The mosaic of us

Where God artfully fits together our past, present, and future as Brethren in Christ

By Alan Robinson, with Dulcimer Hope Brubaker
The mosaic of us
Photos by Bo Williams

Several years ago the Brethren in Christ in North America adopted a vision statement that declared, “God is calling the BIC Church in North America by 2020 to be an expanding mosaic of churches, all seeing lives transformed by Jesus Christ.” A mosaic? Intrigued, I embarked on some research.

Now, it’s a universally accepted fact that everything you read on the Internet is correct. So when I wanted to get a quick and accurate definition of the word mosaic I simply Googled “What is a mosaic?” and Wikipedia informed me that “Mosaic is the art of creating images with an assemblage of small pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials.”

I love the analogy of our church family being an image comprised of many small pieces. Our denominational vision identifies the pieces of material in the mosaic as “churches,” but these congregations are themselves mosaics consisting of people. Our denominational vision is, therefore, to be a mosaic of other mosaics. And these mosaics are made up of many different people. Real people. People with unique lives and stories and journeys and backgrounds.

However, the Brethren in Christ vision is not merely to be a mosaic but, rather, an expanding mosaic of churches, always changing. New additions will contrast with the current pieces. And the current components already have significantly different colors and textures from those that comprised the work in previous years and decades. It’s constantly being transformed.

How to make a mosaic

The analogy of a growing and changing mosaic is rooted in the commission of Jesus to His disciples to “make disciples of all nations.” Being open to the new things God is doing in the world can be very exhilarating and God-honoring work. But it does not come without risk. After all, an expanding and changing mosaic could take on any number of different styles. It’s just like adding new people to your family through marriage, birth, or adoption: New people change the family portrait. This change can be incredibly wonderful and beautiful. On the other hand, the potential exists for the important aspects of our identity to get diluted or even lost completely, such that we can no longer see the family resemblance.

One of the prevalent fears I have heard during my first year in this new denominational role is that the Brethren in Christ are losing the parts of our family identity that we do not want to lose. Some people have even suggested that the family resemblance—our distinctive theological identity—has already faded amid the growth and change of an expanding mosaic. To put it in other words, if we took a denominational “selfie,” some say the resulting picture would bear no likeness to the family portraits of the past.

Just like us, the Early Church had the daunting task of maintaining unity as various cultures clashed and collided within.

The closest I have ever come to making a mosaic is assembling a jigsaw puzzle. I have never been a jigsaw puzzle aficionado, but I have fond memories of competing against my younger daughter (who was 5 or 6 at the time) to see how fast we could complete one of her puzzles. Naturally, I retired from this important competition as the reigning champion. Like all puzzle whizzes, I knew that the process goes much easier and more quickly if you can locate and correctly position the four corner pieces. They are easy to find because, unlike the other pieces, they have two straight sides that come together in a 90-degree angle. Together, these four corner pieces begin to form the framework within which all the other pieces fit. They distinguish what is inside the puzzle from the loose pieces that are scattered around outside.

Start with the center

Our church is not as tidy or straightforward as a jigsaw puzzle. We don’t have a vibrant color image on the top of the box to tell us what the final image should look like. Our various elements were not custom-cut in a factory for a perfect, snug fit. And we don’t have four easily distinguished corner pieces to frame and contain us. What we do have at the very center of our expanding and changing mosaic is Christ—His life, ministry, and example as expressed in the New Testament. With Christ at our center, we also have the richness and distinctive textures of four different theological movements that have influenced us and made us who we are as Brethren in Christ—Anabaptism, Pietism, Wesleyanism, and Evangelicalism. Radiating out from the center, each of these perspectives brings its own style and palette to the mosaic, informing and flowing into each new piece we add.

The first foundational piece is Anabaptism. The radical reformers or Anabaptists of the 16th century called followers of Jesus to pledge their allegiance to Christ and His kingdom through believer’s baptism. Those who were thus baptized voluntarily separated themselves from the world by living a life of nonconformity, especially in relation to coercion and violence. From Anabaptism, we gain our distinctive understandings of peace, nonconformity, mutual accountability, and the pursuit of a simple lifestyle.

