When we visualize the world, many of us conjure up images informed by photographs taken from space. For most of human history, these spectacular views of the Earth did not exist. But for those of us who were living when the first views of our planet from space came out, we remember the profound impact it had on our perspectives. As NASA photographic technician Jay Friedlander has observed, “We’re on this little Earth. We’re only part of some grand solar system in some big galaxy and universe. That’s why this picture is important, because this was the first time that anyone on Earth got this sense.”
Viewing our world from space helped us comprehend our place in the grand scheme of things and revealed the breathtaking beauty that we’re a part of. In the same way, having the opportunity to step back and look at the Church from a broader landscape than the one we usually see in our day-to-day lives can be eye-opening and magnificent. While celebrating what’s happening “here” in our local congregations and regions, we also proclaim the kingdom of God as it takes hold around the world—here and here and here—by being a part of a larger family, a denomination, which gives us a fuller view of the body of Christ in all its splendor.
A broadening vision
For much of our history, the full picture of the Brethren in Christ Church in North America would not have been so expansive. We were a relatively homogeneous community. Most of us were of European descent, spoke English (and, before that, German and Pennsylvania Dutch), lived in rural areas, grew up in BIC households, and were connected by family ties.
As we view the BIC Church in North America as a whole today, however, we look distinctly different. We’ve truly become a mosaic community of . . .
Dramatic change brings new opportunities and challenges
As a leader of our Church family in North America, I couldn’t be more grateful to God for His work among us. Those of us who worked on the Church’s vision priorities 10 years ago didn’t know how powerfully—or how quickly!—the Spirit would move in furthering our objectives of expanding into cities, reaching out to Spanish speakers, and inviting new people to join our movement.
In response to this growth, we have been blessed with an abundance of new opportunities, as well as new questions. What does it mean to be Brethren in Christ? And how do we, as a Church, nurture a shared identity, while seeking to become an expanding mosaic of churches, all seeing lives transformed by Jesus Christ?
One exciting opportunity our growth presents can be found in the rising number of people who are coming to Christ and joining our body. With fresh eyes and perspectives, these folks have infused new energy and commitment into elements of our life together. They’ve learned about the values that shape our community, have interacted with them, and have embraced many of them as their own, even re-purposing or re-imaging them to fit their own contexts. For example, the BIC has had a rich history of practicing simple living and pursuing peace in rural or suburban areas. But as the city-dwellers among us have adopted these two values, they’ve been working out what it means to practice them in urban churches and neighborhoods. This has brought renewed passion and dedication to these values into the next generation.
Equally uplifting has been the richness of becoming a bilingual Church body. I have been especially gratified by God’s movement to introduce a significant Spanish-speaking contingent to the BIC body. Not only is our communal faith deepened by expressions of faith in multicultural settings and with a second language, but we now have new partners in ministering to a rapidly growing sector of the U.S. and Canadian populations. Furthermore, because a number of Spanish-speaking brothers and sisters among us are originally from other countries, they have a passion to share the Gospel with their home communities. This has led to the planting of BIC churches and sites in countries that we might not have had the opportunity to reach otherwise. The seeds that our community planted have, in only a few years, taken root and blossomed, expanding God’s kingdom beyond what we could have imagined.
At the same time, whereas we were once a community that found cohesion in our similar language, ethnicity, perspective, and traditions, we’re discovering that we can no longer rely on these alone to define our relationships with one another. So a part of moving forward for us will mean training ourselves to recognize the many gifts that come with diversity and to grow in sensitivity and respect for one another. Our long-held assumptions about what it means to be in community with one another may need to be re-examined.
For instance, with people joining the BIC from a variety of backgrounds, it is reasonable to expect that, from time to time, new theological questions will surface. When this happens, we’ll need to come together to examine our core beliefs, decide where our priorities lie, and, when appropriate, re-frame them for better relevance and clarity today. Likewise, we need to be mindful of accommodating both English- and Spanish-speakers, overcoming the divides that language differences can create and seeking to enable the worship of God in all tongues.
Poised for transformation
I sense that God is calling the Brethren in Christ Church in North America to grow, as one body, into something new. But, rather than relying on the types of similarities we may have shared in the past, I suggest that we consider other central aspects of our identity as the glue that holds all of our mosaic pieces together into a single masterpiece.
When leaders in our Church started to perceive God’s movement in these areas of growth, we immediately began to pray and ask the Lord how we could partner in the work He had already begun. What could we do, as a denomination, that local churches or regions could not undertake on their own? By discerning the voice of the Spirit together, we formed Transformation 2020, a vision that proclaims our desire to become “an expanding mosaic of churches, all seeing lives transformed by Jesus Christ.” To accomplish this, we’ve identified three main priorities for us to pursue over the next decade: equip leaders for transformation, multiply sites for life change, and send workers for witness and service. Such goals cannot be realized on our own as individuals or even exclusively within local congregations; instead, we will all need to come together—with our various gifts and skills, and in our various settings—to accomplish them.
