Scot McKnight on A Fellowship of Differents in the Local Church

Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament, Northern Seminary, in Lombard Illinois. He and Kris have been married for over 41 years, they have two children and two grandchildren. Scot is an author of more than fifty books including the recent Kingdom Conspiracy and A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together.

KW: What personal experiences have shaped your view of the local church?

SM: I grew up in our local Baptist church – Sunday morning for Sunday School class, Sunday sermon, frequent Sunday meal with families in the church, and Sunday evening service followed by youth group. Then there was Wednesday night prayer meeting followed on Thursday night with choir practice (my mother was the director, my father sang, my siblings and I were carted along – and we found things to do in the church or, in the summer, in the schoolyard next to the church). We were the first to arrive at church and often the last to leave.

As a college student I was an associate youth pastor for about two-and-a-half years.

We have always gone to church; never in our life were we not attending a church.

We have participated in Baptist churches, non-denominational churches, Brethren assemblies, a megachurch (Willow Creek), and Anglican churches.

My church experiences are probably normal: some churches were good and others not as good; some times I was in a critical mood and others times in a receptive mood; we’ve never participated in a perfect church. That has shaped me immensely.

I have learned from each and am grateful (mostly) for each!

Finally, though at times I have wondered if the Lord might call me into pastoring, I am settled into being a professor and sometimes preacher and knowing hundreds of pastors as friends.

KW: What do you think are some of the biggest misconceptions people have about the local church?

SM: Most “misconceptions” are far more often “disappointments” with churches folks have been part of. Perhaps the misconception is that all churches are like the one in which they experienced something that turned them off from the church.

Perhaps the biggest is to expect too much of a local church, to idealize it, and therefore to experience something less and be disappointed and then develop the misconception that churches don’t live up to the ideals. I have often said “if we expect less we will get more.” (We will get what the church really is.)

Churches are not designed for the perfect and holy but for the imperfect and sinful. This is not to accept mediocrity in the Christian life but to confess that no matter what church we find it will be imperfect because it is made of the imperfect or not-yet-perfected people in it. Grace is the foundation of the church.

KW: Why do you think so many evangelicals are leaving the local church? Are there reasons you disagree with?

SM: I have to say that the numbers indicating leaving are not there, as shown in the statistical studies of Rodney Stark (Baylor), Christian Smith (Duke/Notre Dame), and Brad Wright (U Mass). People are not leaving today any more (perhaps less) than they have done in the last century. We often hear about church exoduses but the numbers aren’t there and I am compelled to say that as often as I get a chance.

That being said, there are reasons people leave that I disagree with: as divorce is easy so leaving church is easy. The rugged commitment to one another that ought to shape a person’s commitment to a church has been transcended today by seeing church as a place to go to hear a sermon and get something, and if the sermon isn’t good enough or if the person is not getting enough out of it, they pack up and move on. This denies the fundamental commitment to one another in the New Testament church as a fellowship. Leaving a church needs to be experienced more like a divorce than a change of scenery.

KW: Why do you think the church is such a dominant shaping force in how we come to understand Christ?

SM: We learn all we learn in the context of others. We learn to do math through our family or school; we learn to read from parents and siblings and we learn to read by reading what people give us to read and that kind of reading shapes what we know about reading. I could go on like this but the point is probably clear:

What we learn we learn in context.

The great sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in their magnificent book The Social Construction of Reality, called this early phase of learning primary socialization. What they taught us though was more than that we learn from our parents, churches, siblings and schools as a kind of primary socialization.

What they taught us was this: what we absorb in primary socialization becomes the real world to us; it is “reality” and it is the true reality we know. Just thinking about this shakes me to the core about the importance of family life, school life, and church life.

Now to church: the church is the spiritual/religious/Christian primary socialization and thus the primary construction of reality for us.

Yes, we learn about the Christian life in the home but the home is not the fullness that the Body of Christ is, which is a fellowship of different folks but includes our family.

So, we learn the Christian life as a primary socialization process in the church.

KW: What do Christians miss if their church is a fellowship of sameness rather than of differents?

SM: Most churches are not entirely the same – for there will be age and economic and education differences. But if we are all the same in a general sense – ethnicity, educational expectations, economic levels, theological articulations, etc – we will not learn to experience the fullness of God’s work in this world. Our church will be stunted and our growth of learning from and growing from differences will be stunted.

Let us put it this way: some day the church will be engulfed in the kingdom of God, in heaven. When that day arrives, all Christians will be together and for many of us that will be the first time we worship and dwell with those who are significantly different. We will be on a steep learning curve that was supposed to happen on this side of heaven.

The challenge of ethnic, economic and educational diversity in our churches is that we need to understand others, we have to learn to love those who are not like us, and we will need to learn to fellowship with, cooperate with, and make decisions with those who are not like us. That’s hard, hard, hard. That’s the church.

If Kris and I can make all the decisions, things go easier; if I make all the decisions, or if Kris makes all the decisions, things go even easier; throw in Jay and Susan and Amanda and Erik and Katie and Jon and Bob and JoAnn and Lesley and Gil – and now we’ve got people with different ideas and desires and hopes and theologies. It’s messy and hard and challenging. That’s the church. This is what God wants and why God gives us the Spirit – to transcend difference and to transform us into loving people.

The church is about knowing others, loving others, and transcending other-hood in a unity in Christ.

KW: Do you have any recommendations for Christians and churches who desire to take steps toward becoming a more diverse fellowship of differents?

SM: First, the pastors and leaders must establish a pattern and example of meeting with others who are not like them in the community and persons in the church should intentionally act to include others in fellowship situations such as coffee, meals and other outings. Second, churches should become aware of the differences, value the differences, and establish the value of differences related to who gets to be at the decision table, who gets to be on the platform, and who gets to do what. As the church does this everyone should discuss what they are learning, and finally, keep doing it. Time will create a fellowship of differences.

KW: What excites you most about the growing movement for unity, equality, and diversity in churches?

SM: There is a growing hope for boundary-crossings, but this may be the biggest challenge the American church faces – because it permits choice on Sunday and which church to “attend” (notice that inadequate word) and hence we have institutionalized choice of same-ness and like-ness – is to deconstruct sameness for the glory of different-ness.

What excites me is that this is what God wants and what the Spirit empowers us to do. But we must surrender.

KW: How does A Fellowship of Differents build on or interact with your previous book Kingdom Conspiracy?

SM: That book sought to show that Jesus’ kingdom vision was for the church, at the local level and universal level, to become a counter culture that embodied rule under Christ. In other words, it sought to show that kingdom is church life.

A Fellowship of Differents fills that picture out by showing how the kingdom-church reality under Christ reshapes the Christian life into a life that focuses on grace, love, fellowship, holiness and a life that flourishes with one another.

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Categories: Church & Theology

Theology and Culture