In counterbalance to Anabaptism, the 18th-century movement of Pietism focused on the heart of the person and his or her personal experience of God. This emphasis on a personal experience in the heart led us Brethren in Christ to an emphasis on love—God’s love for us and our love for God—an emotion that was to be felt and experienced in relationship. Out of the convergence of Anabaptism and Pietism, the BIC were born, and after these center pieces were in place, everything else followed.

Next, the Brethren in Christ were influenced by the Wesleyan emphasis on holiness. This perspective has strongly informed our theology of salvation so that we do not see salvation as merely justification or forgiveness; but we believe in a process that entirely transforms the whole person so that he or she is more and more conformed to the image and likeness of Jesus.

The most recent addition to the center of our mosaic is Evangelicalism. It is a complex movement that includes an emphasis on sharing the Good News, receiving the saving grace of God that comes through faith alone, and acknowledging the inspiration of Scripture—values that provide balance and harmony to the other three theologies. However, Evangelicalism can also bring with it beliefs and traditions that may clash with the other pieces of our Brethren in Christ mosaic. So we must carefully heed the advice of Luke Keefer, Jr., to be “evangelicals with a difference.”

Move with the Spirit

Even with these foundational pieces in place, I know some of us are looking at our church “selfie” and wondering where the family resemblance is. To answer that question, I revisit the expanding mosaic of the Early Church. Over a relatively short period of time this group of believers, consisting of many women and men who actually walked with Jesus, underwent such dramatic changes that it probably wouldn’t have recognized itself, either—except for the undeniable resemblance it bore to Jesus.

Consider some examples from Acts. The first—and probably most painful—adjustment these believers had to face was the physical absence of Jesus. Promising His Spirit and commissioning them as witnesses, Jesus is taken up into the clouds. In response, the disciples begin a continuous process of seeking God to organize themselves, figure out what it means to be witnesses, and determine how to faithfully follow a Lord and teacher who is no longer physically present (Acts 1:7–26).

Just 10 days later, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit really shakes things up:

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1–4).

After the Spirit came, the Church couldn’t stay local anymore; it was time to hit the road. Just as Jesus had promised, they now had the ability and responsibility to spread the Good News of the grace they’d received. This reminds me of the momentous change we Brethren in Christ experienced when believers were inspired to share our faith through overseas mission work. We were no longer homogenous, contained within a few regions of the U.S. and Canada; we became a global community, embracing many cultures.

And just like us, the Early Church had the daunting task of maintaining unity as various cultures clashed and collided within. Acts 6 tells of a disagreement—and the subsequent response—regarding how the Hebrew and Hellenistic Jews cared for the poor among them. And in Acts 15, Peter calls the Church to a brave new faith that relies less on laws and more on grace.

“ ‘Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. . . . We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are’ ” (Acts 15:7–11).

This change must have been unbearable for some believers with strong convictions about Jewish customs. Without the sign of circumcision, how could they communicate that they were set apart, a holy people devoted to God? And some Brethren in Christ brothers and sisters have undoubtedly wrestled with similar questions as we gradually exchanged plain dress for jeans and t-shirts; German for English; and a cappella worship for organs and choirs, eventually giving way to modern worship bands.

But, like the Early Church, many of us changed because what mattered most to us was following Jesus. Even though He’s not physically present with us, Jesus is still speaking to us, leading us, guiding us. And we are His physical representation on Earth, responding to the world around us in a way that honors and obeys Him. This means that our mosaic is going to be changing and expanding all the time as new people join us and as God breathes life into new modes of ministry.

As for what our mosaic will look like—what picture will we make when all the pieces come together? I don’t know. Maybe we won’t know until we get to Heaven. But I hope it looks a lot like Jesus.

This article originally appeared in the summer 2014 issue of In Part magazine.
Alan Robinson

Alan Robinson is the national director of the BIC Church in the U.S. He lives with his wife, Sharon, in Carlisle, Pa.

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