The Federated Church – A Pleasant Surprise

The gathering space for the Federated Church of Sandwich, IL.

It was a pleasant surprise. I had the privilege of spending Advent 2012 with the Federated Church in Sandwich, IL.  A federated church is a local church uniting two or more congregations which maintain different denominational ties. Policies and practices for worship and sacraments are agreed upon such that they accommodate all church members regardless of their individual denominational affiliation. The Federated Church in Sandwich represents the union of two congregations: one American Baptist and the other a Presbyterian Church (USA).

I am still somewhat surprised because, up to this point in my life, I had not witnessed Presbyterians and Baptists get along so well.  I received my Master of Divinity degree from a Presbyterian USA seminary (McCormick) and teach at an American Baptist Church seminary (Northern).  I can’t imagine these two seminaries doing much more together than allowing students to cross register for courses.  Yet, the Presbyterians and Baptists in Sandwich have found a way to minister together in the name of Jesus Christ. In fact, the Federated Church there enjoys a healthy, vibrant ministry in the community.

My experience with this fine congregation prompted some research. I discovered that a half century or more ago the federated church model was a popular option for established congregations, especially those serving smaller communities with stable populations.  I would venture to guess that the initial impulse for the federated model may have been produced by the desire of diminishing congregations to survive. But that doesn’t negate the significance of two congregations, from two different traditions, embracing their sevenfold unity (Ephesians 4:4-6), and providing a united witness for Christ to their community.  In so doing, federated congregations embody something few Christian congregations ever experience: unity instead of division. Maybe it’s time for some more.

Finally, the Federated Church in Sandwich, Illinois reminded me of something Lesslie Newbigin wrote years ago:

The unity of believers with Christ and with one another in Him… is not in its essential nature an intellectual agreement at all, though necessarily it involves a certain amount of intellectual agreement about truths which can be expressed in propositional form. In its essential nature it is a work of the Holy Spirit binding us to one another in the love wherewith Christ loved us; and its essential human condition is the faith which consists in casting oneself wholly upon that love, and opening heart and mind and soul to its influence. Within that unity a vast amount of intellectual disagreement is possible, though such disagreement will never be other than painful.  (The Household of God, 52)

Thank you, the Federated Church in Sandwich, for the privilege of sharing Advent 2012 with you!  May God richly bless you in the coming year.

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