When four churches in Amarillo, Texas, joined forces, their city took notice. Central Church of Christ, First Baptist Church, First Presbyterian Church, and Polk Street United Methodist Church are all large, long-established churches in the downtown area, and together they form “4 Amarillo,” a cross-denominational partnership that started with a friendship between two pastors.
This friendship grew to four, and as the pastors’ relationships developed and they learned how much they had in common theologically, they began meeting regularly. They discovered opportunities for cooperation around a shared sense of mission. Now the four churches worship together twice a year, at Thanksgiving and on Maundy Thursday, in a unified service hosted by one of the four. Each summer they join forces for a “stay-at-home mission experience,” a local project that ministers to their city: rebuilding a house, renovating apartments. Each summer they work together to lead vacation Bible school programs in two local elementary schools.
Murray Gossett, pastor of outreach and missions at First Presbyterian Church, is one of those responsible for helping these cooperative initiatives happen. “It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “The key is the trust relationships that have grown between the senior pastors.” Those senior pastors plan the unified worship services, but they delegate much of the cooperative work to others, like Gossett. “That brings all of us together. There is a lot of collegiality and very little sense of competitiveness. We’re all part of the kingdom, and we’re 95 percent in agreement. We agree to disagree on the rest. It doesn’t even come up, actually.”
According to Gossett, who has been at First Presbyterian since 1990, 4 Amarillo represents something new in the city. “Nothing like this has happened in my time. I don’t think anything at this level ever has. We were operating very independently before. Now we consider ourselves sister churches,” he said. “We talk positively about each other because we really know the people and their hearts. We’ve moved from benign neglect to real cooperation and congeniality. We’re supporting each other.”
A similar initiative is happening in the very different setting of Holden, Missouri. Holden is a town of 2,200 people, about an hour outside Kansas City. For more than 10 years, pastors in town and the surrounding area have come together across denominational lines, including Catholic and a wide range of Protestant denominations. These pastors meet weekly, and every time there’s a fifth Sunday in a month, their churches come together for an evening service.
The churches of Holden see themselves as one church: a multisite megachurch with more than 2,000 members, meeting in different locations and belonging to different denominations.
“Jesus has one bride,” said Will Plitt. “Why do we act as if he has many?”
Plitt serves as executive director for Christ Together, a loose network that exists to “initiate conversations and create environments for kingdom leaders to pray, learn, strategize, and act in concert with God’s mission in their community, town, city or region.” Christ Together supports churches as they come together, and it currently works with groups in more than 60 cities throughout the United States.
Christ Together challenges churches to rally around a specific common mission: gospel saturation. In bringing churches together, Plitt said, “there are a lot of great things you can put in the center of a vision: prayer, social causes, events, church planting. We believe when you put gospel saturation in the center, you’ll have to do all those things.” They ask groups of churches to take mutual responsibility for reaching their geographical areas, making sure each person in their community has an opportunity to understand and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The specific expression of this mission looks as different as the communities where it is happening.
“The Holy Spirit is getting God’s people together all over the place at a level we’ve never seen,” said Dan Weyerhaeuser, senior pastor of Lakeland Church in Gurnee, Illinois. More than 10 years ago, one pastor proposed interdenominational cooperation at a gathering of senior pastors from their suburban-Chicago community. This led to a monthly meeting of pastors and collaborative service projects with participation from around 85 churches in the county.
Out of those connections, a tighter network formed. Among the pastors at these countywide gatherings were 10 who were leading Gurnee churches committed to evangelism. “We were like 10 boats in a pond, all trying to snag whoever we could.” About six years ago, they asked themselves, “Should we try to work together?” The next step was to put everyone in their churches into one database so they could map where their congregants lived. As it turned out, together they had 6,000 people in church every weekend, in a community of 35,000. They had Christians in every neighborhood in Gurnee and the surrounding area. One out of every five people was part of their combined churches. But they hadn’t been connected.
