A few weeks ago, I invited an influential evangelical pastor in Northern California to tour a local
Bethany Christian Services location and meet with our social workers. We talked about a variety of things, including care for parents facing an unintended pregnancy, children waiting for adoptive homes, the foster care crisis in America, and welcoming our neighbors who are refugees or unaccompanied children.
We discussed another interesting topic as well. I asked, “How can we help Christians move forward in unity for the sake of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, despite our many differences?”
You don’t have to look far to see division within American Christianity. We’re still divided over the 2020 election, racial justice, even wearing face masks.
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the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, more than 200 Christian denominations operate in the United States. And there is talk of more denominational splits in the coming year.
Division is causing people to abandon Christian churches. Last year, Barna
found that the share of practicing Christians has dropped nearly in half since 2000. Gallup recently reported that U.S. church membership fell below 50% for the first time in eight decades.
I can’t help thinking that there could be a correlation between our public infighting and the undeniable fact that fewer people want to be associated with us.
Young adults flee the church
In a 2017 Lifeway Research survey, a
majority (66%) of Americans ages 23-30 said they stopped attending church on a regular basis for at least a year after turning 18. Among their top reasons was that church members seemed divisive, judgmental or hypocritical.
Pastor Andy Stanley of the Atlanta area recently cited
the top five reasons that people leave the church. On the list was “they had a bad church experience,” where church members prioritized or defended viewpoints over people.
At this pivotal moment in American history, I present every Christian with the question I asked that day in California: How can Christians move forward in unity despite our doctrinal differences across denominations? Is that even possible?
Now, I want to say that doctrine is extremely important. I am not downplaying the importance of theology and what the Bible teaches.
I am emphasizing that Christians are too often known for what we’re against, rather than what we’re for. Too often we celebrate division to show we practice the purest form of Christianity.
Luke 9:46, Jesus’ disciples were arguing about the same thing. How did Jesus respond? Scripture tells us, “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’ ”
Similarly, the Pharisees confronted Jesus in
Matthew 22:36-40 about which commandment was the greatest. “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.’”
James, the brother of Jesus, writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (
All three of these passages show the priority Jesus gives to serving our neighbors and the most vulnerable. If this was so important for Jesus, shouldn’t it be important for us?
Unify around core commands
Just imagine if we Christians were primarily known for these action items: loving God, loving our neighbor, and serving orphans and widows. I’m optimistic enough to believe Christians across denominations, with different doctrinal beliefs, can unify around these commands.
At Bethany Christian Services, our staff, supporters and board members come from different denominations and hold different doctrinal views. But we have determined together to build a broad coalition of Christians to serve children and families in the greatest need.
We have learned that unity doesn’t equal uniformity. We can passionately work together to love God, love our neighbor, and serve orphans and widows despite our differences.
The reality is that our country has far more children in foster care than adults willing to provide a safe, stable home for them. More than 400,000 children are in foster care in the United States, and
more than 100,000 are waiting to be adopted. The statistics for children who age out of foster care are grim – higher rates of unexpected pregnancies, homelessness and incarceration. Children need a family where they can be safe, loved and connected.
At the same time, a record number of refugees from around the world are fleeing violence, corruption, trafficking and unthinkable poverty in search of safety elsewhere. For most, leaving home is a life-or-death decision. I truly believe we bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth when we welcome refugees through refugee resettlement or by providing a home for children who had to escape their own.
Christians are called to walk alongside struggling people: an expectant mom facing an unintended pregnancy, a dad recovering from substance use, parents trying to keep their family together. The need is great. Think what a great revival could break out if we focused more on loving God and caring for the most vulnerable.
At the end of our conversation, the pastor and I agreed that serving vulnerable children could be a unique opportunity to bring the big “C” church together.
The world is watching us. For the sake of our Christian witness in a challenging culture, I hope for a day when Christians can unify around loving God, loving our neighbor and serving the vulnerable.
Chris Palusky is president and CEO of Bethany Christian Services.