“We’re all in this together” is a call for unity that political leaders have repeated since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, and with good intention.
Still, as I sit here in Melbourne Australia, the only capital city in hard lockdown — whilst the rest of the country enjoys the freedom of watching football matches, catching up for drinks with friends and even ( gasp! ) attending ‘physical’ church services — it doesn’t really feel like we’re all in this together.
The same can be said when looking around the world. Sure, Melbourne might be the worst off in Australia, however, by global standards, we’re doing just fine. Though we’ve had to give up many of our freedoms, we’re not dealing with COVID-19 on top of a war, mass starvation and a decimated health system, as they are in Yemen. My wife and I are genuinely worried about the challenges of homeschooling our 5-year-old son; if we lived in Sana’a, our greatest concern would be keeping him alive to see his 5th birthday.
Put simply, it’s one thing to call for unity and quite another to make it a reality for all.
As the Church, we speak a lot about unity. And we should. Shortly before being arrested by the authorities and sentenced to crucifixion, Jesus prayed to his Father that all believers would be brought to complete unity (John 17:23)
When churches come together in unity, there is no more powerful force on earth, nor a more attractive image of what it means to be a follower of Christ. In this COVID season, when churches have been pushed outside the walls of our buildings, both digitally and physically, it’s more important than ever that we stand united, shining a light that points people towards Jesus and offering hope of better days to come. That’s why supporting church unity is a key part of the vision for Cinnamon Network in Australia and across the globe.
So what can we learn from the experience of the past few months when it comes to achieving complete unity?
1. A call for unity is shallow if it isn’t built on trust
Among other things, COVID has revealed the fractures in our societies that have existed for years and even generations. It’s not a coincidence that the Black Lives Matter movement has exploded across the world and led to protests in defiance of health orders. It’s hard to convince people that we’re all in this together, when they’re dying from COVID-19 at a disproportionately higher rate due to the colour of their skin. Put another way, a call for unity doesn’t mean much if the relationships, connections and trust on which unity is built don’t exist in the first place.
The same is true for the Church. If we want to be a model of unity for the world, then we need to intentionally pursue it. We need to reach out, both within and between denominations, to build friendships and understanding. We need to create spaces to inspire, challenge and support one another. We need to pray and act together and witness the miraculous work God can do in and through us as a result.
2. A call for unity is fleeting if the motivation is survival
We are living through a unique time in human history. Real lives depend on how we respond. We should come together for the sake of the collective. The challenge, however, is that any response invoked out of fear will only last as long as the perceived threat. That’s why the moment infection rates fell, many Australians went back to ‘normal’ — behaving with little concern for how our actions might affect others. Did I mention 5 million of us are now back in lockdown?
It’s wonderful that the crisis of COVID has brought many churches and leaders together. But if we want unity to last for longer than a few weeks or months, then it needs to be about more than survival. It needs to be about a higher purpose. Thankfully, looking to Someone higher and greater than ourselves is what we Christians are all about. And that Someone asks us to be united with one another, in the good times and the bad.
3. A call for unity is weakened if it leads to uniformity
There is still much debate over how to tackle COVID: lockdown or let the virus run its course, settle for suppression or push for elimination. We likely won’t know the answer for several years and, when we do, we may find the ‘right’ approach depended entirely on context. The way a nation like Australia can and should respond to a pandemic is very different to a country like South Africa – where I was living this time last year — which has twice the population, overcrowded townships in which social distancing is impossible, and high rates of existing health conditions. Just because the world should be united in the fight against COVID-19 doesn’t mean that every country’s response should be the same.
How does this relate to the Church? All Christians hold core beliefs, regardless of denomination, and those beliefs should be more than enough for us to come together. Any differences beyond that, in doctrine or approach, should not cause us to walk away from our fellow brothers and sisters. Unity does not mean uniformity. Indeed, as we spend time with one another, we may even learn to embrace our differences as a gift from God and realise that without each of us playing our unique role, the Body of Christ will never function as He intended.
My prayer for this season is the same as that of our Saviour: that we would be brought to complete unity, in Jesus name.
By Nic Mackay, National Director, Cinnamon Network Australia