Additionally, I would call us to remember the values that we all hold. Through two centuries of existence, we Brethren in Christ have pledged ourselves to pursuing a relationship with Jesus, seeking transformation from the Holy Spirit, and honoring the word of God. These beliefs serve as the basis for the 10 Core Values* that we’ve articulated as deeply resonating within our hearts and minds as a Church. It is these commitments that touch our hearts, stir our emotions, and move us to action!
Along with rallying around the Brethren in Christ Core Values and Transformation 2020 vision, we will need to communicate with each other not only within our local congregations but also across our denomination. Recognizing that language, cultural, experiential, and even geographic differences between us might make this more difficult at times, we must find new ways to reaffirm the importance of talking with and learning from each other. I am hoping that one outcome of the magazine that’s in your hands, In Part, will be to prompt conversation among us. Every quarter, In Part seeks to create a space for us to articulate our questions, share our thoughts, and encourage one another in our faith journeys. I am particularly excited by the possibilities presented at InPart.org, where you can find articles on a host of topics, leave your feedback, and interact with other readers.
I believe that we, together, are also called to live out our Church’s vision in the interplay between tradition and innovation. On the one hand, an inflexible church unwilling to re-imagine itself is like a plant that refuses to flower; it has roots but fails to grow or blossom and then misses out on realizing its unique beauty. A rigid, ritual-bound church will not survive for long. But at the same time, a church that scorns tradition is like a plant without roots, and, again, will not survive. With these extremes in mind, I envision us being a Church body that is committed to learning about our past, while also following the Spirit’s leading into the future.
Finally, though we are based in the U.S. and Canada, we will also need to remember that the BIC community extends beyond our nations’ borders. In recent decades, the membership of BIC Conferences in countries outside of North America has grown far larger than membership inside of it. Brethren in Christ men, women, and children around the world are living out amazing testimonies of God’s grace. To be a more faithful, cooperative global community, BIC leaders from countries around the globe have come together to form the International Brethren in Christ Association (IBICA)**. Through IBICA, our Churches can better exchange ideas, share resources, engage in conversation, and discern God’s desire for the Church. What a gift to be a part of a mosaic that encompasses many nations, languages, and histories!
A story of courage from our past
As we work our way through understanding what it means to be the united body of Christ in the midst of growth and change, we can take courage from the fact that this is not the first time the BIC family has navigated the creative tension between tradition and innovation. It is in our DNA to be renewed.
I think back especially to the BIC Church in the 1950s, when I was just a young boy. At that time, our brothers and sisters were struggling with some huge questions about what it meant to be a community. Did it mean abiding by a strict dress code? Did it mean rejecting the use of musical instruments in worship? Or was it something both within and greater than ourselves—a life offered to Christ in order to glorify His name?
These were the issues facing the Church at the time. But instead of complaining, giving up, or growing resentful—which must have been tempting responses—a small group of BIC leaders gathered together. The meeting was spur-of-the-moment, taking place after a conference in a hotel room. The men seated themselves wherever they could—on chairs, beds, and the floor—and started to humbly share their burdens with one another. Through the night and into the early morning hours, these leaders’ conversation led to weeping, and their weeping led to prayer.
This event, unofficial though it was, served as a catalyst for the change and renewal that would spread across the whole Church over the coming decades, when our body moved beyond a rule-based code of conduct to become a more flexible community that relied upon the Spirit for leading.
When I look at the BIC Church today, I sense that we are at a place similar to the one we were at 61 years ago. Like our forbearers, we are facing the exciting and awe-inspiring prospect of discerning what it means to progress and grow as a Church while still remaining true to our identity as Brethren in Christ.
As we consider our vision and life together, we may not hold in our hands a single photograph that can literally capture the splendor of our corporate body in the same way that the early astronauts could—with a single click—portray the entire “blue marble” that is the Earth. But we have the opportunity to create a far more compelling image of what it means to be the body of Christ today. We can each be present here—where we are right now, in our local congregations. And, at the same time, we can be present—here and here and here—joining in spirit and in purpose with believers across the continent and the world. Together, we can move from independence to interdependence, actively renewing our vision of what it means to be a mosaic community in which lives are changed and Christ is honored over all the Earth.
* The BIC Core Values are as follows: Experiencing God’s love and grace, Believing the Bible, Worshipping God, Following Jesus, Belonging to the community of faith, Witnessing to the world, Serving compassionately, Pursuing peace, Living simply, and Relying on God. For more about our Core Values, click here.
** For more on IBICA, please visit theibica.org.