Modern American society is one of the most highly stratified and fractured cultures the world has yet seen. Nearly every month I run across an article that elucidates this exact thesis with increasingly bizarre pieces of data. One of my favorites is the story of Paulville, an un-built (but heavily planned) utopian community in rural West Texas that exists for Ron Paul supporters and other people who believe in “freedom and liberty.”
I’d like to say that this fractured and contentious reality is endemic only of American culture, and not of the American church. But I know better. For too long I have witnessed ecumenical events that played host to a grand variety of Christian denominations so long as those various Christians present could agree on a political party or policy decision. It happens on the political right and the left, so much so that the American church runs the risk of existing only in the echo chambers of “fundamentalist” and “progressive” for the next century or so.
If you are coming to the 2013 National Festival of Young Preachers expecting it to be one of those loud echo chambers, I am proud to say that you are going to be sorely disappointed. The work of the Academy of Preachers is the work of the most broadly ecumenical organizations I have ever witnessed. When it comes to the church in America, the AoP truly represents everyone.
So, my advice to all of those who are coming to my new home (Atlanta) in January is relatively simple: come prepared to hear from people who are different (sometimes radically different) from you. Come prepared to hear from men and women of various ethnic backgrounds and various sexualities. Come prepared to hear from high-church clergy and low-church clergy, and even some who find themselves stuck in the middle. Come prepared to hear the nervous first sermon of a young teenager and the polished rhetoric of a PhD candidate in homiletics. And, most of all, come prepared to hear the gospel in each and every one of these voices.
At the same time, come prepared to ask respectful and honest questions about the things you hear. “Why won’t your tradition ordain women?” “How did you come to interpret this text that way?” “Why are you so passionate about the rights of persons with disabilities?” “What do you mean by ‘full inclusion?’” “What do you call that piece of clothing in which you preached?” If your questions be driven by a desire to understand rather than a desire to debate, you’ll have the beginnings of an honest dialogue and will have taken the first step towards creating real ecumenism in and among the various parts of the American church.
When we begin to know each other as friends and not as theological positions, when the conversation shifts from “Calvinists believe x” to “my friend believes x,” when the gospel is heard in a variety of ways and in diverse voices, then and only then can we begin to break down the dividing walls of hostility and begin to establish a church that truly embraces the world-wide nature of its calling. That’s what ecumenical means, after all: for the whole of the inhabited world. If that’s what you’re looking for, I can think of no better place for you to put it into practice than at the 2013 National Festival of Young Preachers. I’ll see you (and your unique voice) there!
 “Info” from Paulville.org