How the Church Can Stop Eating Its Own Tail

It was our youth pastor, Dustin Tramel, who first made the pitch to me. I had just recently come on staff at New Life and he encouraged me to consider attending the Tucson Pastors’ Prayer Summit. He guaranteed it would be one of the most important things I did. He was right.

A couple of weeks ago I attended my fourth Pastors’ Prayer Summit on Mount Lemmon alongside Pastor Greg and Ryan Paonessa. It’s a three-day event that gathers forty pastors from around Tucson to pray for the city and one another.

In many eras of the church our theological disagreements have divided us. Those disagreements still persist, but I believe stronger even than those theological disagreements are our own competitive impulses. More than ever it is the fine and elusive line between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of [insert your church’s name here] that has created division in the church. It’s impossible to build unity in the Kingdom of God when we subconsciously believe our local church is the Kingdom of God.

This, of course, is a monster that is almost impossible to stop feeding. Christians float in our doors from other churches, wooed by our children’s program or music, and then float out to another church, wooed by its student ministry or preaching. We are the Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail, pastors and parishioners swapping out positions as mouth and tail. We consume one another with an insatiable appetite.

And this is why I need the Prayer Summit.

In his final moments with his disciples, Jesus prays with them. He prays that they and that all of us who follow would experience the unity he has with the Father, “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.[i]

Step back and take that prayer in for a moment. That’s a pretty absurd prayer. Do you believe what Jesus is praying? That we can experience unity as a church as our Triune God can experience unity? That we experience the glory of God as we experience unity together? And that our unity is a witness to the world (Jesus says that one twice!)?

When I was a pastor in New Jersey, the main pastors’ group I met with was scattered from Long Island to Pennsylvania. There was a sweetness in our fellowship, but it was rather disjointed and none of us lived within twenty minutes of each other. We could pray for the ministry of one another with no danger of their success negatively impacting us.

What a gift then to experience such a diverse group in Tucson unified in prayer. Over several days, pastors from all sorts of denominational and ethnic backgrounds pray for one another, for our churches, and for Tucson. What unites us were our prayers of gratitude for our three-in-one God and the family he has called us into. I find as I pray for other pastors my eyes are lifted off my own kingdom and set on Christ’s Kingdom. I find as I pray for other pastors my desires for other churches to grow in health moves from my head to my heart.

I’m grateful for ministries such as 4 Tucson and J17 who have a heart to see Tucson grow in its unity and prayer fervency. Fellow pastors, I encourage you to not just intellectually believe in the universal church, to not just say that the church down the street is your neighbor and not your competition, but to step out in prayer and partnership for the joy of experiencing God’s glory and for the great cause of our witness to a watching world. Fellow parishioners, I encourage you to help the church stop eating its own tail by your prayers and your commitment to your local church body.

In prayer and unity may we move out of our self-destructive ways and into the unity and glory of our Triune God.

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[i] John 17:20-23

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