despite the fact that, despite my significant differences with Roman Catholic doctrine, it is far more orthodox than much of the dreck that is pushed front-and-center at the local Mardel. For some reason, the two different thought processes merged together and highlighted just how local much of Protestantism is in contrast to the global unity inherent in the Catholic structure.
Before anyone gets riled up, I'm not suggesting we return to the Catholic church or dump the principles of congregational government. I don't think either would be a good idea. However, I think it is important to reflect on some of the things that have been lost since the Reformation, especially as Protestant churches have continued to splinter and factionalize. There are many problems with the hierarchical structure embodied by the Roman, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches. One thing they do well, however, which other denominations do less well the more congregational they are, is consciously reinforce the connection of believers all around the world.
I am united by faith with believers in Peru, Italy, the Sudan, and Vietnam. However, I am united with them only by faith. We have no organizational ties; there is nothing mundane (other than perhaps missions donations) connecting me to them or them to me. That can make it difficult to remember that we are part of the same church, connected as deeply as can be. For all their other flaws, the hierarchical structures have an institutional connection to each other—they have common leaders and authorities, common methodologies, common doctrine. In short, there is a practical advantage to those structures in some ways, despite the theological problems with them—at least when it comes to remembering that we are part of the church universal.
There are a number of ways to help correct this deficiency in Protestant circles. First, of course, is simply teaching. We need to be reminded of our commonality with our brothers and sisters around the world, because we do not have existing institutional reminders. Pastors must find particular ways to highlight this as it is relevant in sermons. They can also make a point to model prayer for fellow believers in countries on the other side of the world. If the church has particular missions ties to particular people groups or nations, they can regularly make mention of those not only in the service but in prayer request emails and on their websites.
Second, I think it may be helpful to just get outside of our cultural box as much as possible. Even breaking out of the walls of our own church to partner with likeminded but culturally different churches in our own area can help here—the middle class suburban church teaming up with an urban plant, a primarily-Hispanic church joining with a largely-Asian fellowship, etc. Beyond this, short-term missions that focus on developing relationships with both nonbelievers and missionaries in foreign cultures, receiving visitors from foreign cultures, and long-term partnerships with ministry workers in cross-cultural evangelism can all help us see how we are connected to believers around the globe.
At an individual level, many of the same options are valuable, but others exist, as well. Resources like Operation World can help us see the big picture of God's work in the world. Church history can help us see our place not only globally but historically, and emphasize that we are part of God's ongoing work throughout all the world—every tribe, every tongue, and every nation. Wherever we can break out of our narrow, localized perspective, we will be able to see our connection to believers the world over better—and perhaps that will help us be more faithful and effective where we are.
In closing, one final, striking thought: I've spent this whole post discussing ways we can remember that we are united with believers the world over. So stop for a moment and ponder that: you and I, by faith in Christ, are deeply, meaningfully united with people who have nothing else in common with us—not language, or ethnicity, or social strata, or continent, or history. But our unity in Christ far surpasses everything that could divide us. Remember that.