Encouraged. Inspired by a recent elders’ meeting, this word sums up my feelings recently. I’m encouraged to see how each of my daughters are uniquely blossoming. I’m encouraged to see the momentum, energy, conscientious service and hunger for God in our church. I’m encouraged to watch our Warrenville congregation grow healthier and reach out to people around them. I’m encouraged to see dramatic answers to prayer through our Wednesday prayer meetings. I’m encouraged to see teams (e.g., elders, governing board, nominating committee, worship, children’s, youth, college, etc.) come and serve together from diverse backgrounds. Most of all, I’m encouraged by how God has led us in the first stage of our merger. Today I want to build on some of my reflections from our Town Hall meeting this past Sunday to spell out where I see us going with this merger. And I’ll also relate it to the hit musical Hamilton at the end.
Two years ago we were discerning whether Blanchard and Living Water should merge. John Casey, Blanchard’s senior pastor of 32 years, had resigned three years earlier, and Ron Mangin, Blanchard’s interim senior pastor and former missions pastor, had moved on to a position in Boston. Living Water was renting facilities and reaching people from between cultures. My heart was increasingly burdened for the burgeoning diversity in our area. Increasingly, churches were closing and becoming mosques and Hindu temples throughout our area. In considering the merge, the dominant question was, “Are we better together to reflect and reach this diversity than apart?”
We answered yes. And we didn’t realize how timely this decision would become. These past two years have starkly highlighted the racial divisions in our country. Racial stereotypes perpetuate crime, and news of such crime elicits increasingly polarizing responses in social media. The election of our new president starkly highlighted racial and generational lines of division. And the sad reality is that the conservative Bible-believing church has been a major perpetrator of racial stereotypes and even racism. Before the Civil War, we embraced and argued biblically for slavery, and more recently, our embrace of free-market economic principles in the church has perpetuated groupings based on affinity of economic class and race that furthered racial stereotypes (see further discussion in  below). However as Blanchard and Living Water merged to become Wellspring, we traverse ethnic lines to build friendship as we work for the kingdom together.
Although our merger decision was timely, this did not make it easy. We knew that we could easily wilt like a day-old bouquet of Valentine’s Day flowers. The best day for a flower bouquet is its first day when each unique blossoming flower is put together to highlight its beauty. With time, the bouquet inevitably wilts because each flower is cut off from the root that had nurtured it. Similarly intercultural church mergers can wilt over time if different cultures cut themselves off from their root in coming together. We can easily underestimate the cultural dynamics at work and naively ignore deep misunderstandings under the surface, which can cause the church to fail over time (see further in  below).
Instead, we wanted to do the hard but not so impressive work of grafting. While a bouquet of flowers looks beautiful on day one, plants grafted together do not look like much on day one. However over time they can sprout and bear fruit that multiplies. Tomato plants that are grafted together can combine the resilience of one strain with the ripe fruit of another. We are seeking to graft together three sprouts of the church — Blanchard Wheaton, Warrenville and Living Water — to become a hybrid of all three, building on the unique past and strengths of each congregation even as we grow into a integrated unique expression of all three. Over time, the desire is that our unique congregations might grow together to birth a unique, hybrid reality.
Our goal is to be more Hamilton than The King and I. The King and I is a popular musical of the educated, cultured British schoolteacher Anna in Siam (Thailand) who educates the barbaric and backwards Siamese (Thai) King. Asian characters fit into preconceived stereotypes for a familiar (and fun) story of “cultured” development. There is little that is uniquely Thai about the musical; the movie version itself is banned in Thailand for its gross misrepresentations of the Thai people. The recent hit musical Hamilton, however, is a unique blend of hip-hop and opera, bringing the energy of hip-hop and the spoken word to the emotion, passion and energy of the musical genre. Hamilton builds on its rich past in both hip-hop and opera, refusing to settle for stereotypes of either, but it builds on its past to create a fresh and hybrid new piece.
This is the goal. Next week, I’ll take some time to articulate the steps and stages through which we are moving to realize that goal. We are Wellspring. What we will be is not yet, but what was is no longer. Grafts may not look as impressive as flower bouquets, but grafts bear fruit and multiply. May we not wilt like a day-old bouquet of Valentine’s Day flowers, but may we blossom and bear fruit for generations. May God’s work in and through us take deep root to bear fruit in a unique expression of His character.
(1) The early embrace of slavery by conservative, Bible-believing churches in America is explored in Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Durham, NC: UNC Press, 2006). The way that the evangelical church continues to perpetrate racism by its unthinking embrace of free-market economic principles is explored in Michael Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (New York: Oxford, 2000).
(2) One such story of failure is chronicled in K. B. Priest and R. J. Priest, “Divergent Worship Practices in the Sunday Morning Hour: An Analysis of an “Interracial” Church Merger Attempt,” in This Side of Heaven: Race, Ethnicity and Christian Faith (R. J. Priest, A. L. Nieves, eds.; New York: Oxford, 2006), 275–291.