by Joshua Nolt
I think the best way for me to describe my understanding of a third way church is through a story.
I had been preaching on two-kingdom theology throughout the 2016 election season, trying to help our congregation understand what it means to follow Jesus and live in and for his kingdom in the midst of the present kingdom of this world. The day after the election. I began thinking about how to shepherd our congregation that Sunday, as the results of the election caused people to feel a variety of emotions.
How could I help us to focus on Jesus? Perhaps this question is a cornerstone of a third way church.
Throughout the week, I talked with other pastors, prayed, and jotted down various ideas. In the end I decided that preaching a typical sermon wasn’t the best option. More words in the midst of the war of words flying around in every venue containing words would only add more noise. We needed to experience the reality of Christ with us, and we needed to experience one another.
I began that Sunday morning by describing a small wooden box sitting on top of the pulpit. Figuratively speaking, inside the box were the results of the election. It was not descriptive of the winner; rather within the box was a compilation of the reactions and responses of different people groups. It represented the breadth of the political, cultural, and economic spectrum. The purpose of reading this aloud was to help us acknowledge the feelings of those who might be different from us (and by us I don’t mean our particular church, but an individual’s particular perspective).
After reading this aloud, I passed out small pieces of paper with two words on them: “I feel.” For the next several minutes, I gave the congregation time to write down their feelings with regard to the election. I told them up front that I was going to read each one of them aloud. The only reason I would not read them is if they were disparaging or if I simply couldn’t read the handwriting. I also continued my practice of never mentioning a candidate by name from the pulpit. After giving them a few minutes to write down their feelings, the papers were collected and brought back up front.
I began to read. For the next ten minutes we heard one another’s feelings. “I’m hopeful, because my trust is in Jesus.” “I came here to be encouraged. We shouldn’t talk about this in church.” “I believe God chose the ‘candidate’.” “I am afraid for my bi-racial grandchildren.” “I have hope that the candidate will move the country in the right direction.” One person walked out.
Judging from the comments, we weren’t quite 50-50 in terms of political affiliation, but we were close.
After I read the feelings of the congregation aloud I had our ushers redistribute the papers. I wanted them to hold someone else’s feeling that was sitting in the room. I remember saying something to the effect, “I pray you get someone’s feelings that you vehemently disagree with.” As they held the papers, I began to read from Philippians 2—words about considering others better than yourselves and having the same attitude of Christ Jesus. This was in preparation for communion.
Our church receives communion each week, and this was the focal point of the morning. Everything we had done in the service, from hearing the general feelings of different groups in the nation, to writing and reading our feelings aloud culminated in this act of receiving the body and blood of Christ. But before we received what Jesus offered us in the elements, I encouraged the congregation to think about their processional to the table.
The paper in their hands, not their own, represented their brother or sister in Christ—a brother or sister who was present in the room at that moment. As they came forward, carrying the small sheet of paper, they were symbolically carrying their brother or sister to Jesus. On the communion table were two wooden plates where I asked them to “place” their brother or sister and pause to pray that God would bless them. After doing this, then they could go and receive communion.
People wept. People came to the front holding hands. I believe that morning we tasted the Kingdom of God.
So what is a third way church? I’m not sure I know. What I do know is that I believe the church is all about Jesus. It’s about the revelation of the love and nature of God revealed in Christ Jesus, and it’s about sharing that love with others who agree that there is no higher calling then to follow Jesus.
Not our agendas. Not politics. Not even theology.
Joshua Nolt is senior pastor of the Lancaster (PA) Brethren in Christ Church. This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of Shalom!