We leaned in, straining to understand what he’d said. The Nicaraguan pastor was sharing his vision for the Brethren in Christ Church in his country, when he’d used a phrase that caught our attention—evangélio integral. We’d recently arrived in Nicaragua, and since we were still learning the language, the phrase was new to us.
We knew that evangélio referred to the Gospel. But we had to think about the meaning behind integral. Prior to this, our primary context for the word was in the grocery store, where pan integral is whole wheat bread. Piecing the two concepts together, we came up with “whole wheat Gospel.”
As we continued listening, we realized that the pastor was sharing about an evangélio, or Gospel, that is holistic, offering good news to transform every part of life and community.
This pastor probably never intended for us to associate his vision with a loaf of whole wheat bread, but we find this analogy helpful as we consider what it means to be an increasingly diverse and global denomination. When we as Brethren in Christ come together with all of our differences, we remember that we seek to live and share an evangélio integral, a Gospel that transforms everything—the physical and spiritual, the inner and outer, the individual and the whole body of Christ.
A whole wheat theology
As Brethren in Christ, ours is a history of receptiveness to new moves of God’s Spirit, of emphasizing our Core Values on one side while listening carefully to fresh interpretations on the other. We see this over the course of centuries, as our spiritual ancestors experienced awakening and growth through the Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Holiness movements. More recently, we have found resonance with Evangelical themes from North America, as well as Pentecostal ideas from South America and Africa. Our theology is a lot like whole wheat bread—composed of various fortifying ingredients.
This perspective speaks into the ways we practice our theological convictions. If you look at a slice of whole wheat bread, you’ll notice that it is not all the same color or texture, with chunks of grains and seeds interspersed. In a similar way, some churches resonate with Wesleyan teachings on holiness and may reflect that “chunk” of our heritage; others strongly emphasize Anabaptist principles; and still others reflect Evangelical practices.
The challenge for us is to remember that not every part needs to be ground up and refined; in fact, we will be healthier if we are not highly processed and homogenous. Instead, we try to blend our emphases and practices together through prayer and discernment, listening carefully to one another, and trusting the yeast of God’s Spirit to shape us into something that can nourish our hungry world.
A sustaining identity
Just as we experience diversity and enrichment through our theological streams, we now have the exciting challenge of honoring diverse perspectives locally, nationally, and globally. At a local level, we recognize that no congregation is homogenous. Even when members might look similar outwardly, each person is shaped by a unique blend of family background, political opinion, and cultural experience. Each person contributes to our whole wheat community.
From a more collective perspective, the BIC U.S. community grows more culturally diverse every year. Nearly one-third of our churches worship primarily in Spanish, while the other two-thirds worship most often in English.
As we welcome increasing diversity and move forward into the future, we need to ask ourselves, What are the essential ingredients that make up our identity as Brethren in Christ? And who determines those ingredients?
In responding to these questions, we must intentionally engage perspectives from various backgrounds. This is one way we can model reconciliation to our world. In the U.S. today, polarizing gaps continue to widen between rich and poor, historic and recent immigrants, Republican and Democrat, young and old. Yet we have the opportunity—and the call—to create a community that transcends those gaps to reflect the kingdom of Heaven.
Even more, we have the privilege of talking about the essential ingredients of our faith as members of a global body. Although the BIC community initially emerged in the U.S., our family today includes brothers and sisters in over 30 countries. Since 1987, the BIC Church outside the U.S. has been larger (as determined by attendance) than the BIC Church within it. While our commitment to Christ remains the same, the ways we live out our identity as Brethren in Christ may be different. Again, we have the wonderful challenge of collaborative formation by listening to one another across national boundaries.
A rising community
Each congregation has the challenge and privilege of acting as “yeast” in our communities. Examples of active listening and identity-shaping across cultural divides are already occurring among us.
They’re happening across generations. For example, two congregations in central Pennsylvania—Messiah Village BIC, a faith community of retirees, and Engage Community, a church of mostly young families—realized the blessing that fellowship between them would bring, so they’ve been creating spaces for listening and learning together.
They’re happening across ideological divides through projects like Listen, in which young adults from the Pacific Regional Conference are organizing times of listening and respectful engagement with diverse perspectives. Or like the BIC churches that are establishing B.E.L.L.S., small groups that encourage members to Bless, Eat with, Listen to, and Learn from people both inside and outside their normal “Christian” circles.
They’re happening across cultures, as youth groups and congregations of English-speakers and Spanish-speakers come together in community service, creative outreach, or collaborative worship times, as we recently saw initiated by the BIC Church of Second Chances (Ontario, Calif.).
They’re happening across the world on a leadership level, as evidenced by the growth of the International Brethren in Christ Association (IBICA), which creates a setting for BIC leaders from around the world to gather, listen, and discern our common grains in the midst of different cultural contexts.
On a congregational level, BIC World Missions, Mennonite Central Committee, and Mennonite World Conference offer opportunities for international partnerships, in which congregations can engage in mutual encouragement, visiting, and learning.
To bless and feed the world
We personally experienced God’s spirit of unity this summer as we traveled to Central America, joining with BIC churches from Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and the U.S. to serve and learn together. Our differences were many, but we connected through Pietist practices like fasting and prayer. We shared in the Anabaptist practice of washing one another’s feet. We watched creativity emerge as we used our diverse experiences to minister to children.
We benefited from seeing our Central American team members’ commitment to the holistic message of the Gospel. And we realized that our journeys are very much the same—maintaining the substance of our faith while discerning what ingredients are necessary to engage others and demonstrate grace.
Indeed, as members of the global BIC family, we are all trying to live this evangélio integral, this whole wheat Gospel. On one hand, we need to be realistic about the barriers—like differences in language, political affiliation, and age—that have the potential to separate us. Yet it is in those moments that we look not to ourselves but to Jesus, who says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” We trust God to provide for us as we continue listening and actively engaging with one another to participate in how Jesus is blessing and feeding the world.
This article is adapted, with permission, from “Living a Whole Wheat Gospel” in the winter 2013 issue of Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation.