The People of Praise Community: An Ecumenism of Dollar Bills
I begin this article on the People of Praise–a real, live ecumenical Christian community that aspires to have “all things in common” like the first-century Christians–by discussing 21st-century Christianity as it has recently appeared on YouTube.
In his YouTube smash hit “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” the Christian poet Jefferson Bethke speaks for many in my generation who have adopted a cynical attitude toward groups of real, live Christians and the historical Christian churches. Bethke's rant indicts a church that “builds huge churches but fails to feed the poor,” is a geriatric “museum for good people,” hypocritically puts on “a fake look” and advocates “behavior modification, like a long list of chores.” His rhymes are lighting up Facebook and resonating with the youthful masses–19 million people have seen his video so far. Little wonder that he's connecting. Bethke is speaking to a generation that is already voting with its feet against churches: only 18 percent of the Millennial Generation (born after 1981) attend worship services weekly.
So how is a church that strives to draw all men, women and children into Christ's body to respond, not only to Bethke, but to the reality of widespread cynicism about churches with real humans in them?
Fortunately, some surprising knights in shining armor have ridden onto the YouTube stage. There's Fr. Pontifex, a rapping Catholic priest from Evansville, Indiana, with his response video “Why I Love Religion, and Love Jesus.”
But my favorite is the Grammy-nominated Christian rapper Lecrae. For Lecrae, the church can respond to cynicism not by abandoning or altering its mission, but by fulfilling it. Church membership is something to brag about: “A body family and community she is all one/ but on earth you see her in congregational small ones/ a microcosm or a small-scale example/ but it is the church even though it's just a sample. . . . We the church!” (His lyrics sound similar to something I remember reading . . . . Was it from Vatican II?)
The People of Praise
This brings me to the People of Praise, and to an area of Christianity where scandal has been obvious to cynical observers for a long time: Christian disunity. In the People of Praise, our aim is to fulfill John 17:20-21, and we do this in as many practical ways as we can find, all the while respecting one another's good consciences and genuine theological differences. We say in one of our foundational documents, The Spirit and Purpose of the People of Praise, “[W]e will live our lives together as fully as our churches permit, with hope that we may soon attain a unity of faith in the fulness of Christ our Lord.”
There is a lot I could say about the People of Praise–about our 21 branches around the US, Canada and the Caribbean, about our experience of baptism in the Holy Spirit, about the missionary work God has called us to right here in the US, about how active members of 19 churches and denominations can live together in a Christian community (hint: it takes plenty of forgiveness and reconciliation); but our web site does a good job of explaining these things.
I have chosen instead to highlight one important area where our members have been able to achieve unity in spite of doctrinal differences–our money. After all, there is nothing more human, more nitty-gritty than money–”yourself in foldable form,” as Pentecostal minister Bob Mumford put it. This is as true for communities as it is for individual persons. Where our treasure is, our hearts are revealed.
Here are some short examples of ways we have shared our money:
*One family was low on funds due to unemployment, right around the time of their son's wedding. Members of the community contributed enough money to pay for the rehearsal dinner.
*When another family needed a car, some men in the community asked how much they could spend on it. The answer was $500. That weekend, some of these men took the $500 and went looking for a reliable used car. They returned with a $3,000 car.
*Three community members signed for a line of credit so a family could get a loan they needed to start a business.
*A family received a 10-year interest-free loan of $12,000 from a community member to help them purchase a home. Another community member was their real-estate agent and helped them close the deal without charging a commission.
“Where Your Treasure is . . . “
To put it differently, where our treasure is, love is sure to grow. Consider this remark from Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa: “This is the only debt we have toward one another and it is a debt we have to pay immediately. 'Owe no one anything except to love one another' (Rom. 13:8). We can accept and love one another despite the differences” (from a speech in Brighton, England, 1991).
By sharing our money in such simple ways, we can pay our debt of love and strengthen the body of Christ across church and denominational lines without getting slowed down much by our doctrinal differences. At first glance, it doesn't seem like the sort of activity that might make a big splash on YouTube, but neither did it seem obvious at the time that pouring pricey perfume on Jesus' feet would make an example to be repeated “all over the world” (Mt. 26:13). When giving money to one another, Christians will certainly want to follow Jesus’ advice to act in secret (Mt. 6:3-4), and yet, word of our generosity will undoubtedly get around.
Thanks to Lecrae, Fr. Pontifex and millions of other microcosms of Christ scattered about the globe, cynicism about the church need not rule the air, digital or otherwise. For, as St. Peter might have said: Love covers a multitude of cynics.
Sean Connolly is the Communications program coordinator for the People of Praise community. He edits Vine & Branches magazine, including a recent issue dedicated to ecumenism. Sean lives and works in South Bend, Indiana, and enjoys stopping home for lunch to see his wife, Gretchen, and their two young children–an easy thing since his house is across the street from the office. He also loves watching the human carnival, always on display on YouTube.