Now “there’s one Church in Gurnee, and we co-pastor her,” Weyerhaeuser said. “We stopped duplicating ministries. We started filling in the gaps instead. We send people we encounter to the ministry they need in the Church instead of our individual churches.” So when church leaders come across people in need of a specific type of ministry, they don’t develop a new version of that ministry if it already exists within the Church in Gurnee. Instead, they refer people to other churches in the network who offer what’s needed. When they see unmet opportunities for ministry, they decide who among them is best positioned to address them.
Chad Clarkson holds a similar view of Houston, Texas. Executive Director of Houston Church Planting Network (HCPN), he helps facilitate collaboration between churches throughout the city, across ethnic, denominational, and geographical lines. HCPN organizes eight to ten gatherings for church leaders each year to encourage and strengthen church leaders, cast vision for collaboration, and spend time praying for the city together. HCPN is focused on training church planters, and they have organized dozens of churches throughout Houston who partner to train, coach, and provide resources for those starting new churches—of any denomination. Clarkson also serves as Houston’s city director for Christ Together.
Similar efforts are underway and maturing in areas like Austin, Texas; Buffalo, New York; Orange County, California; and Columbia, South Carolina, where Jeff Shipman serves as national director of Christ Together, lead pastor of Crossroads Church, and an active member of the local network of churches. “Church collaboration is no longer a nicety; it’s a necessity. There’s no way we can do this without cooperation,” he said. In the two-mile radius surrounding his church, eight churches are working together, no two in the same denomination. And while Crossroads is affiliated with the Christian and Missionary Alliance and the Southern Baptist Convention, the church is currently incubating a new Presbyterian church.
The eight pastors of these cooperating churches meet monthly and report how their churches are doing in reaching their shared vision: to give every man, woman, and child in Columbia a chance to see, hear, and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Based on the demographics of their area of the city, they evaluated their existing ministry efforts in four areas: people who are incarcerated, people living in poverty, refugees and other people from other nations, and schools. Then they began to partner on projects related to all four. Around 50 churches in Columbia are cooperating in similar fashion, with five other geographical areas covered. Christ Together is hoping for nine more cooperative groups to cover the remaining areas.
Jeff Gokee is new to the pastoral team at Hillside Community Church in Rancho Cucamonga, California. He came from Chandler, Arizona, where he served as executive director of Phoenix/One, a multidenominational movement designed to engage millennials in the church. Modeled after a similar ministry in Charlotte, North Carolina, Phoenix/One is centered on a unified pursuit of justice. The organization builds relationships among pastors, among millennials, and between the two groups. With partnership from up to 75 churches, they help forge intergenerational connections and assimilate millennials into local churches of various denominations. They also host interdenominational worship gatherings for young people, with up to 1,000 in attendance. And in at least one case, a few churches came together cross-denominationally and decided to teach the same series—with each pastor preaching at one of the other churches.
“Millennials are pushing the envelope,” Gokee said. “Within a political system that’s so divided and so ugly, this is the greatest opportunity for the church to stand apart as a result of the way we stand together and care for one another.”
That All of Them May Be One
When talking about their cross-denominational efforts at unity, every one of these church leaders quoted from John 17:20-23, Jesus’ prayer that his church may be unified in its witness. Each of them is excited about unity itself—seeing the church come together. They’re also excited about some of the results they see in their individual churches and communities. “It’s been a real testimony to the community,” Gossett claimed, referring to the media attention 4 Amarillo has attracted. Television and newspaper reporters regularly highlight the churches’ collaboration and service.
When one of the pastors in Shipman’s group of eight was afflicted with cancer, all eight held a night of prayer for him and his church. “We prayed over the pastor and the church for over two hours. We had different views on gifts and healings. But people just kept coming down front and weeping and praying.”
Over Labor Day weekend, the unified Gurnee Church hosted 72 backyard barbecues in neighborhoods all over the community, inviting friends and neighbors. “It was so fun to celebrate how much more we could do together with simple things like that,” Weyerhaeuser said. They also hosted a forum on policing and racial tension, with about half the people in attendance coming from outside the hosting churches. The police chief and mayor both attended, and Weyerhaeuser credits their unity for the attention they attracted. “They came because the church is united. The mayor is interacting with one broader Church, not individual churches.”
