In 1949, Billy Graham visited Altoona, PA. He intended to hold a revival meeting that would see many people come to know Jesus. It did not go well. In his 1997 memoir, he referred to it as a flop that made him question his call to ministry. The experience was marred by prideful divisions between church leaders from different denominations. I believe this divisive spirit held a tight grip on the city for decades.
When my wife and I moved to Altoona in 2014 to church plant, we knew we wanted to begin to see the churches in our town work together, overcoming this divisive spirit.
Early in my time in Altoona, I met a Wesleyan pastor of another church in town named Richard. We became friends and from the beginning of our relationship, we both believed the best way to see those who are furthest from Jesus come to know him is to demonstrate the unity Jesus prays for in John 17.
“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” John 17:20-21
We’ve been trying to live out that idea for years, doing everything we could think of to make unity in our city happen. Nothing we did ever seemed to have staying power over that divisive spirit.
It turns out that unity is a really difficult to attain unless God does it.
As Richard and I were halfway through a joint sermon series in our two churches, he said to me, “We need to figure out how to get the leaders of the city’s churches to pray together.”
So, in April 2018, Richard and I committed to pray together every Sunday morning at 6:30am. We decided we would invite every pastor we knew to join us. On the first Sunday morning, we hosted 7 people from 6 churches.
This gathering has continued every Sunday morning in different locations since then. It has grown significantly! Some Sunday mornings we have more than 40 people participate.
We’ve begun to see the spiritual climate of the divisive spirit in our city shifting. We hear about people surrendering their lives to Jesus weekly. The kingdom of God is breaking in.
Just over a year after we began praying, we felt it would be a great step to collectively worship. We rented a local theater on a Sunday night and invited all the churches of the city. We packed the theater to worship together!
In this process, I’ve been reminded the Church really is much bigger than our individual expressions. We can get so stuck in trying to make our own church successful we miss what God is up to in his whole body.
We really do have a lot more in common with our brothers and sisters in other denominations than we have differences.
Like early Vineyard leader John Wimber used to say, “We are only one vegetable in the stew.” It really does take every part of the body of Christ to do what Jesus intended in this world.
This article originally appeared here, and is used by permission.