Every month, EFCA President Kevin Kompelien highlights stories, vision and leadership from around the EFCA in his monthly e-newsletter, "Partners with the President." This month, Kevin interviewed Pastor Matthew St. John (New Hope Church, New Hope, MN) about what maturity contributes to our unity in Christ. You can watch the full interview here.
When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to Lake of the Woods for father-son fishing excursions. Growing up in northern Minnesota, this was nothing out of the ordinary for us, but I remember one experience quite vividly.
It is easy to assume unity until situations that press us arise.
We decided to go out on the boat, and while we were on the lake, things got intense. The wind howled, chilling us to our bones, and as it continued to pick up in intensity, so did the waves. As a boy, I was terrified of getting rocked out of the boat—and if my dad hadn’t been there, I very well might have! My dad reminded me to remain calm and focused, like any good father would, and we eventually made it safely back to shore.
My friends, the wind and waves of the world are beating on us, and they are trying to steal our focus. In recent months, we’ve seen so many unique circumstances tempt followers of Jesus to lose sight of our mission. Those circumstances have even pitted believers against one another. As Christians, we must remember that the work we have been given in this world is accomplished corporately, and this is why we are called to mature in unity.
The thing that unifies
It is easy to assume unity until situations that press us arise. This is especially true of ministry in the American context. I can’t think of another period in my lifetime where I have felt as many pressures on the unity of the Church.
As I continue to work through Ephesians 4—once again, continuing with this passage on unity from the last two editions (September and October) of “Partners with the President”—I’m amazed at what is described in this letter and how it connects to our experience in the world today. After Paul calls on believers to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace (Eph 4:3), this environment is described:
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” Eph 4:14-16
How can we grow in unity when we are under more pressure than ever before? By maturing in our faith.
We need to go all-in on unity and we need to go all-in on truth.
As we mature, we become more like Jesus, who reconciled us to Himself and brought us into eternal life. The things that divide us fade as we are unified around the truth of the gospel and living out the good news in our communities and families. That is what matters most, as we become more like Jesus.
Over and over again in scripture, we see how God uses the fellowship and unity of believers to transform individuals and communities. In community, we mature together. As King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, wrote, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Prov 27:17).
But if we are going to grow in unity, that does not mean we “go soft” on truth. Iron sharpens iron. We need to go all-in on unity and we need to go all-in on truth.
Truth and love
As brothers and sisters in Christ, in order to become mature, we must learn how to speak to one another. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:15, this is where growth will occur. And while we must be honest, we must also be loving. Because as it turns out, a lot of times we aren’t actually hearing one another—we’re jumping to conclusions.
At the end of the day, it is about what we say and how we say it.
I learned this in my time as International Leader for Africa with ReachGlobal, while working alongside people from completely different cultures. Not only were our experiences and language different, our references were different too. It took a while for me to realize that we were talking past each other. In order for us to carry out our work together, both parties needed to be willing to say when they were being misunderstood.
In addition, during my time as a pastor, I was—not at all surprisingly—in situations where I had learned this lesson. Congregants would come to me with concerns or questions, and in the name of love, I would at times soften my own convictions to explain why I had made certain decisions. This wasn’t loving behavior. I needed to tell every congregant the truth, whether they agreed with me or not.
Maturity looks different for each of us. Some of us, like myself, need to learn more about being forthright. We need to grow in how we tell the truth, even when it is hard or feels like it might cause someone to be upset. And others of us need to learn more about communicating with love. How can we soften our words without losing the clarity of the message?
Matthew St. John, senior pastor of New Hope Church in New Hope, Minnesota, recently shared how their community has navigated this tumultuous time. He, along with other leaders at New Hope, are engaging in difficult conversations. We spoke about how Jesus was bold, courageous, direct and didn’t mince words—but He was also gentle and tender.
Because we care about pursuing the heart of God, and God cares about unity.
At the end of the day, it is about what we say and how we say it. Ask yourself this question the next time you find yourself in dialogue with a brother or sister in Christ who sees things differently than you: “Am I trying to win an argument or am I trying to care for the spiritual well being of this person?” That question is more instructive than you know. We cannot afford to soften our truth-telling—the stakes are too high. But it burdens my heart to see people speaking the truth and being destructive in the process. Grace without truth is mushy. Truth without grace is hurtful.
In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Even though we’re not talking about buying and selling, the why still matters: why does any of this—unity, maturity, speaking the truth in love—matter?
Because we care about pursuing the heart of God, and God cares about unity. God cares about maturity. And God cares about speaking the truth in love to our family, friends and neighbors.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
Many of us have that verse memorized. I want us to notice the part that says, “shall not perish.” Our God is in the business of restoring broken, lost people to His perfect self. He unites those of us who are not anywhere near perfect to Himself. Nothing shows that He cares about unity more than that!
As we pray and read Scripture, we are shaped by the Holy Spirit to become more mature in our faith. From that maturity comes a deeper unity than we could ever supply ourselves, because it comes from Jesus Christ. We do what we do because of the gracious compassion of God and His desire to reconcile people to Himself. Our ability to mature in unity will have a long and lasting impact on how we are perceived by our world—and believe me—a unified Body of Christ is an incredible witness for the lost, hurting and broken.