July 31, 2018
On my final Sunday in the pulpit of the last church I pastored, the sermon text was John 17:20-26. I was powerfully changed by God’s Word that day in ways that I am still trying to understand and live out. As a direct result of this encounter with the prayer of Jesus for the unity of his followers, my vision was so radically altered that I felt God gave me a holy vocation to give my life in service of that unity. But in 1992 I knew next to nothing about ecumenism, at least nothing very positive.
Early in the new mission I began in 1991, I spoke in some of the larger mega-churches across the U.S., as well as in conferences and schools associated with evangelicalism. In 1992-94 I began to tentatively talk about my vision for unity more openly. But the response of many was not very positive. Indeed, I was rejected for compromising the faith tradition I was supposed to represent. Within a few years I was a man without a country. Our mission lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations because of the things I preached and wrote. By 2000 I was without a staff or did not have a budget that could fully support my family.
Between 1999 and 2012 I experienced what I now call “my desert years.” I felt alone quite often. I lacked stamina and courage but I repeatedly heard this from the Spirit: “Listen to me, follow Jesus more closely and in due time I will raise you up to do the work I formed you to do.” At the urging of my wife I wrote the book: Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church (Zondervan, 2010). To my surprise the late Francis Cardinal George of Chicago read the book. He invited me to his home where our friendship for unity took shape. On March 26, 2012, Cardinal George and I had a public dialogue at Wheaton College. The crowd size and response shocked me. There was a palpable hunger in the large chapel for what we were saying that night. The last six-plus years have taken an entirely new direction as I became deeply involved in all kind of ecumenical activities, including my engagement in the Gospel Call ecumenical parish mission ministry with Fr. Tom Ryan.
The mission I began in 1991 changed its name to ACT3 Network about ten years ago. This name change came about because of our ecumenical direction. ACT3 stands for Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium. As president of this mission I taught, led retreats, preached, wrote and consulted similar organizations. I also led unity forums and city-wide cohort groups. ACT3 eventually became a network of relational partnerships between churches, missions and leaders. It is inspired by the spirit we call missional-ecumenism: the idea that unity among the whole church is central to spreading Christ’s kingdom to the ends of the earth. The board is made up of men and women from both Catholic and Protestant churches.
Knowing that I would be seventy years old on March 1, 2019, I began to act on my long-term commitment to not oblige my board to choose a new president for our mission. I went to our annual retreat in June of 2016 to talk about retirement. The board accepted my plan but then came a great surprise. They asked, “What has God given to the nine of us through our brother John that we should pass along to the next generation?” Their answer resulted in a discussion of my spiritual DNA and how they might pass this on to others.
For two years now the nine-person board of the mission of ACT3 has worked closely with one another to create a covenant, a way of life and a plan for a community that would form around what we call “missional ecumenism.” This led us back to Green Lake Conference Center (Wisconsin) in June this year. We invited others to join us to explore forming a new community with an ecumenical vision. Thus was born The Initiative. We express our purpose in these words: “We walk in unity with Jesus and His followers so that the love of Jesus might exceed all divisions.”
When we invited friends to join us at Green Lake we had no idea who would come. In the end seventy people gathered, representing a wide diversity of racial and ethnic backgrounds as well as friends from several generations. It also included Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical and charismatic Christians. Once we knew who was coming, we planned the program by using the gifts of the participants, and thus we did not invite speakers or announce a program in advance.
There were many highlights at our Green Lake meeting but I think the most popular was our meal conversations. We assigned groups of people to particular tables for breakfast. Then at lunch we broke those conversational groups up and assigned people to talk together in different groups over lunch. We did the same at dinner. By the second day people were spending two-plus hours at their meal tables conversing and forming friendships through shared stories. We laughed, cried, prayed and shared deep concerns for the church and our life together.
Workshops on a number of topics were offered along with panels that addressed issues of race, mission, worship and some of our most basic differences as Christians. Each morning we worshiped and heard the Word of God preached on a theme central to our purpose.
Finally, on the last evening we asked: What have we heard and what is God saying to us? Many committed themselves to pray and discern what they should do with regard to The Initiative. The majority of those who came expressed a deep desire to come back to Green Lake next year. Many of those who came will now be covenanting together to be the first members of The Initiative so they can guide the work of this community in mission, while remaining rooted within their own church and tradition.
We plan to meet again at Green Lake, June 23-27, 2019. In the meantime various small groups are springing up around the country as friends share this vision and pass along the inspiration they received at Green Lake. You can see more about The Initiative at theinitiative.org and on Facebook. You can also sign up for email from The Initiative.
John H. Armstrong lives in Carol Stream, IL (suburban Chicago). After pastoring two congregations over a period of twenty years, he has served ACT3 full-time since 1992 in addition to serving as an adjunct professor of mission at Wheaton College Graduate School up to 2017.