“There is a mainstream, denominationally-transcendent movement of the Holy Spirit that is calling Christians to unity in diversity,” said John Armstrong, president and founder of ACT3 Network. “We can keep our diversities, but we can’t keep our divisions.” Broad church unity has long been a passion for Armstrong, who started a luncheon fellowship for pastors in Chicago’s western suburbs in 1982. In 1991, the last year of his work as a pastor, he started ACT3 Network to promote what he calls “missional-ecumenism: the idea that unity among the whole church is central to spreading Christ’s kingdom to the ends of the earth.” He believes God has called him to seek the unity of the church, and for the first 10 years it was slow going. “I was met almost entirely by hostility from leaders in churches. To follow this vision was to go down a road that I found my peers didn’t want any part of in the 1990s.”
The last 10 years have been dramatically different.
“I have no doubt this movement is large, vast, global. God is doing something, and this is going to extend way beyond my lifetime,” Armstrong said. He believes church leaders are now more receptive to cooperation, and younger Christians are leading the way: “The millennial generation is not going to do church the way we have traditionally done it. Denominationalism isn’t going to go away, but it’s going to look different.”
Although more pastors are interested in efforts at unity, the work still has its challenges. For unified worship services and mission projects, Gossett says the task of coordinating church schedules can be complicated. And different traditions can mean different sets of expectations.
Multiple leaders pointed to the importance of humility in seeking to come together with other churches and their leaders. Clarkson warned, “You can’t come in saying, ‘I have all the answers.’ You can’t carry the vibe that it’s about the leader, one particular denomination, or network.”
Weyerhaeuser called for humility in relationships between pastors, “coming to realize how great they are and how serious the other churches in the area are. Recognize and value gifts and strengths you don’t have. See them ministering to people in different ways.” If true cooperation and unity are going to happen among churches, he said, “you have to be for the kingdom, not just your own individual church.”
Along with “a hermeneutic of humility,” Gokee said, church leaders need “a high view of relationship.” Gossett agreed: “You have to be willing to invest yourself in relationships that maybe don’t immediately benefit your congregation.”
For pastors interested in initiating cross-denominational cooperation in their own communities, Clarkson advised a similar focus on relationships. “I had dozens of cups of coffee and lunches with people across the city,” he said. “When it was time to collaborate, these relationships made it that much easier. A cup of coffee with someone is never a waste of time.” Weyerhaeuser agreed: “Start with friendship. That’s what makes it go. Your theological differences may not be as significant as you thought they were.”
Gokee emphasized the importance of keeping the effort truly non-denominational. “If it’s not neutral, it doesn’t work very often. Give it away. It doesn’t have to have a church brand around it. The brand is the Church. Be willing to give money to something that means people will show up at a church somewhere, not necessarily your church.”
Shipman stressed the importance of a rallying point. “You have to define what’s going to be at the center. Whatever you start with is what you end with.” He encourages church leaders to think through their sense of mission and theology behind a desire to unify. “If you’re not careful, everyone who walks in the door will have their own vision and you won’t be able to hold the line.”
These leaders agree this movement must start with the leaders themselves. Plitt said, “As leaders, we can’t export a vision we haven’t imported into our lives. This is a great place to start. Ask the Lord to give you a vision for your city and for all the churches centered on the mission and work of Jesus.”
These pastors are energized by the sense of unity and encouragement that comes from working together with other churches, and for them there’s no going back. “For so many years we have just built our churches,” Shipman said. “God is saying, ‘This is about my kingdom.’” Weyerhaeuser said he’s now working toward a much larger vision: “I’ll give my life for this. It feels like we’re a part of something so much bigger than our church’s progress.”
Amy Simpson is a leadership coach and an acquisitions editor for Moody Publishers living in the suburbs of Chicago. Her newest book is Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World(IVP, 2018).